Thought: Crash Ensemble at Project Arts Centre Dublin

2012 is a big year for Crash Ensemble. They are celebrating 15 years since they were formed by now Co-Artistic Director and composer Donnacha Dennehy. Over the next year they will hold residencies at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival before touring America in 2013, continuing their mission to be a leading force in contemporary music in Ireland and Europe since 1997. The ensemble presented Thought, the first event of their Project Arts Centre residency, on November 2, 2012, featuring compositions of Glenn Branca, Nico Muhly, Kevin Volans, and Dennehy.

Crash Ensemble (photo credit: Sophie Dennehy)

It has been written before that Crash Ensemble plays like rock stars of the chamber ensemble world. Well they seem to be running with that. As I came to the top of the stairs in the arts centre I saw a teenage girl excitedly pulling on her new Crash T-shirt she’d just bought from the merchandise stand. The group have been exploring lots of altnerative financing areas like this to support their work. In fact, they recently set up a campaign (similar to Kickstarter in the U.S., where fans pledge money for a project) to help fund the commissioning of a new work by Glenn Branca specifically for this event.

Crash Ensemble, Art for "Young Americans" concert by Gareth Jones |

Crash Ensemble, Art for “Young Americans” 2011 concert by Gareth Jones

In the Project Arts Centre bar area the stark white walls were disturbed by the colour of previous Crash Ensemble event posters designed by Gareth Jones. This art exhibit was a nice touch to look back on the work that has gone into the past 15 years, setting the tone for the evening. A capacity crowd of about 220 was already seated as I arrived just before the musicians came to stage. The musicians were arranged in a semi-circle, strings to the left, electric guitar in centre, wind instruments to the right and the piano and percussion filling the space behind the main group. Black curtains surrounding the stage suppressed any excess reverberations in the room.

The first piece played was a 2011 work commissioned by Crash Ensemble from Nico Muhly, Drones, Variations, Ornaments. It began calmly with single note swells piercing through chords created by the string instruments. The piano and wind instruments created fragments of melody as the piece built. For me it was exciting to hear work from a celebrated young composer brought to life by a world-beating group such as Crash.

Kevin Volans’ piece, the world premiere of Looping Point, was focused, as the title suggests, on its structure. The musicians showed their worth as notes spilled out at a rampant pace, but it took some thinking to try to figure out where we were being taken. Looping Point is concerned more with creating scenery than it is with moving you with melody.

The first half of the programme went down well with the crowd, even if it wasn’t without some production problems. Some instruments were amplified through front-of-house speakers, but at times their sound was in conflict with the acoustic sound of the instruments on stage. The problems were mainly a thundering, sustained kettle drum which overpowered other instruments and lasted longer than it seemed appropriate and the electric guitar being played with a volume pedal. The notes played sounded right when the player put his foot down to produce the amplified sound, but it could already be heard far from the stage where I sat in the back row of the crowd. Perhaps these technical problems will be addressed in further performances.

The world premiere of Glenn Branca’s Thought proved to be difficult listening. I intentionally waited a few days before writing this commentary because the piece just didn’t sit well with me. A cacophony of noise from start to finish, the piece was in danger at some points of losing my interest through a lack of subtlety. Jarring chords and fragments of melody could be grasped behind a screaming electric guitar which started playing and rarely took a break. It started, it seemed to get lost, and it ended. In its favor, it was, nonetheless, an exciting journey.

Crash Ensemble Co-Artisitc Director Donnacha Dennehy (photo credit: Sophie Dennehy)

Before the ensemble played Disposable Dissonance, composer Donnacha Dennehy appeared on video from his home in Pennsylvania which was hit by Hurricane Sandy, thus keeping him from the event. He joked that no one knew the piece before so it might as well be new, but it is actually a reworking of a 2010 composition. Although I had not heard the original version, I do wonder how the piece has changed since it was first composed. Has it evolved as the ensemble has devloped over time? Certainly Dennehy, as Co-Artistic Director of the ensemble, knows the nuances of the group and can highlight the strengths of its players. Disposable Dissonance, in its latest form, was sublime, lyrical, rhythmic and has something very pleasingly Irish about it.

Chris Ledwidge is a guitarist, teacher & broadcaster in Dublin, Ireland.  You can follow him on Twitter at @chrisledwidge.