To be an Irish composer is:
(a) to incorporate Irish traditional melodies (jigs, reels, etc.) into one’s compositions;
(b) to integrate traditional Irish instruments, playing styles and/or musical forms into one’s compositions;
(c) to come from a peripheral culture, between America and Europe, and to enjoy a sort of freedom from the pressure of the ‘great’ traditions of composition;
(d) none of the above.
The correct answer, of course, is all of the above. (d) is true because whatever being an Irish composer means, it can’t be summed up in a single phrase: but (a), (b) and (c) are valid also because being an Irish composer means so many different things to so many different people.
(c) is more or less the answer I get when I put the question to Donnacha Dennehy. We are in Belfast on the occasion of the premiere of Hive, a new choral-orchestral work jointly commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and the National Chamber Choir. It is part of a five-concert Ulster Orchestra series entitled In Ireland, and it provokes a thought: until that occasion I’d never particularly thought of Donnacha as an Irishcomposer, simply a composer, and a very good one at that. And although the text of Hive includes a description of the Irish community in the slum life of London (from Thomas Beames’ The Rookeries of London of 1852), it would be a brave listener who could claim to identify traces of (a) or (b) in the actual music.
‘I do think of myself as an Irish composer,’ he tells me. ‘I mean, it’s a geographical accident where you’re born. It does influence me, but not in the straightforward way you might think. I think of it more as being from a peripheral culture, as opposed to being from the centre of Europe and having those ways of dealing with culture. There’s this peripheral approach that you take being Irish, almost like a sort of guerrilla warfare. I think the periphery is interesting, really, especially since the fall of Imperialism. So I think it influences me in that regard – there is a sort of freedom. I would have hated to have been born in a town, let’s say, close to Darmstadt in Germany and feeling I had to deal with its musical legacy. I feel liberated from that.’
Whatever the disadvantages, there is indeed a sort of joy in looking at the world from the periphery, feeling pleasantly off centre, surrounded by fresh air and – just maybe – a sense of enormous possibility. The American poet Emily Dickinson told us to ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’: I sometimes feel the best Irish art does something like that, telling a kind of artistic truth but coming at things from such funny angles. You know: let’s write a 650-page novel about life, love, the universe and everything, but make it all happen on a single day in Dublin. Or: let’s write a play in which the protagonist never appears. Or another play, and put all the characters in dustbins. Donnacha Dennehy’s music often takes a not dissimilar approach. A lively, modern, abstract piece for piano and tape, but with a running commentary that essentially describes, in code, what key the music’s in at any given moment, delivered in an old-fashioned voice like that of the BBC shipping forecast (pAt). Or: a piece that is ‘both a celebration of junk and an inquiry into our relationship with technology’, featuring two female vocalists, one of whom has her hair dyed blue and the other red (Junk Box Fraud). Or a string quartet entitledCounting, which is a sort of musical meditation on the Wittgenstein-like question of when something is ‘on the border of the world (delimiting it)’ and when it is ‘IN the world’, in which voices on tape insistently count numbers but never get higher than the number five. This is music that deals with big issues, but has such an appealingly odd way of addressing them.
In a more practical sense, there’s nothing peripheral about Dennehy’s position in today’s contemporary music scene. He’s been lecturing in music technology at Trinity College in Dublin for nine years now, since the ripe old age of twenty-six; eight years ago he founded the Crash Ensemble, one of the leading new music ensembles worldwide; and this year, at thirty-five, he’s become one of the youngest elected members of Aosdána, Ireland’s state-sponsored academy for creative artists. He has more than thirty compositions in his catalogue, most of them commissions; they’ve been played by ensembles within Ireland, around Europe and the US, and broadcast internationally. His music inhabits an exciting place, contemporary and vibrant, free of the shadows of doctrinaire modernism and the legacy of what Kevin Volans calls the ‘serial guilt’ that plagued the post-war avant-garde. ‘So many composers’, says Dennehy, ‘even very fine ones like Lachenmann, had that shadow over them all the time, and I feel I can ignore it’. Anyway, these are old battles now, long fought and largely over; young Irish composers have new things to contend with. Dennehy’s free-thinking approach means he’s not afraid to take issue with some of the practices or conventions of more recent music – including those of composers he most admires like Steve Reich or Louis Andriessen – that have solidified into dogmas: their insistence on a non-vibrato style of voice production, for example, or their lack of interest in microtonal tunings. He’s dead set against ‘accidental inheritances’ from older composers, and is not interested in describing his music with any particular adjectives that would imply a stylistic ‘hardening of the categories’. He doesn’t object to being called a post-minimalist, but ideally would prefer not to join any club that would accept him as a member.
His was not an especially musical family. There was a bit of music on his father’s side; his grandmother was a traditional fiddler. His father’s sisters are both nuns and one of them played piano (Dennehy recalls on one occasion bumping into her at a Stockhausen concert at the Hugh Lane Gallery). On his mother’s side there’s no music at all – ‘they do persist in singing’, he remarks, ‘but it’s painful. They’re good story-tellers’. His father, Denis Dennehy, is a writer, and an interest in, and talent for, words has not been lost on his son. There was no piano or record player in the house, so much of the young Donnacha’s earliest contact with music came through the radio: for most of his childhood Elvis, The Beatles and The Boomtown Rats largely defined what music was. He had recorder lessons at school and greatly enjoyed the enthusiasm of the young woman who taught him. In his early teens he started lessons in both recorder and flute at the Royal Irish Academy of Music with Doris Keogh, and theory and harmony with William York. More unusually, he began composing almost as soon as he had figured out musical notation: he made up long ‘symphonies’ for recorder, played them into a tape recorder and then transcribed the result.
York was a wild character and a very inspiring (and strict) teacher, introducing his young pupil to the music of Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Reich and Glass. Dennehy’s later school years, in contrast, were a ‘disaster’ – a rebellious streak had set in and he ‘went off the rails a bit’. He more or less gave up on classical music; he would provoke his teachers by reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in his religious classes. To this day he is mortified by the state of his Leaving Certificate. Slightly to his own surprise he was accepted by Trinity College in 1988 to study Music, and loved it right away. There he rediscovered the idea of education – school had increasingly been about strategies to pass exams. He studied analysis with Michael Taylor, counterpoint with Joe Groocock, and composition with Hormoz Farhat. One or two of the pieces he wrote at Trinity are still in his catalogue.
After graduating he wanted to expand his horizons. At the beginning of the 1990s, with a few exceptions, Dublin was ‘not that exciting culturally’. With the encouragement of Professor Farhat he looked at America and applied to four different places, two of which offered money, while two rejected him outright. Finally he took up an offer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and headed out in September 1992. After the long plane journeys and a night’s sleep he remembers opening his curtains and finding himself beside a motorway with a Dairy Queen in one direction and a Taco Bell in the other. Urbana was a small town in the middle of cornfields. For a ‘very green’ twenty-two year old who had only been outside Ireland twice to that point, America was ‘a massive shock’.
The University of Illinois had a long tradition of support for experimental ideas in music. Composers Harry Partch and John Cage had both had residencies there in the fifties and sixties, and a lot of the nonconformist spirit of their work still hung over the place. Dennehy already felt quite close to the American experimental tradition, and even though the compositions he brought with him from Dublin were hardly experimental (one of his Two Yeats Songs for flute and soprano was in an unapologetic B minor) he found great support from two composers in particular who became his main teachers, Salvatore Martirano (1927-95) and the German-born Herbert Brün (1918-2000). Dennehy says that Illinois was where he lost his naïvety: his teachers made him ‘articulate the abstract edge of things’. The main aesthetic battleground was Herbert Brün’s Monday night seminars on experimental music, where debates would rage about the validity of one musical style or technique versus another. Dennehy himself was no shrinking violet: Brün complained at one point that he was a subversive and was ruining the mood of the seminars with his arrogant comments. Wounded a bit, he stopped attending – until Brün phoned him and asked him to come back (‘he was a real charmer’). Some impressive compositions date from these years, most of them electroacoustic pieces.
He was very reluctant to leave America when the end of his scholarship loomed into view, even though he knew he needed to move on from the University of Illinois (‘I was aware of people on campus who’d been there seventeen years’). Besides, Martirano had died in 1995, and Herbert Brün was becoming quite ill. Looking back he has no regrets: America had given him a storehouse of experiences and attitudes that has nurtured his work from that day forward. But now he wanted a European perspective again, particularly a continental European perspective. The immediate future, however, was not so straightforward. He was interested in the new music scenes in Paris and in Amsterdam, for quite different reasons, and in two composers in particular: Gérard Grisey, the originator of so-called ‘spectral music’, music exploring the harmonic series, the inner life of sounds, and the mysteries of psychoacoustics; and Louis Andriessen, Dutchenfant terrible and political agitator, whose declared aim was ‘to return music, metaphorically at least, to the streets’. In the end he was too timid to write to Andriessen, but did find the courage to write to Grisey and was accepted. (Ironic, really, as Andriessen, by far the less fearsome of the two, has now become a friend and staunch ally.) Then there was the problem of earning a living: no sooner had he completed a summer course at IRCAM, Paris’ institute for new music technology, then relocated to The Hague to begin studying at the Institute of Sonology, than he heard that he’d been offered a teaching job at Trinity College in Dublin. (Although he was in Holland for about a term, they still joke about him as the student who studied for all of four or five days.)
The Crash Ensemble
Coming back to Ireland at the end of ’96 he found a very different Dublin than he had left four years earlier, the country having in the interim seen the biggest flowering of capitalism in its history. Describing himself as largely apolitical but definitely left-leaning, Dennehy admits to a certain irony in the feelings of ‘optimism and potential’ that the Celtic Tiger stirred up in him. Full-time teaching, on the other hand, he found incredibly draining, leaving him with no time to compose. (Even today he admits that he finds combining his composing and teaching schedules ‘dead hard’.) And there was another problem: there seemed to be no outlet in Ireland for the new kind of music he wanted to make.
Out of these conflicted feelings – a sense of being stuck on the one hand and, on the other, a feeling of excitement, of new possibilities – came the idea to form his own ensemble: the Crash Ensemble, which he launched in 1997 with his friends Andrew Synnott and Michael Seaver. The idea was to form an ensemble that would play the kind of pulse-based, amplified new music, incorporating multimedia and electronics, that he was imagining. Partly, he says, the motivation came from the teaching of Herbert Brün, who insisted that it wasn’t worth your time complaining about things, you should do whatever it takes to change them: Crash was to be an ensemble of a kind that Ireland hadn’t known to that point. Louis Andriessen came over from Holland for virtually no money and helped in the process of putting their first concert together. And so began a history of controversy that has continued to the present day, with their concerts not infrequently being slated from within the classical establishment, and yet attracting a substantial following, much of it from young people. With typical modesty, Dennehy has not used Crash in a self-serving capacity; the ensemble has performed far more music by other composers, from inside and outside of Ireland, than it has his own music.
The other important motivation behind the Crash Ensemble was that Dennehy had already begun to conceive a new piece and ‘had to invent a group to play it’. This was Junk Box Fraud (1997), a breakthrough work in his own output and, I’d suggest, one of the masterpieces of recent Irish music. Junk Box Fraud couldn’t have existed without Crash, and probably vice versa. It is for clarinet, trombone, two pianos, two vocalists and electronics and has an optional video component: the text was specially written by his father. As Dennehy describes it, the composition process involved a degree of interaction with the musicians: he made the instrumental and tape parts and ‘sketched out’ what he wanted with the words. The performers had two weeks of intensive rehearsal, with the two vocalists playing around with the text, occasionally adding ideas; he’d record them every evening and then go home and work further. In Junk Box Fraud, Dennehy says, ‘all the trash is on the surface’; the jokes, innuendos and playful nonsense of the vocalists is set against a highly structured instrumental part. The piece was written without any kind of commission or external stimulus. He admits to having great belief in it, and with some justification: I don’t think it’s going too far to say that Junk Box Fraud has defined a new genre, or at least a sub-genre, in Irish composition.
The piece has an amusingly weird, off-kilter beginning, with the trombonist growling into his instrument stuffed with a plunger mute against sinister swelling noises from the tape. ‘Plug your head in’, says one of the vocalists, mechanically. We are in a strange, cybernetic world of machines and people. However, it’s also good fun: about a minute and a half into the piece the second pianist starts one of the most infectious, feel-good riffs in recent contemporary music, which gets taken up enthusiastically by the clarinet. The vocalists make percussive rhythms with plosives (p, t, and k), whining noises to the letter n, and hissing and whirring sounds (sssSSS, rrrrRRRRrrrr). Sometimes the text is solemn (‘Diminished man. Diminished woman.’) and sometimes sleazy, as when they begin a long-running gag on one of the less delicate meanings of the word ‘box’ (‘Put it put it put it into the box. Put it put it into the box.’) The pianos, aided and abetted by the tape, keep a steady stream of sixteenth-notes going much of the time, with cross-accents and off-beat stabbed chords giving the rhythms an angular feel. The mood is so infectiously upbeat that the ever-increasing madness of the vocalists seems perfectly reasonable. In the last minute they seem unable to shut up, propelled on by a heavy drumbeat from the tape. (After all, everybody complains that we Irish never stop talking, so why should they?) The final tirade from the first vocalist is so good that I want to quote it here, even though it has to be heard in the context of the piece to savour its full glory:
[in the tone of a savvy, somewhat cynical Dublin street seller]:
Jaysus! Will you look at the bleeding thing? Will you ever switch the bleeding button! Will you look at it? Listen. Listen to the man and the woman. Listen to the sound of the song. Listen to the beating of the rhythm. Foreloop. Bang, BanG, BaNG! STOP! Take a good run against the…! Take away the noise. Let the noise unwind. Take away the turmoil at the end. Wire it in then. Wire it up! Switch it on and separate. IN OUT IN OUT IN OUT. Will you stop the bleeding racket! Trying to feck it up? Feck it up then! Stop the gong. Stop the noise. Exterminate and suffocate. Up switch. Up! Off.
Given the impact of Crash on the Irish scene, Dennehy’s output has benefited enormously from his work with them. Curiously enough, a few years passed before he wrote a second piece for the group: derailed (2000), a commission from the Project Arts Centre. Like Junk Box Fraud, this too has a technological inspiration but a much simpler one: the sound of trains. He recorded samples of train sounds on a rickety train from Sligo to Dublin, acquiring some incredible results thanks to the atrociously bad journey that day. ‘The idea of the piece was to play with the associations that certain sounds have and on the phrases that stem from them: on track, grinding to a halt and finally derailed,’ the programme note tells us. The train samples are heard both on tape and are transformed (or, as he was beginning to say, vandalised) to generate material for the six instrumentalists.
Composition as vandalism
It is hard to define these works stylistically, partly because they are so new, and partly because almost anything seems to feed Dennehy’s compositional imagination: a work like O for orchestra (2001-02), a commission from Trinity College, actually sounds not at all like Composition for percussion, loops, blips and flesh for percussion ensemble and electronics, written at exactly the same time. However, the idea of composition as a process of vandalism, a description he has used on several occasions, makes a lot of sense in describing Dennehy’s working methods. It implies a sort of irreverent (but completely serious) attitude to musical material, which gets developed though a continuous hacking away at its pristine form. ‘I’m interested in creating these pieces of material and then vandalising them’, he said to a slightly bewildered interviewer on the occasion of the first radio broadcast of the locus classicus of this approach, his orchestra piece The Vandal(2000), an RTÉ commission. ‘Once I’ve hit on a few pieces of material that in my mind have “ineluctable modality”, to steal a phrase from Joyce, then the true business of composition as vandalism begins. I become like a vandal joyriding through my material, oblivious to their separate poignant cries’. The material that gets subjected to this treatment can be almost anything – a stolen fragment from the classical (or non-classical) repertory, a borrowed rhythm (maybe stripped of its pitches), an invented harmonic sequence. It then gets subjected to transformation, or to what he prefers to call a ‘logic of contamination’.
Even though he loves very strict process pieces such as those of the minimalists, or of composers like James Tenney or Alvin Lucier, Dennehy has no interest in writing a piece that glorifies a system; rather his nature is to vandalise or undermine all tidy systems – even, as we shall see, the equal-tempered tuning system itself. (A related spirit of perversity infests his piece for flute and tape of 1998, Swerve. Although it makes more extensive use of melody than had his earlier works, this was not from an interest in making the music more ‘beautiful’ or of returning to traditional values, but from a more disreputable motivation: because of the presence of long lines of melody the swerves, discontinuities and disruptions in the piece feel all the stronger and more unsettling. ‘One swerves from a route not from an undifferentiated wandering’, he remarks. ‘The melody exists in order to go awry’.)
The other side of this anti-systematic coin is Dennehy’s playful interest in extreme, but ultimately pointless, precision. Rather like the passage of the precisely timed comings and goings at the beginning of Beckett’s Mercier and Camier, where two men repeatedly fail to meet each other at an appointed place by time intervals that are specified exactly (though completely futilely) in the text, Dennehy sometimes creates compositional situations that feed off a spirit of purposeless exactitude. pAt for piano and tape (2001), written for Joanna MacGregor, plays with the notion of BPM (beats per minute, a familiar concept in dance music, where particular BPM speeds are used to evoke particular visceral responses). Here, though, the precision is all a bit tongue-in-cheek. At the beginning of the piece a disembodied voice on tape announces ‘26,400 BPM’: given that one of the most common BPMs used by DJs is 140 BPM (the tempo of an average heartbeat), only a superhuman dancer could move at that speed. What we don’t know, although of course the sly composer does, is that 26,400 beats per minute is the same as 440 beats per second – and 440 vibrations per second just happens to be the note A, which is the fundamental pitch of the music at that point. Later, when the voice announces new tempo information (17,920 BPM; 13,200 BPM; 206.25 BPM) the music, obligingly and as though on cue, shifts to the corresponding fundamental pitch. None of this very precise information is really any help at all; we can’t do the computations fast enough as we listen, and even if we could we’re not really being told anything of great interest. But the whole aura of precision and the movement from one precise state to another (‘falling… rising… constant’) keeps us hooked, as though we’re watching a horse race and can’t look away until we’re past the finishing post.
Glamour Sleeper and Streetwalker
Of all the instrumental combinations Dennehy has written for, the one he has really made his own is the amplified chamber piece for a handful of players, usually with electronics. His mastery of this contemporary medium was confirmed with two superb works written in close succession in 2002 and 2003, neither of them originally for Crash: Glamour Sleeper and Streetwalker. Glamour Sleeper, commissioned by the Up North! Festival in Dublin for Denmark’s Contemporanea Ensemble, and subsequently played many times by Germany’s Ensemble Intégrales, is one of his relatively rare abstract pieces (although he admits to a purely personal identification of sections of the piece, in his own mind, with particular areas of Dublin). This is music of great rhythmic sophistication, splintered and noisy, and takes us to the extremes of his sonic imagination. The piece uses only four players (clarinet, violin, double bass and percussion in its first version: alto sax, violin, prepared piano and percussion in its second) with pre-recorded sounds; the players exploit the noise potential of their instruments, with scratching sounds on the violin and bass (using extra bow pressure) and growling fluttertonguing on the clarinet. At times it sounds as though some maniac is hammering through a wall or sawing through large pieces of wood. But as always with Dennehy, the exhilarating (some would say demented) sonic invention is supported by fantastic melodic and harmonic invention. Streetwalker, although less noisy than Glamour Sleeper, is another of his energetic, urban pieces. Dennehy has always liked the colour and chaos of cities; his musical imagination has often been fed by their sounds and images, and by streetwise attitudes. (An interest in city sounds is present even in his early tape pieces: the blaring car horns and sirens of Metropolis Mutabilis (1995), for example, led the judges of the Luigi Russolo International Competition, who awarded it a prize in 1996, to regard Dennehy as a soul-mate of the revered Italian noise-maker.) Streetwalkerwas written for New York’s Bang on a Can All-Stars, and although a purely instrumental piece, it somehow gives the feeling of a city environment (he recalls that when writing the piece he ‘entertained an image of passing through streets of terraced houses at some speed’). The piece was his first American commission since his student years, from WNYC Radio in New York.
One other technical procedure that has interested Dennehy in the past few years – uniquely for an Irish composer, as far as I know – is the use of microtones to enrich his harmonies. Microtones are intervals that fall between the cracks of the twelve notes of the tempered scale. They exist in nature – after all, pitch is a smooth continuum from below the audible threshold to above it; there is no ‘gap’ between, say, C and C#. Traditional players use what are technically microtones as a matter of course when they bend or inflect notes, but the prevalence of the twelve-note tempered scale has kept them largely outside the ‘classical’ music domain (with a few honourable exceptions) until recently. Dennehy confesses that originally he thought microtones ‘a nurdy thing’, of interest only to academically-minded composers trying to make their music sound weird. But several things conspired to change his mind. One was his sister’s wedding a few years ago, when, as the night wore on and the bottles got emptier, various family members stood up to sing (sometimes on tables), plunging joyfully and naturally into microtonal embellishments without a second’s hesitation. Another was his admiration for the music of Gérard Grisey, whose Modulations, the first ‘spectral’ piece he heard, introduced him to ravishing sonorities that can’t be done with the usual twelve notes. (He loves also the explosive opening of Grisey’s Partiels, a crash course in the richness of the harmonic series.) Another route in had been his work with computers: many of the sounds of the tape parts of his earlier pieces had gone far beyond the tempered scale without any conscious intention.
To Herbert Brün (2001) was the first piece to incorporate microtones directly into the instrumental writing. His most recent piece, Hive, goes much further, with about a third of the orchestra being tuned a quartertone lower than normal. ‘Because of this,’ he writes, ‘I could generate massively overtone-rich harmonies which would not have been possible otherwise. This dirty harmonic sound is essential to the sound of the piece’. The techniques involved may sound incredibly complex, but he insists that the skills needed to navigate the unfamiliar waters of microtonality are ‘not big skills at all’. Besides, modern technology is a help: in working on Hive he was able to make a mock-up of the piece by detuning his AKAI samplers, and could even sing some of the musical lines, allowing him to work much more intuitively. (‘People think computers are removing the humanity from music’, he says: ‘quite the contrary, they’re allowing you to experiment with very intuitive comparisons that you wouldn’t be able to make otherwise’.)
As of this moment Dennehy’s most recently premiered work is Elastic Harmonic, a sort of reinvention of the violin concerto, commissioned by RTÉ for broadcast as part of The Symphony Sessions in September 2005. The unusual nature of the commission (for the cameras; the piece still hasn’t been played before a live audience) seems not to have daunted him. It promises much for the future that Dennehy has come up yet again with a very different kind of sound-world: Elastic Harmonic contains some of the most beautiful music he has written. The violin part is intensely lyrical, mostly gentle with occasional lapses into a kind of hysteria that it can’t quite contain. The orchestra seems also of two minds, with rippling arpeggio figures on piano and harp being displaced at times by a militaristic snare drum and bass drum. It’s a ravishing piece, though anything but a conventional one. In rehearsal there was just one little troublesome detail: he had specified that six of the orchestral violinists ‘prepare’ their violins by attaching paperclips to their strings. Most of them rebelled. Dennehy compromised by having a smaller group, the one who didn’t object plus three other volunteers, play the part (a delicate, papery sound heard near the beginning and at other junctures later in the piece). This is not vandalism: the string remains perfectly unharmed by the vibration of the paperclip. Yet the attitude is appealing. ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’: somehow I suspect Donnacha Dennehy’s peripheral take on Irish music will keep us listening for a good while yet.
At present only four of Dennehy’s works are available on commercial CDs, although more is on the way: these works are pAt (Joanna MacGregor, piano; By the new time, Silverdoor SIDO 010 CD), Paddy (Tatiana Koleva, percussion; Tatiana Koleva: Knock on Wood, TK0401), Composition for percussion, loops, blips and flesh(Slagwerkgroep Den Haag; New Works for Percussion SDH-Series 5), and Work for Organ (David Adams, organ; Contemporary Music from Ireland, Volume Three,Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, CMC CD03). Archival recordings of many of Dennehy’s other works can be listened to at Dublin’s Contemporary Music Centre
Published on 1 November 2005
Bob Gilmore is a musicologist and keyboard player born in Northern Ireland and presently teaching at Brunel University in London.