Peter Dickinson by Michael Oliver

The crucial event in Peter Dickinson's life, profoundly influencing his career as composer, performer and teacher, was his decision to seek advanced musical education not in Britain but the United States. There, in addition to studying at Juilliard, he attended literature courses at Columbia University, worked as pianist for George Balanchine's New York City Ballet, began his teaching career and met, among others, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell and Edgard Varèse. He also heard the music of Charles Ives, then seldom played in Britain, and became fascinated with the idea of different types of music being heard simultaneously. Many of his most important works have explored this idea, which he describes as 'style modulation'. In one section of his remarkable Piano Concerto, for example, the soloist, a second piano with its own rhythm section and the main orchestra discuss related material, but in profoundly different styles. Another aspect of this technique is seen in a group of works involving a pre-recorded tape made by the performers themselves (Recorder Music, Surrealist Landscape, Sonatas for Piano and String Quartet No. 2). In each case the effect is of two or more independent yet closely related 'streams' of music, note values and pitch being precisely controlled while synchronization is not precise and thus each performance is subtly but distinctly different. 

Another important element in his work is his interest in jazz and other forms of popular music, which was also intensified by his years in America. As the first Professor of Music at Keele University, where he soon established an influential Centre for American Music, he pioneered the teaching of jazz and popular music in degree courses. He has a particular affection for ragtime and has written numerous rags himself, several of which have formed the basis of large-scale concert works: a Concerto Rag formed the starting point for the Piano Concerto, Dickinson's String Quartet No. 2 had a similar origin, while his Organ Concerto was developed from a blues-tinged setting of Byron, itself derived from a passage of blues-like harmony in Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales. Parody, in both musical senses of the word (affectionate mockery and the 'style modulation' of pre-existing material) is also often encountered in his work, and these preoccupations have sometimes led to the same or similar material generating quite distinct works or to correspondences between apparently dissimilar compositions. His Blue Rose Variations for organ derive from a blues treatment of Edward MacDowell's piano piece To a Wild Rose, while the individual movements of his vocal cycle Outcry, a protest against man's cruelty to animals, have musical links as well as imaginative parallels with a setting of the Mass composed around the same time. 

Dickinson's long experience as a performer, especially in recitals with his sister, the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson, makes even his most complex scores challenging yet satisfying to play. The genial, open-eared inclusiveness of his music should meet an ever warmer response in an age impatient with stylistic dogma and musical barriers.

© 2000 Michael Oliver

© 2008-24 Estate of Peter Dickinson