Crash's 10 Years

Alan Pierson and Donnacha Dennehy of Crash Ensemble

Crash's 10 Years

John McLachlan looks at the achievement of the Crash Ensemble as they celebrate their 10th anniversary.

The Crash Ensemble celebrates its tenth year in operation this year. In the run up to Shindig, their celebratory mega-event in October, there was a storm of publicity, including feature articles and pieces in places where new music is absolutely never normally seen or heard: the Sunday Independent, the Sunday Tribune and RTÉ Radio 1 (Morning Ireland!). Crash’s marketing department played a blinder, with sometimes strange results – the general incomprehension of the possibility of living art music in such forums is something none of us can erase in a single campaign. In addition, Donnacha Dennehy wrote a particularly good piece in the Irish Times (Oct 10th) in which he placed the good work of Irish composers in the Crash context and the context of poor arts funding for new music ensembles relative to other arts, particularly theatre. This is a point that many others (including this writer) have brought to the attention of the Arts Council in every review of its strategy in the last ten years.

The Crash Ensemble has used its tenth year as almost a launch pad for getting a heightened level of attention on the existence of contemporary art music, and that is good as far as we the practitioners are concerned. It also forces us to notice once more with feeling that we mostly suffer still ‘the honour of non-existence’ – that celebrated phrase from Raymond Deane. One element that slightly irritates about Crash’s publicity is its presentation of the narrative of new music in Ireland: that Crash, by cybernetically fusing classical instruments with the battery of technology (computers and amps) associated with rock music, becomes, in contrast to others, streetwise, popular and culturally relevant. To composers, who know that the history of music technology (in the 20th century) would not exist without both technicians and serious artists, but was in no way dependent on the presence of popular musicians, this is a view that can only successfully be spread in an environment of general ignorance. We have to shrug and accept that, from the public’s point of view, this distortion is a plausible sounding story.

Meanwhile, there are other things going on in the country, such as Vox21 and EAR, and many other occasional or smaller groupings, that actually work in exactly the same way as Crash and with many overlapping personnel, but it is true that they are the only professionally funded ensemble regularly performing at the interface between electronic and live music. Also, these others who work with poorer resources do not produce an easily digested mass-market narrative for new music, while the fact that Crash Ensemble’s public face is so closely modelled on New York’s Bang on a Can might throw in the question of how is this relevant to Ireland. But more of that below.

All Shook Up
Beyond the ensemble’s title pages, which have been treated non-hagiographically here, lies a more refined and perhaps even indefinable story of some substance. When Donnacha Dennehy says that he wanted to bring to Irish audiences’ attention the work of composers who write like Louis Andriessen, he is suggesting that he had to shake up the prevailing Irish picture of contemporary music. Crash have definitely changed the stylistic expectation of the public in regard to new music in Ireland, taking it away from a bias towards European modernism, and that is an achievement belonging uniquely to them. There is an iconoclastic quality in their programming that seeks to work against prevailing currents, and this is not a figment of their imaginations. The seriousness with which Dennehy and John Godfrey work on programmes and themes adds up to something that we really needed, and continue to need. They have pushed the contemporary music culture in Ireland in a direction that it simply wasn’t going heretofore, and they have placed performers inside that culture more strongly than before. It is likely that they have had a lot to do with the explosion in the number of people now composing here, and certainly have encouraged a new willingness to mix together across stylistic boundaries; there is no denying Crash’s effectiveness of purpose.

The use of Bang on a Can as a model appears to have been backed up by a tricky argument concerning audiences: that the present scene in New York somehow uniquely indicates the future scene for new music here and in Europe. In New York, and to an extent elsewhere in the US, the existence of ‘campus composers’ allied to an ‘uptown’ scene allowed art music to become more purist and academically modernistic than anywhere else, allowing an ivory-tower high culture to develop in new music which simply didn’t need to worry about the general music public (who are perhaps easier to write off in the US). Quite rightly this led to a reaction and the creation of a ‘downtown’ scene, where the likes of art-rocker John Cale rub together with John Zorn and John Cage’s ghost in an orgy of experiment embracing any kind of music-lover. The argument is essentially that this downtown approach is the one that is connected meaningfully to society, and is the only one with a future. In reality there are all sorts of holes and problematic suppositions in that line of thinking (for instance audience numbers for the pioneers of minimalism were at least as precarious as those of uptown czar, Milton Babbit, so if it is not actually about numbers, then it is about demographics, and the discourse quickly becomes mired in political incorrectness as the down-towners basically indulge in inverted snobbery).

The relationship with Bang on a Can may seem to be an irrelevant side issue here, but the connections are substantial and important enough to belong in any summary of Crash. As well as presenting new music in a similar way, both ensembles comprise ‘in-house’ composers in the overall concept, and while Crash concerts have featured some first-rate work from Bang on a Can’s Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, Bang on a Can reciprocated by commissioning Dennehy a few years back. The Crash Ensemble are even planning a CD on Bang on a Can’s in-house label Cantaloupe.

But Crash are not just ‘son of Bang on a Can’, and rather than overwork parallels with New York, Dennehy and Godfrey espouse their own world view; the key point being their admiration for the free spirit of creative musicians who stay outside of any club or school. It so happens that these figures exist in greater numbers and are more extremely individual in the US than elsewhere. Where such maverick tendencies are found in Ireland and in Europe, Crash embraces them. The tension and sometimes extraordinary conflict of style that this involves has always been a regular feature of Crash Ensemble concerts, and this is another way in which they have been usefully unique here. There has always been a tendency in Europe to downplay the maverick in favour of a linear narrative of glorious musical evolution, and to an extent this has led to dismissal of the US as peripheral to the thrust of cutting edge music. Crash works against this at all times, their programmes always reflecting the messy reality of music today.

View From the Edge
The Crash Ensemble fits more easily into the new music scene in Ireland than it might in France or Germany and that is a reflection of our own peripheral position. In his introduction to the Up North! Festival in 2002, Dennehy wrote, ‘the periphery is now the centre’, and what he meant was that what you see happening in Sweden or Finland these days seems more open and alive than is frequently the case in those countries with very strong classical music traditions. Ireland of course shares this kind of position in Europe. Such peripheral countries have always produced composers who either orient themselves to Europe’s modernist tradition (e.g. participating in Darmstadt or Donaueschingen), or else consciously plough their own furrow (though in reality most combine elements of these two approaches). Such countries are ideally placed to take an independent stand and maybe develop something entirely new, or fruitfully take the best from both areas without getting committed to either. And of course before 1997 we had plenty of substantial works from Roger Doyle, Gerald Barry, Kevin Volans and Raymond Deane that do precisely that. Crash Ensemble support these composers’ works, but at the same time tweak the perspective so that they are heard in a broader context than used to be the case. Probably to a lot of the regular Crash audience these composers will sound old-fashioned or overly intellectual, their ‘maverick’ qualities no longer so apparent. It is possible to take the view that this is a distortion wrought by Crash being too keen to Americanise us – especially if Deane, Doyle et al represent best who we are. But of course who we are, if it can ever be meaningfully discussed at all, is a dynamic ever-changing picture of which Crash is now part.

In the last ten years the presence of the Crash Ensemble has gone hand in hand with development in the music technology scene in Dublin, and in particular the TCD music technology department. Both the ensemble and that department have encouraged cross fertilisation of genres, and they are both central to the rapid development of a rich electronica scene that didn’t exist not so long ago, in which new hybrids are flourishing. A brand new kind of audience has been created in a nexus that comprises students, all kinds of sound artists, the department and the ensemble, and this points to the likelihood that the next ten years will show much more of the payoff for the present work. In that scene as a whole, at the moment, it appears that a lot of energy goes into work without live performers, and that the potential for integrating live performers with computers has plenty of room for expansion – which is what Crash is all about and why its future ought to be secured as well as its past celebrated.

The Crash ensemble has performed in about 77 concerts since 1997, about seven or eight per year. With 15 this year, it has made the tenth year a real watershed. Those numbers are not huge, and the ground covered is remarkable when you factor this in, plus the fact that pieces stay in the repertoire: admirably, premiere does not also mean dernière with Crash. This would also account for the fact that many Irish composers have had either one or none of their pieces ever performed by the ensemble. This merely reflects the overall situation where nowhere near enough contemporary concerts occur in ratio to the number of quality pieces produced – which is not the fault of those who are working so hard to improve that. The Crash Ensemble may also feel that Irish composers aren’t all writing music that fits in to their world view, and that, after all, is their prerogative.

Returning to computers for a moment, there are three categories of music heard at their concerts: instrumental music, tape music, and interactive (computer + player) music. Any of these can also be combined with visuals to create multi-media pieces. Sometimes, for this listener at any rate, there is the feeling that we could do with more of the interactive (and multi-media) stuff than we actually get, since the other two categories can be covered by much smaller organisations. I wonder if this is just down to the taste of the programmers being different to mine, or if practical constraints are at play, such as rehearsal time, or a lack of technologically compatible repertoire. Whichever, I have found that the pieces that bring everything together most satisfyingly have tended to be Dennehy’s own. They generally sound central to the stylistic universe of a given programme. There may be some readers thinking this is a sign of ego on Dennehy’s part, but what matters is that he is a tremendously strong composer who sounds good anywhere, as many external things like his London Sinfonietta commission a few years back show; and, if he is programming, then where else should his own style sound but at the centre of it? The Crash Ensemble has allowed us to enjoy following Dennehy’s stylistic development for ten years, and it has moved along interestingly from a punchy, occasionally brutalist but always structurally subtle and complex sound, to an easier-sounding, less confrontational sound: I am more in awe of the earlier stuff, but it all shows a questing approach to composition that is absolutely central to the pursuit.

Shindig, held on October 12-13 in West Essex Street, Dublin, consisted of Free State (a concert of nine Irish works), Marathon and an Electronics Listening Space, in which sixty-two works altogether were aired. The live concerts presented thirty-seven of these. The strongest pieces from Free State, on the first night, were from Linda Buckley and Roger Doyle. These were the most satisfying: keeping to their purpose without getting boring. Pieces from younger composers Garrett Sholdice and Jonathan Nangle were strong but didn’t develop through time – but that is probably the point; while the Nangle had a complex and diverting surface, the Sholdice was dourly minimal. Both are perhaps different products of writing after Feldman or else after minimalism. Audience reaction from this concert favoured Gerald Barry, Sholdice, and a new piece from Julie Feeney. The Barry piece, First Sorrow, certainly divided the audience, and will leave the strongest impression; it was pure Barry, risking, as he sometimes does, being gimmicky. Derek Ball was represented by a short piece that didn’t do this fascinating composer justice.

The Marathon was five concerts with short breaks, some exceptional highlights being Laura Moody playing cello and singing, with all kinds of extended techniques, Glass’s Music in Similar Motion, which the ensemble enjoyed taking at a fair lick, Erik Lund’s Missing Intelligence was for me the discovery of the day – a tremendous piece that successfully combined the diverse stylistic strands that Crash bring; quite funky but also embracing complexity; it was also reminiscent of Dennehy’s earlier music. Terry Riley’s piece Loops For Ancient-Giant-Nude-Hairy-Warriors Racing Down The Slopes Of Battle, was, like the Glass, an example of the ensemble returning to a piece from their recent past and projecting it better than ever. Several of Dennehy’s pieces got excellent outings, his Aisling Gheal was exactly as the composer describes: a ‘spectral’ setting of the sean-nós air; with the result that it committed that cardinal sin against modernism: accompaniment – the composer probably intends that, this is, after all, almost a commentary piece to go with Grá agus Bás, which uses that air, along with ‘Táim Sínte ar do Thuam’. Grá agus Bás was the finisher for the whole day, and carried just the right weight and emotional punch for this position. A rich piece of itself, in terms of Dennehy’s output it shows him moving towards a softer, more accessible sound world that seems closer to the world of Reich and Adams than was the case before, but that is probably just a by-product of his expanding interest in just intonation / spectral harmony which requires a slower average pace of movement.

The Marathon’s length allowed the Ensemble to range completely over its broad stretch of voices, showing its best from ’97 to the present: such totally different composers as James Tenney, Reich, Gorecki, Volans, Andriessen, Saariaho, Brian Eno, Alvin Lucier, Frederik Rzewski, Scelsi, Nancarrow and Tom Johnson together exemplify the ongoing Crash project.

Through the two days the performances were generally top quality, with Susan Doyle, Kate Ellis, David Adams, Bill Dowdall, Deirdre O’Leary, Malachy Robinson and Lisa Grosman particularly standing out. The longer serving members really project a special solidarity with the whole Crash concept. There were guests and visiting musicians involved also: Lisa Moore, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Andrew Zolinsky, Alan Pierson and the Dublin Guitar Quartet all added to the celebratory feeling of the event. Here’s to another ten years, at least.

Published on 1 November 2007

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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