Beatrice Dillon: the most thrilling new artist in electronic music

The London musician is releasing her debut album after years of odd jobs and collaborations, pitting the highbrow against the homespun in masterfully light yet complex music

‘The computer always wins, that was my phrase.” Beatrice Dillon is explaining the sound of her debut album, Workaround, in which her computers spar with acoustic instruments played by a dozen guests ranging from cellist Lucy Railton to tabla player Kuljit Bhamra (who has an MBE for services to bhangra, Dillon points out proudly).

Out in February, the album confirms Dillon as the most thrilling new voice in British electronic music today. Workaround moves with the airborne grace of capoeira fighters, every track rattling along at 150bpm – the tempo between techno and jungle. It somehow connects the pointillist precision of electronic producers such as Mark Fell and Errorsmith with the disorienting bass-scapes of dub masters Scientist and Lee Perry, reflecting Dillon’s wide interests. These extend beyond music into fine art, which she studied at Chelsea College of Arts. “They don’t really teach you anything at art school, it’s a complete waste of time,” she breezes in her bright and airy studio beside the Thames in Somerset House, central London. “But if they do teach you anything it’s criticality: ‘What are you actually doing?’”

She wrote her thesis on Harry Smith, the archivist and anthropologist whose 1952 anthology of “old, weird America” became a bible for Greenwich Village folkies in the 60s. “But then I was also really interested in those dry Americans from the 70s” – visual artists such as Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. It’s a contrast – homespun storytelling versus highbrow minimalism – that informs her aesthetic. “I’ve always been interested in graphic visual work and emotional music.”

Dillon’s other education came through her long hours behind the counter at London record shops Rat Records and Sounds of the Universe. “There’d be nobody in there 90% of the time, so you’d just listen to everything because there’s nothing to do. Then you suddenly realise: ‘Oh, I know everything about Stevie Wonder.’ Which is a complete pleasure, a good use of time I think.”

Casting the net ... Beatrice Dillon.
Casting the net ... Beatrice Dillon. Photograph: Nadine Fraczkowski

Since releasing her Folkways II cassette, a mix of her favourite drum pieces, in 2013, Dillon has put out tapes, DJ mixes, EPs and collaborations; there have also been two albums of electro-acoustic rhythm games made with the engineer and composer Rupert Clervaux. She has worked as a BBC Radio 3 researcher, and most recently performed at Assembly, a three-day event curated by the musician-artist Christian Marclay, best known for his film The Clock. Her piece, Infraordinary, transformed realtime sounds from a busy street into a hypnotic, multi-speaker performance.

But a few years ago her “patchwork CV” was starting to bother her. “Why do I keep putting my own work off? What’s going on?” The necessary kickstart came when she was commissioned to compose music in response to an exhibition by the German painter Jorinde Voigt. Dillon found herself drawn into an experiment with “gated” computer sounds – where reverb or echo is restricted rather than allowed to ring out, leading to a clipped, dry sound. “It’s kind of the opposite of reverb,” she explains. “People sometimes use reverb in a lazy way, just to fill the space and impose an atmosphere that is emotionally leading you somewhere – woozy or dreamy or dread-y. So I was like: I’m going to not do that. Then you’re grappling with space and how to keep something interesting with this sense of emptiness. What happens if you take the guts out of the track?”

The resulting 14 tracks are the very opposite of gutless. “I’m a fan of ambitious records,” Dillon says. “Being a real music fanatic means that I’ve listened to some incredible things, and I know the standard is pretty high.” The striking thing about Workaround, given its long gestation and frighteningly complex innards, is its lightness and freedom; Dillon has an endless curiosity for what happens next. “So much of this is run on complete naivety. Cast the net, pull out loads of stuff and then just see where it takes you.”


Chal Ravens

The GuardianTramp

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