Music For Writers: Donnacha Dennehy’s New Chapbook

iStockphoto/chris_ocallaghan
iStockphoto/chris_ocallaghan

A Sonic Anthology: The Abstract Gone Narrative

There’s a kind of single-composer album that’s a lot like a writer’s collection of short stories or poems.

So much of this ilk is the composer Donnacha Dennehy’s new album for RTE that it arrives without an over-arching title of its own. It’s simply Donnacha Dennehy: Crane/O/The Vandal/Hive.

Those slashed bits are the titles of the album’s four works — four stories, if you will.

  • “Crane” (2008-2009)
  • “O” (2001-2002)
  • “The Vandal” (2000)
  • “Hive” (2005)
Donnacha Dennehy
Donnacha Dennehy

And any author will recognize what’s happening in this artist’s work: each piece is its own world; it has a beginning, middle, and end.

Indeed, in the first piece, “Crane,” we learn from the cellist Jeffrey Zeigler whose own new album we covered here in #MusicForWriters — that Dennehy is recalling meeting a building crane operator in Dublin. The workman’s assertion that being in the very high seat of the crane made it feel as if all the world’s cares and troubles were below him stuck with the composer.

If you can hear this music — which was made one of New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music‘s Album of the Week series — listen at 7:33 on the track. Suddenly the embattled, clanging ground of this composition falls away. Ravishing tiny bells peal softly around the strings’ clouds. And you really do feel the lift, the rise, the basso-anchored power of this marvel of a machine.

Dennehy goes on to explore the reaches of such an airy incongruity of so much iron and oxygen…until the piece flutters up and up and up on woodwinds that never let it come down again. You sail right out the door on this one. Don’t miss it.

You Say It “Donna-kah”

Legend has it that there was a great Irish king named Donnacha. Rugby fans can tell you about Donnacha Ryan. Outside Ireland — where the name is reportedly one of the 100 most popular (I get this from nameberry.com) — the “brown-haired warrior,” as it translates, is anything but a common moniker.

Nadia Sirota. Image: Samantha West, NadiaSirota.com
Nadia Sirota. Image: Samantha West, NadiaSirota.com

In her special Q2 Music Meet the Composer interview with Dennehy, in fact, violist and commentator Nadia Sirota learns that Dennehy’s name was thought to be that of a girl by the late French composer Gérard Grisey, who accepted Dennehy as a student. In Paris, Dennehy would have been immersed in Grisey’s”spectral” music, as it’s called, having to do with the spectrum of tones and overtones, not with ghostly appearances.

Instead, Dennehy decamped to Amsterdam, met Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (“Stravinsky on acid, minimalistically applied” Dennehy describes some of Andriessen’s work) and found perhaps the most important influence of his career. Andriessen “didn’t seem too disappointed that I wasn’t a woman,” Dennehy tells Sirota.

“O,” the second piece on the album has something of Andriessen’s pulsing propulsion to it. in fact, one of the most successful moments is in the area of 6:46 on the track, as the strings make a chromatic descent that Salvador Dali would have loved. This aura of a busy entropy gives way only when, near the end of the piece.

At a time when many of our best contemporary classical composers are using technological devices and enhancements in their work, Dennehy seems to remain more interested in acoustical potentials. At many points, he combines flute and brass to create a kind of flowering revelation of tone that’s reminiscent of the work of the late French composer Jean Martinon, for example, and he speaks with Sirota about how important timbre is to him.

‘New Sonic Possibilities’

Donnacha Dennehy album cover“Timbre” can refer both to the textural quality of sound and, in music, to the interplay of overtones, those peculiar resonances that are generated around closely generated pitches.

In the album’s final work, “Hive” Dennehy deploys not only a chorale — which seems to speak in shouted recitation more than it sings — but also an orchestra a third of which is tuned down a third, producing an automatic layer of overtone that deepens and thickens the sound of the work.

Those who know Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys may hear something like the feverish Internet social-media babble that Muhly creates for his chorus and orchestra here. Dennehy, in “Hive,” is going for the same concept — a nattering wonder of compressed and crossing expression.

Although at one point a job at Trinity College Dublin scared him into creating the Crash Ensemble of musicians to test and perform his work  — for fear that teaching would subsume him — he recently has accepted a post at Princeton University where some very lucky students will get to work with one of Ireland’s most compelling talents.

While some of his work utilizes electronics, it comes out in interview, tech is not Dennehy’s focus.

“I’m not a tech geek,” he tells Sirota. “In fact I have a new phone that I got through AT&T and it’s an Android, and I barely know how to operate it…But I think I can accomplish things with it (technology) that I can’t accomplish without it.”

Specifically, he says, those “new sonic possibilities” that he loves lead him to utilize technology where it suits him.

And so does the same sort of unstoppable drive to expression that many writers know well:

“I have a need to write music…a fundamental need,” Donnacha Dennehy says to Nadia Sirota.

“It’s probably a diagnosable mental disorder.” TC mark

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