Donnacha Dennehy – Photo by Sophie Dennehy

5 questions to Donnacha Dennehy (composer, artistic director of Crash Ensemble)

Until I heard Alarm Will Sound perform scenes from The Hunger, your work-in-progress about the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852, my idea of traditional Irish music was the Clancy Brothers! The sean-nós(“old style”) recordings you incorporate are at once uplifting and haunting, but Rachel Calloway’s rendition of Annals of the Famine had me a little choked up. How did you go about setting such an unusual and emotion-laden source of text?

The Hunger will ultimately be an evening-length piece concerning itself with the topic of the Great Famine in Ireland in the 19th century. I’m not interested in this story for some nationalist reason, but because it is a profound and human focus for looking at the question of laissez faire economics (the free market) versus the responsibility of governance. That was the ideological battle at the heart of government in London (at that time Ireland was part of the British Empire, then the wealthiest entity in the world, possessing 40% of the world’s wealth). The famine was definitely an avoidable disaster. The free market does not always behave morally, as we know. And this is a kind of catastrophic instance of the impact of not interfering with its workings until too late. The second part of the piece will involve interviews with economists (in a great kind of babble of verbal sound) which will be interleaved with the more personal voices of Asenath Nicholson’s first-hand accounts and that of sean-nós song which basically is a signifier of the sufferer in this context. I concentrate on this story because it irrevocably changed Ireland, and it is something I know on an emotional level. I wanted to also explore it on an intellectual and artistic level.

Donnacha Dennehy - Photo by Sophie Dennehy

Donnacha Dennehy – Photo by Sophie Dennehy

Grá agus Bás (Love and Death) will be performed this week at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. I imagine you following in the footsteps of past composer/ethnomusicologists such as Bartók, who sought to incorporate Magyar folk elements into notated classical music while keeping it distinct from the dominant German school. Do you see yourself in a similar role, trying to adapt a traditional Irish form to “high art,” thus distinguishing your work from American post-minimalism?

There are definite post-minimalist tendencies in my work. I am not worried about that at all, and the desire to incorporate sean-nós elements within my music is not some conscious attempt to distinguish me from my American friends. There are other things that I do such as a concentration in using the overtone series in my harmonies/textures, an elastic treatment of harmonic rhythm where pairs contract and expand against each other etc. which keep my music fresh enough for me without my feeling a kind of compulsion to incorporate Irish elements. But in some works I do feel compelled to use this material as a source. I am not trying to proselytize or anything. It just resonates for me and suggests so many possibilities when I’m working, not only emotionally and sonically, but also on a structural level. I really am using them for my own ends, and I invest these sources with all sorts of properties that are only implicit in them initially. It’s a kind of inter-cultural collision within my own being. I was raised in a very urban environment in Dublin, very much part of a kind of Anglo-American popular culture. Yet I also felt different from that, and I suppose that I want my music to be honest to who I am.

Harmonics and other spectral effects abound in Grá agus Bás. Are any of these elements left to the discretion of the performers? Do these phenomena point to aspects of this world, or do they seek to transcend it?

In a way I touched upon this in my answer to the last question. I am endlessly fascinated with the construction of harmonies using overtones, or taken from ideas about the overtone series. Almost all of these overtone-derived elements are explicitly notated. For Grá agus Bás, I analysed loads of unaccompanied sean nós songs (sung for me by Iarla O’Lionáird) with a very precise pitch-detection software called Melodyne, which could show me all the microtonal variations. Most of these could very easily be construed within a spectral context and that became a meeting point for the way the solo voice interacted with the harmony/timbre of the instrumental writing.

I think that all art is about transcending the limits of the world, especially the limit imposed upon us by death.

Crash Ensemble - Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Crash Ensemble – Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Iarla O’Lionáird’s voice has a texture that resonates remarkably well among strings and even electronics. Certain phrases of his even reminded me of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. What did you learn from him about the import and scope of sean-nós songs?

I learned an awful lot from Iarla. He was incredibly generous with his time and talent. My interaction with him has left an indelible mark on my voice as a composer. Sean-nós probably sounds much more “foreign” to American ears than what would generally be known as Irish music (our dance music and ballads). Some scholars even suggest strong North African influences on Irish sean nós (argued showing evidence from old trade routes). Hence the possibility of your making a connection with Sufi music. I love Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan by the way. So that may also play a role on some unconscious level!

That the Night Come is a lush collection of settings of Yeats poems, sung with ethereal grace by Dawn Upshaw. What made you decide upon a female voice for his texts? Are you perhaps finally reconciling him with Maud Gonne?!

Ha! Someone knows their Yeats! Dawn had been put in touch with me by Bob Hurwitz (of Nonesuch). He played her Grá agus Bás and she became interested in my music. So we decided to do something together. I was initially debating using Irish language poems but then became more and more convinced that I wanted to do something with Yeats. I had set Yeats before, and always with female voices. I really don’t know the reason why. Yeats was profoundly influenced and shaped by the women he knew in his life, from Maud Gonne to Lady Gregory (with whom he founded the Abbey Theatre) to Georgina his wife (with whom he produced books and books of automatic writing). So maybe I sensed a very strong female presence in his poems or something. Who knows? I don’t. But Dawn is stunning in her interpretation of these texts.