Love is Nearer Death

Cover artwork for Grá agus Bás using photography by Sophie Elbrick Dennehy.

Love is Nearer Death

In bringing together the sean-nós singing tradition, the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the contrasting voices of Iarla Ó Lionáird and Dawn Upshaw, the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy has built a complex world of voices and ideas – to be within it is a profoundly moving experience.

Donnacha Dennehy
Grá agus Bás
Iarla Ó Lionáird, Dawn Upshaw, Crash Ensemble (Alan Pierson, conductor)
Nonesuch (7559-79772-7)

It’s different for songwriters. For them a verbal image arrives already tinged with musical colour: a chord change, an inflection, at the very least a vocal register. Or the emotional charge of a harmony, the kick of a riff, will make the choice of words seem inevitable, not so much a choice as a revelation. When it works the results are unforgettable, words and music inextricably linked, one enhancing the other so that even banality can yield profundity. Think of the two iterations of ‘yesterday’ in the Beatles song, the first falling, the second rising: wistful melancholy succeeded by improbable hope.

Given this apparently natural relationship between words and music, why would anyone want to do things differently? Yet that’s what composers do; it’s what they’ve been doing for hundreds of years, finding the music in other people’s words. In the trade it’s usually called word-setting, but ‘setting’ only catches a bit of it. If it was just a matter of the music framing the words then poets might find it less upsetting. There is a description of A.E. Housman hearing Ralph Vaughan Williams’s lovely setting of his poem ‘On Wenlock Edge’ for the first time, his ‘face flushed with torment … as though in an extremity of … pain or anger, or both’. Presumably, what distressed Housman was the realisation that Vaughan Williams’s music was not just a setting of his words but that it had its own distinct identity, a parallel text which not only pointed up the sense of the poetry but sometimes counterpointed it too.

The Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy’s new album is a wonderful demonstration of this pointing and counterpointing. There are two works, Grá agus Bás (2007) and That the Night Come (2010), both for voice accompanied by instrumental ensemble – in this case Dennehy’s Crash Ensemble, conducted by Alan Pierson. That the Night Come sets texts in English by W.B. Yeats, Grá agus Bás traditional Irish lyrics from the sean-nós tradition of unaccompanied song. But Grá agus Bás goes a step further: not only does Dennehy ‘set’ words, he also composes a new musical setting around and – even more strikingly – out of existing performances of two sean-nós songs, ‘Aisling Gheal’ and ‘Táim Sínte ar do Thuam’. Dennehy’s music incorporates phrases from these songs; more remarkably he incorporates one of their best known singers, Iarla Ó Lionáird, and bases his music on a computer analysis of the very grain of Ó Lionáird’s voice. There’s a moment near the end where Dennehy forces Ó Lionáird down to the bottom of his range, to a point where the voice begins to fracture, and then builds a harmony out of the fracturing, the instrumental pitches re-making the vocal timbre.

This is high-wire music – one false step and it could plummet into either new-age sentimentality or a worthily dull ethnomusicological exercise – but Dennehy’s tread is always sure and bold. That the music is rooted in Ó Lionáird’s fervent singing is clear from the outset, where the singer’s voice dominates, but later Dennehy’s brings off the sort of dramatic coup which is only possible in composed music, translating the urgency of the sung words (‘There is a nail on my heart/I am filled with love for you’; ‘as a ghost on my own I would be before you on the road’) into a series of extended instrumental sections. That the intensity of the instruments’ repetitive figuration in these interludes also recalls Leos Janáček, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich is testament to Dennehy’s success in opening his source material to the world.

Restraint versus Adventure
That the Night Come is a more conventional work, setting six Yeats poems and commissioned specifically for the American soprano Dawn Upshaw. But heard straight after Grá agus Bás, it’s clear that here too Dennehy is engaged in a kind of double setting, making music around and about both words and a voice. Upshaw’s voice is one of the great resources of contemporary music and Dennehy gives her marvellous things to do. In the first movement the steps and turns of the melody mostly occupy an octave whose upper note is the D at the top of the treble stave – so a small range and relatively low. Occasionally Upshaw reaches below the stave to a velvety low A and once, just once, leaps a seventh to the G at the top of the stave. The word is ‘stars’, the phrase ‘but know your hair was bound and wound about the stars and moon and sun’; the effect of restraint versus sudden and brief adventure is dazzling in its simplicity and execution.

Upshaw’s voice, Dennehy’s voice and Yeats’s voice too: it’s the ebb and flow of these three currents which makes That the Night Come such a rewarding experience. Yeats, whose view of the musical setting of his words was that ‘no word shall have an accentuation it could not have in passionate speech’, might have had something to say about Dennehy’s extension of words in the third movement, ‘The White Birds’, where ‘soon’ becomes ‘soo-soo-soo-soon’, but he would have been pacified by a reminder that Monteverdi used a similar ornament. Like Monteverdi, like Janáček, this is vocal music in love with the sound and sense of words, and the great achievement of Dennehy’s Yeats cycle is that it catches all the contradictory complexity of its poet. The first, third and fifth movements are slower, dreamier, suffused with a bitter-sweet yearning, above all with the wish to arrest love at its height, by any means, even death. In contrast, the even-numbered movements are quicker, their fierce urgency recalling the instrumental interludes of Grá agus Bás, their subject matter not so much the desire to arrest the passing moment as ‘To bundle time away/That the night come’.
In the end it’s the subject matter of both Grá agus Bás and That the Night Come that forms tears in my eyes. The encounter with Iarla Ó Lionáird’s expressive gifts seems to have enabled Dennehy to tap into a deeper, richer vein within his own creative personality. His earlier works fizzed with switch-back energy, their quirky architecture a playful commentary on musical form; but in this new music there are larger subjects, love, time, death. Ludic formal complexity has given way to the play of voices and ideas. Not the single vision of the songwriter, instead a counterpointing of texts, a multiple refraction of subjectivity.

Listen to an NPR broadcast about Grá agus Bás here.

Published on 3 June 2011

Christopher Fox is a composer, teacher and writer on music.

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