Beatrice Dillon: Playing opposites
It’s a mild January morning when I meet Beatrice Dillon outside of London’s Somerset House. As she leads me into the maze of artist studios inside the building, her demeanour is breezy and affable, chiming with the upbeat tone of her debut album Workaround, released on revered Berlin label PAN.
“I was keen to make something that was bright and optimistic,” she confirms. “I started reading about colour theory and how colours resonate together. [British painter and op art pioneer] Bridget Riley’s essays made me appreciate colour in a way I hadn’t for ages. I’d been too lost on texture.”
© Ortiz Arenas
It’s no surprise to hear Dillon speak in visual terms – she studied fine art at Chelsea College of Arts. But while her rediscovery of colour guided the effervescent musicality and human warmth of Workaround, it’s balanced out by the exacting geometry of her production. Needlepoint percussion and shapely synths pivot elegantly around the organic contributions of the record’s guest players. It’s just one of many dichotomies that define Dillon’s work, and one which became a central theme for the new record. “Rather than trying to humanise the computer to meet the human player, I quite liked the idea of keeping the computer rigid and stubborn,” she explains.
Dillon muses fondly about the ability to create artificial worlds within computers, which is precisely what she did on Workaround, starting with two demo tracks for tabla virtuoso Kuljit Bhamra, avant-garde cellist Lucy Railton and UK bass maverick Untold to play along to. Once she had recorded these musical elements, she discarded the demo tracks to untether the musical material while safe in the knowledge that everything was clocked to 150 BPM – the tempo she stuck to while collaging the gathered sounds into new pieces.
“It sounds like we were in the room and there’s this real vibe,” she says. “I think it’s quite an interesting way of saying, ‘Let’s not be fooled by music and people jamming together.’ My life is pushing tiny blocks of audio around and it doesn’t work in real time.”
“My life is pushing tiny blocks of audio around and it doesn't work in real time”
© Ortiz Arenas
Dillon is quick to play down Workaround as a concept record – these ideas are more her personal curiosity than a grand manifesto. But they do lend the recording process a sense of scientific investigation, in contrast to the warm and immediate music you hear when you hit play. Similarly, Dillon’s passion for music overall teeters between giddy emotion and forensic analysis.
“I love pop music,” she declares early on in our conversation. “Really good pop music can work on that level where it’s totally throwaway, but when you break it down it’s super complex. I’m neither pop nor academic. I’m somewhere in the middle.”
She’s also clear on what she doesn’t like: ambient music in particular, declaring it “boring and totally unstimulating.” She does however have space in her heart for softer sounds – in particular the tender undulations of pedal steel guitar as played by Jonny Lam on track Workaround 2.
Dillon clearly appreciates delicacy in sound. Her rhythms are marked out by slender figures of percussion with crisp high-end. As she talks about such sounds, she gestures to the top half of her body, setting us off on another diversion about cymatics and the way different frequencies affect different parts of human anatomy. Cymatics – a phenomena where matter physically reacts to sound passing through it – is a topic that came up in Ecstatic Material, an installation Dillon and visual artist Keith Harrison created for experimental music touring initiative Outlands Network in 2019.
The final piece was an array of 19 speaker cones holding different substances from glycerin to salt. Each speaker was fed a sound that would make the substances form stunning patterns in a visual manifestation of cymatics. It was a project of precise science, but the end result was accessible and fun. It’s a neat metaphor for Dillon’s broader artistic approach.
© Ortiz Arenas
© Ortiz Arenas
While Dillon has had one foot in the club music world since first emerging around 2014, her art school roots have seen her undertake gallery-focused projects and commissions. As well as regular exhibitions in Somerset House, in 2017 she created a multichannel sound installation in the Peak District and performed for Jorinde Voigt’s exhibition at Lisson Gallery in London. “Financially and mentally it’s quite difficult to just rely on touring,” she says. “It’s really nice to have studio time to work on something on a whole different level, that isn’t at three in the morning. It’s a different set of questions that you get to ask.”
That’s not to say Dillon’s left-of-centre productions are bereft of club music tropes, and her appreciation for all kinds of electronic music spills out of her expansive mixes and radio shows. But her approach to DJing eschews traditional rules. First and foremost, she’s never learned to beat match. “I did various radio shows and was always making mixtapes for friends, so my DJing was more learning how to put music together as a narrative,” she reveals.
Indeed, her performances have their own fluid logic. To join the dots between her selections, Dillon analyses her music collection for pathways between pieces without relying on syncing rhythms. “I spend a lot of time imagining how things will sound on the sound system and what you can over-emphasise. I do a lot of ridiculous EQing. You’ve got to rely on other tricks if you can’t beat match!” she laughs.
Of the many musical passions she expresses as we wind through more than two hours of conversation, the overarching obsession for Dillon is that of dub. “Obviously dub is the pinnacle of minimalist art, I think,” she claims at one point. Dillon’s music channels her love of Jamaican music to varying degrees of intensity. Workaround’s stepper’s tempo and heavily submerged sub-bass speak to sound system attitude, but the reference is subtle and instinctive. “There’s no point in me trying to make a dub record,” Dillon states. “Maybe it’s more interesting to ask the question, ‘What is the decision making that led to that music?’ And then apply my own palette.”
The traditional path towards dub’s shaping of space is a liberal dose of reverb and delay, so Dillon went in the opposite direction and took away the safety net of lingering effect trails. Instead she used stark silence as her way of denoting space in the music, bringing the considered elements in her tracks into sharp relief. “I’m well aware things can go horribly wrong with what I do, like putting a kick drum with a cello. Reverb can glue things together, but also make everything quite woozy. Not using reverb, there’s this sobriety where you can hear things more clearly.”
“I’m neither pop nor academic. I’m somewhere in the middle”
© Ortiz Arenas
You’d be forgiven for getting a sense of academic formality from the aesthetic of Dillon’s releases. Her collaborative album with Rupert Clervaux was called Studies I-XVII for Samplers and Percussion, while her cassette of live set excerpts with Gunnar Wendel has the sharp title Index Tape for Performance and a sleeve design to match. It’s a stylistic approach that belies the playful nature of the music inside.
“It’s always dodgy if you have to say there’s a lot of humour in my work because obviously people aren’t picking up on it if you have to say it,” she laughs. “It’s not meant to be too serious. I don’t want to make music about music but… oh, I’m tying myself up in knots here,” she continues, while literally tangling the cord on her hoodie, “but when you have been a record collector, it’s quite difficult to get to you.”
Straddling the divide between meticulous experimentation and unfiltered sonic expression, Dillon’s work continues to yield fascinating, thrilling results. There have been sacrifices along the way though, such as when she sold all her records eight years ago to outrun her own “over-schooling”.
“Because of working in record shops and being mad about music I had an insane number of records,” she admits. “One day I was like, ‘I can’t do anything.’ Every time I have an idea I’m like, ‘Oh, I know what I mean, I mean that record over there.’ Then you put that on and you’re lost in that and it’s impossible to get anything going.”
She shakes her head at the scenario. “I think it’s an important distinction to be an artist or to be an admirer of art,” she argues. “I always thought they were one position, but the more I get into this the more I realise they’re not.”
Photography: Ortiz Arenas
Listen to Beatrice Dillon’s exclusive Crack Mix here