Donnacha Dennehy: the song remains the same

Donnacha Dennehy

"I was really interested, and still am, in an energy that can come across from a concert."

For Donnacha Dennehy, the traditional Irish song and dance known as sean-nós, meaning ‘old style’, was woven into the fabric of his childhood. “My family come from a rural part of Kerry, and even though I grew up in suburban Dublin, we went on holiday there every summer,” he remembers. “My mother’s mother used to hold these sean-nós sessions right through the night until morning, where everyone who came along from the village got up and sang or played, or read a poem, and there was dancing and drinking. So that made a marked impression upon me.”

Those heady summer evenings may have been pushed to one side as Dennehy grew up and developed interests in first rock, then electronic and contemporary music. But a portrait concert of the composer on Friday 16 November – one of three appearances by Crash Ensemble, the group he co-founded, at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival – sees him return to, and reinvent sean-nós. Aided by the spectacular vocal talents of Iarla Ó Lionáird, the form is brought together with Dennehy’s shimmering post-minimalist arrangements as part of his epic work Grá Agus Bás.

Dennehy started composing at a young age – “My father was a writer and somehow it seemed the most normal thing to do. I even remember being obsessed with various composers’ lives and how they worked,” he says. After a degree at Dublin’s Trinity College, he undertook postgraduate study at the University of Illinois, where his interest in contemporary music really took flight. “John Cage had been there, Harry Partch...” he recalls. “The university had a real experimental bias so that was very exciting for me. There were 12 composition professors and you were really encouraged to basically disagree with all of them, which was great.”

Illinois was followed by periods in the Netherlands, where he made friends with Louis Andriessen, and time spent at IRCAM, before Dennehy returned to Dublin to take a job at Trinity. He also co-founded Crash Ensemble (with Andrew Synott and Michael Seaver), as a way to both provide an avenue for his composition and to bring a different kind of performance to Ireland’s contemporary music scene. “We were trying to change the concert experience,” he recalls. “I was really interested, and still am, in an energy that can come across from a concert. And one thing that was great was that I just looked for really great, enthusiastic players. That’s always been important.”

Today he’s the group’s artistic director, but the early days of Crash called for hands-on involvement in all areas: “I remember having to do everything, including putting up posters. The Garda used to tell me to take them down, but nevertheless I persisted on putting them up in high-profile places!”

Throughout that time, he only referred to sean-nós once, in an electroacoustic piece, yet it lingered in his thoughts – “I kept on being called to it.” His original intention when contacting Ó Lionáird was that he would learn to sing it himself, “but then Iarla suggested that I write a piece with it.”

Eventually, a way that the form could work with Dennehy’s composing style revealed itself. “Around that time, the early 2000s, I was becoming more and more interested in the use of overtones in my music and in sean-nós, the tuning isn’t normally equal tempered,” he says. “I did computer analyses of the way Iarla would sing using Melodyne, and I could see the way that a lot of the pitchshifts fitted into a kind of spectral or overtone-based harmony. There was a sudden ‘Eureka!’ moment for me where I thought, ‘I know exactly what I can do with this’. It became pregnant with possibility.”

The hcmf// portrait concert on Friday 16 November demonstrates perfectly how this meeting of sean-nós style and Dennehy’s contemporary composition works. Among the programme’s pieces are
the ten-year-old Glamour Sleeper (revised in 2003), which Dennehy sums up as “a very hard-hitting little piece, an explosion of violence. It’s full of these elastic oscillations, these rhythms that are forever shrinking and expanding. It gives it this propulsive, lunging quality.” Those rhythmic modules feature again in Disposable Dissonance, which was originally written in 2010 for Icebreaker, and has been newly revised for Crash’s differing instrumentation. This sense of energised tension also forms the backbone of Grá Agus Bás: sean-nós is traditionally sung unaccompanied, but here Ó Lionáird is at the heart of what Dennehy describes as “a maelstrom of a piece with all these pulsing glissandos around him.”

The title Grá Agus Bás translates from Irish as Love and Death and its text is based upon two old sean-nós songs, both to do with “love and the thwarting of love or the dying of love and sex in some way.” Dennehy sees these songs as reflections of a side of Irish culture that was often suppressed in the past: “When Ireland became an independent state, although it became really interested in its own culture, it sanitised it in this Catholic way.” He adds, “I think that did a great disservice to quite a lot of the subtlety of Irish art.”

The inspiration may be centuries old, but Dennehy’s engagement with sean-nós could in no way be seen as a reverential tribute. Instead, it’s a contemporary composer reshaping the music from a fresh sonic perspective. “I remember when Iarla first did the piece, he did an interview with a local paper where he said it was as if a Martian had encountered sean-nós, what I had done with it,” he says.

“I’m not wanting to add to the tradition at all: if anything, I’m just taking and using it to my own ends. It’s in the DNA: even these fast, repetitive ornaments that the ensemble play are taken out of sean-nós. But I’m doing something very different with it. Iarla’s range is much more extreme than it would be in a sean-nós song, and there’s this underlying element of hysteria in the way that the voice part develops, which would never happen in the sean-nós. In a sean-nós, you would usually repeat your verse two or three times with added ornamentations, so it’s a static thing. With this, he goes on a journey.”

Crash Ensemble present Donnacha Dennehy Portrait at hcmf//2012 on Friday 16 November: click here for more details and to buy tickets at a special discount for a limited time.