‘Classical music’ is a horrible term, insists Donnacha Dennehy, but finding a way to describe the composer’s music isn’t easy. But he’s not complaining – it means ‘I can do whatever I want’, he tells SINÉAD GLEESON
‘OFTEN WHEN I say I’m a composer, someone asks, ‘Oh, is that a bit like James Last?’,” says Donnacha Dennehy. Far more cheery than the stereotype of a composer, Dennehy laughs loudly.
The 39-year-old Kerryman acknowledges the indefinable nature of his work, which is predicated on classical training, but very much a hybrid of new classical and experimental.
The day we discuss this is unseasonally warm and finding a rectangle of grass in the grounds of Trinity College Dublin is proving tough. Dennehy is one of two music composition teachers at Trinity and juggles his academic career with his own work. The composer took up his post here at 26, but considers himself a late bloomer.
“For someone involved in classical music, I started quite late. I got really into recorder lessons in school and started composing instantly. As a child, my mother’s family would have these all-night sessions of poetry and singing and I remember staying up to listen, so I definitely didn’t come from a classical background.”
Like most teenagers, Dennehy was interested in rock but he also listened to Bach, Stockhausen and Stravinksy. There was a brief rebellion against classical music buoyed by The Smiths and Echo & the Bunnymen. Through David Bowie, he discovered Philip Glass and Steve Reich, which opened up a “whole new world”. Dennehy bypassed the form-a-band phase, but after discovering early 1970s Glass, he began writing again. When he was accepted to study music at Trinity, he was clear about his aims.
“I wanted to create my own music and learn techniques for orchestral and counterpoint music. It was one of the few environments where you are given the space you need. If I’d tried to ‘make it’ in my late teens – whatever ‘make it’ means when you’re a classical or experimental composer means – it would have been a disaster.”
Despite years of productivity, Dennehy considers 1997’s Junk Box Fraud to be his first “proper” composition. Other notable pieces such as Crane and Hive have heightened his profile, but he is probably best known for his continuing work with the Crash Ensemble, a collective of classical musicians.
“Setting up Crash was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. I wanted to see another type of music being made in Ireland. Crash was interested in doing stuff that was amplified; work that was often in a show context, with lights dimmed, multimedia . . . all of which is very non-classical. I’d seen this being done in America and Europe, but it was also a vehicle for my own music.”
Dennehy lived in both the Netherlands and the US and on returning to Ireland didn’t want to wait around for people to “get interested” in his work. He envisaged a laboratory-style set-up to experiment and test ideas with musicians.
“There are many pieces I’ve written that I could never have done had Crash not existed,” he says. Funding is a huge part of its survival and he admits that without Arts Council money, Crash would not have happened, let alone flourished to the extent that it has. He cites the amount of young composers whose work has been aired through it and thinks that there has never been a more robust, active period for new classical music in Ireland.
Throughout the interview, we return to the issue of defining his work. He is a modern composer who writes for classical instruments, but with a very non-traditional ethos.
“‘Classical’ is a horrible term,” says Dennehy, “and it only refers to a historical period. The problem when you use it is that it has very specific connotations. I refer to my work as ‘New classical’, or call myself a modern or experimental composer, so my work ranges quite widely. Iarla Ó Lionáird once said to me that I was in a very lucky position, because no one quite knows what my work is, so I can do whatever I want.”
Ó Lionáird is a central part of Dennehy’s latest project, Grá agus Bás . The two first met in 2004 and both are bound by circumnavigating strict musical structures. While Dennehy’s work operates outside of classical, Ó Lionáird’s unique approach to sean-nós also involves inverting and reinterpreting.
“I had long been an admirer of Iarla; he has a beautiful voice; it’s very distinct, but it also has this darkness.”
The album is completed by a six-part song cycle, That the Night Come , which consists of Yeats’s poems sung by US soprano Dawn Upshaw. Both ideas, to tackle sean-nós and Yeats, had stayed with Dennehy for years. He points out that sean-nós is an unaccompanied form “pregnant with possibilities” for a composer. With Yeats, he focused on similar potential, but was determined to give his own personal response.
“A lot of my work before this would never have gone near topics like love and death. There has been a real problem in contemporary classical music of this ‘ironic detachment’ from feelings. I wrote a piece called Elastic Harmonic in 2005 and since then, my music has become more unbridled emotionally.
“Love and death are also quite Woody Allen. We can distract ourselves with anything but these are two of the biggest issues in everybody’s life, regardless of any kind of order you try to put on it. In 20th-century composing, there’s a reluctance to discuss the emotion of the composer, but that’s a huge thing for me. This piece is terrifying and overwhelming, but it also has moments of fondness and beauty.”
A sizeable excerpt from Grá agus Bás , performed by Crash Ensemble and Iarla Ó Lionáird, can be seen on YouTube. Search “ Grá agus Bás excerpt”
Crash Ensemble has a YouTube page, which includes music by Dennehy and other artists youtube.com/user/crashensemble
Dennehy also has a selection of music at myspace.com/donnachadennehy
Grá agus Bás will be performed at Cork Opera House as part of the Reich Effect Festival on Sunday, July 31st.
Grá agus Bás is out now on Nonesuch Records. See crashensemble.com