The Hunger: Dennehy and Alarm Will Sound Confront the Legacy of The Famine

2019 has been a banner year for composer Donnacha Dennehy. He collaborated with playwright Enda Walsh, Crash Ensemble, and Irish National Opera on the release of the contemporary opera The Last Hotel (Cantaloupe Music) on March 15. Dennehy also released Surface Tension / Disposable Dissonance (New Amsterdam Records) with Third Coast Percussion and Crash Ensemble on June 28. The Hunger (Nonesuch Records), his most recent project with Alarm Will Sound, released on August 23.

The Hunger marks a synthesis of the style and execution from Dennehy’s 2019 recordings. Surface Tension / Disposable Dissonance is foremost a percussion project, filling many of the rhythmic expectations for contemporary percussion ensemble music. As an opera, The Last Hotel is, by necessity, a collaboration between text and music, singers and ensemble. The Hunger combines the best features of both of these projects while also maintaining a focus on Dennehy’s chosen text. He never strays far from Irish national identity and its history in his work, and this fusion allows him to combine contemporary sounds with historical topics.

The English texts Dennehy chose for soprano Katherine Manley’s role come from personal writings by Asenath Nicholson, an American religious reformer and humanitarian. She had traveled to Ireland during the Great Famine on an idealistic crusade after seeing Irish immigrants in Five Points, New York, convinced that she could fix the source of the immigrants’ poverty. On arrival, she quickly learned quickly that there was no simple solution. Manley brings a light, airy quality from her experience in baroque and contemporary music, as though her voice is not completely tethered to the earth.

Katherine Manley--Photo by Andy Staples Photography

Katherine Manley–Photo by Andy Staples Photography

Iarla Ó Lionáird brings both his knowledge of traditional sean-nós style (“old style”) singing and his voice’s distinctive timbre to his own role (Man). Dennehy wrote Ó Lionáird’s role with more freedom in it than Manley’s, contrasting the folk tradition in the former with the art song and operatic traditions in the latter. There are small variations in the tone and timbre of the sean-nós style that don’t occur in classical singing; while these are noticeable in the beginning, by the end, the two voices begin to exchange techniques and sound more like each other.

Dennehy’s instrumental writing is characteristic of the kind of contemporary chamber music that Alarm Will Sound executes so well. He makes use of repetition and instrumental forces familiar to minimalism—I would call his style minimalist-adjacent—but that seems to be a secondary consideration. The intensity that Dennehy achieves through repetition expresses the life-and-death tension of every day spent living under the Famine; the sparse writing lends a bleakness at every tempo that an orchestra couldn’t achieve. Even the more rhythmically dynamic sections carry the specter of starvation with them. Manley’s singing over them draws the entire ensemble together.

Dennehy couldn’t have chosen a better formal and sonic canvas for tackling such a large and complex topic. The rhythmic vitality that Dennehy has honed in writing contemporary percussion music helps keep the ambitious “docu-opera” from succumbing entirely to the often-disturbing content of its texts, which pull no punches. The first movement, “I have seen and handled the black bread,” the second, “I feared he would die,” and the fifth, “Dreadful winter,” immediately confront the apathy, intransigence, and cruelty of colonial bureaucracy in the face of a sudden crisis. A million people died, and a million more emigrated when faced with the same prospect, to preserve the stability of the agricultural markets.

Donnacha Dennehy--Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker

Donnacha Dennehy–Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker

The opening of movement three, “Black potatoes,” is where Dennehy first features callouts to Irish folk music. The texts of movements three and four, “Black potatoes,” and “Keening,” both directly come from this tradition. The Hunger never purports to be folk music, but evokes it with violins, drums, and double reeds resembling small bagpipes accompanying Iarla Ó Lionáird’s singing in the sean-nós style. Dennehy and Ó Lionáird collaborated on the role, building it from fragments of “Na Prátaí Dubha” (“Black Potatoes”), one of the only extant songs in the sean-nós tradition about the famine. “Keening” comes from unaccompanied songs that Dennehy first heard sung by Donegal singer Cití Ní Ghallachóir.

The Hunger not only features a Gaelic text, but also refuses to look away from an excruciating moment in history. It also helps to de-colonize (as much as it can) the anglicization of Ireland and the decline of Celtic languages during the 18th and 19th centuries. Subtle nods to folk music show up in Dennehy’s score, as well: a few overtones here, repeating rhythmic figures there, but the focus is overwhelmingly on the material that Dennehy has set. The Hunger proves—as though we needed it to—that there is still historical and musical reparative work to be done in this way, and this leaves me glad to know that composers like Dennehy are willing to do it.