There is a rather famous adage among composers credited to Igor Stravinsky: “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” The practice of “stealing” musical material, of course, long predates Stravinsky; a professor of musicology once relayed to me the rather dramatic anecdote of the young J.S. Bach breaking into his local church, under the cover of darkness, to transcribe the scores of Palestrina note by note. I have yet to validate this story, but it is widely known that one way or another, Bach did transcribe Palestrina’s scores—and yet, he was no mere thief. His transcriptions of the elder composer’s work allowed him to refine his own technique while acquiring his individual style. Much of the same can be said of Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy (b. 1970), who has engaged with a wide array of musical styles over the course of his compositional career thus far. We can infer a great deal from a composer’s chosen “found objects,“ and yet, how a person uses their stolen goods can reveal just as much or more.
Dennehy has described his approach to handling found material as “musical vandalism.” In reference to this process, he has said, “Once I’ve hit on a few pieces of material that in my mind have ‘ineluctable modality,’ to steal a phrase from Joyce, then the true business of composition as vandalism begins. I become like a vandal joyriding through my material, oblivious to their separate poignant cries.” Though “vandalism” is often associated with negative acts such as destruction, defacement, and other activities with malicious intent, it serves as an ideal in Dennehy’s practice. This radical aspiration to vandalism is closely tied to his position as an Irish artist. Much Irish art, such as the literary works of Joyce and Beckett, has shown a penchant for fragmentation and the recontextualization of quoted resources. Vandalism has also served as a political act in the street art movement of Northern Ireland; marginalized groups have found a voice through the creation of political murals on community walls.
Dennehy’s irreverent attitude towards his musical material is related to another of Irish culture’s distinguishing characteristics: Ireland’s simultaneous proximity and peripherality to the Western art world. Dennehy has stated that he finds his geographical distance from the European heritage artistically liberating. His music serves as a crossroads for a number of influences, ranging from high modernist art movements to traditional Irish music. His style is distinctive and consistent from one piece to the next—repetitive gestures are set to pulsating rhythms with unpredictable accentuation. His music often features pitch centricity and harmonic stasis, which has lent itself well to his more recent interest in the overtone series. Though Dennehy’s influences are readily apparent, the music is a far cry from collage. He strips his found materials down, extracting only the aspects that will further his artistic vision for a work. To Minimalism he adds a sense of progression, to European Spectralism he extracts the dissonance, to American microtonality he adds a rapid rhythmic surface. In this way, Dennehy molds from his diverse influences a music of his own; his sound is defined by his process.
This recent portrait album from RTÉ lyric fm’s new music imprint presents a picture of a clean-cut, professional Dennehy on its cover, the composer standing in front of an apt patchwork of various textures: wood, brick, snow, and peeling concrete. The disc contains four of Dennehy’s compositions spanning the first decade of the twenty-first century. These four works, along with Dennehy’s violin concerto Elastic Harmonic, make up all of his symphonic output from the past decade. The liner notes divide the four works into two separate periods, The Vandal and O representing the composer’s more youthful, brash, and experimental work, Hive and Crane the more mature artist’s output. The works of these periods are interleaved on the CD, perhaps encouraging the listener to hear Dennehy’s distinctive sound across the whole body of work. It is also noteworthy that all the pieces on the CD are purely acoustic, despite the fact that Dennehy has employed electronics in many works over his career.
The first track, Crane, is the most recent. While the title may evoke birds or paper cranes, Dennehy is instead referring to the crane in its industrial sense. The piece, commissioned by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, was first envisioned as a kind of ballet in which a live orchestra would interact with choreographed cranes at various building sites across Dublin. The piece was particularly relevant to the city’s mid-2000s construction boom, but the collaboration between orchestra and machines fell through due to budgetary constraints. Despite the loss of the visual element, the piece still conveys a vivid, almost tangible sense of the grit and relentlessness of the construction site. The opening confronts the listener with grating, repetitive string gestures. Ominously rising strings sit under a repeated tritone, the brass eventually joining to further build the tension. With each iteration more and more instruments join, forming a twisting, mangled dance. This high-intensity section is followed by one of repose. Here a low brass pedal opens up a wide expanse while the glockenspiel contributes light twinkles above. We are released into the ease of a more consonant harmonic texture, though the tension soon creeps in again as the strings resume their restless work.
The driving energy and rhythmic force of the music bring to mind the influence of Louis Andriessen, American Minimalism, and even early Stravinsky (the juxtaposition of tutti textures with lighter-scored woodwind passages especially bring Petrushka to mind). However, Dennehy’s techniques contribute to a sense of narrative, propelling the music upward, both literally and metaphorically. After progressing through various harmonies, the rhythms slow and the texture is pared down until only glassy string harmonics remain. From the drudgery of the industrial grade the piece comes to defy gravity, floating upwards, free of weight, disappearing from view like a building rising into the clouds.
A great deal of mental imagery can also be gleaned from O, whose title would seem to symbolize a cycle or full revolution. Commissioned by Trinity College Dublin, the piece was written in memory of the Irish composer and professor Brian Boydell. The work has more of a modernist air, with microtonal deviations and dissonant harmonies. These features create a dark atmosphere rather uncharacteristic of Dennehy. For me, the piece also has an uncanny corporeal sense, the opening pulse like a nervous heartbeat. The work begins as if already in progress, the constant rhythm interrupted by flittering harp murmurs. The brass and woodwinds swell over undulations of pizzicato strings; with much of the work harmonically static, the interest comes from timbral color and contrast. An intensification of dynamics and augmentation of the “heartbeat” by the bass drum lead to a series of intense instrumental swells.
Just as things build up, the work cycles back with a gradual glissando downward and descent back to silence. What happens next is sinister—a series of brass inhalations followed by shrieks, tutti gasps for breath occurring at an increasing rate. The piece ultimately ends where it began, with anxious string palpitations. Its form and inherent drama allow for many readings, though the many cycles and rhythms associated with the body seem to be especially salient.
The Vandal most explicitly explores the practice of “slicing and dicing“ materials. Written at the age of 29, Dennehy describes the process of this piece as “creating beautiful objects only in order to throw them against the wall to watch what way they smash.” Emerging from a single sustained pitch, the music expands outward in instrumentation from the woodwinds to the strings and brass. The sustained pitch remains a unifying thread throughout the piece, sometimes disappearing under a flurry of rhythmic activity but reemerging in different places. Rather than providing a harmonic focus, attention is drawn to the initial motive as it is traded around the orchestra and presented in many guises—fragmented, augmented, inverted, and sprinkled with rhythmic punctuations. Each of the instrumental families takes on various characters, from reverent woodwinds to punchy brass and low, grooving piano basslines. The trading of material between various characters creates a sense of dialogue; in some cases, there is back-and-forth, for example in the brass’s frequent interactions with the strings. At other times, it seems more like all the players are competing for a place in the conversation. An event may briefly emerge in the foreground, such as a long, romantic violin melody. However, rhythmic shots interrupt and the gesture is soon fragmented and repeated—the struggle begins again.
There aren’t true moments of rest in The Vandal. Instead, the instrumental dialogue forms a sort of persistent, anxious counterpoint. The overall trajectory is not as clear as in Dennehy’s later works, though the relentless energy of each individual entity does gradually converge into a unity of forces. At length the texture thins, becoming more pointillistic; then suddenly there is a driving rhythmic unison. The piece ends with irregular chugging, like a freight train barrelling down the tracks.
The final work on the CD, Hive, displays Dennehy’s most recent topical and aesthetic preoccupations. A joint commission from BBC Radio 3 and the Chamber Choir Ireland, this work for orchestra and chamber choir takes as its subject matter the city of London during the industrial age. Two different texts describe the scene: the first, taken from Bryon’s Don Juan, paints a romanticized portrait of the city, its architecture and industry. After an orchestral interlude, a passage from Thomas Beames’s The Rookeries of London in 1852 is heard. This text, described in the liner notes as “hysterical [and] somewhat racist,” portrays the slum life of London’s Irish community. A passage of text spoken in unison rhythm is particularly striking:
squalid children, haggard men, with long uncombed hair, in rags, most of them smoking, many speaking Irish; women without shoes or stockings—a babe perhaps at the breast, with a single garment, confined to the waist by a bit of string; wolfish looking dogs; decayed vegetables strewing the pavement; low public houses; linen hanging across the street to dry; the population stagnant in the midst of activity.
Along with this interest in the history of the Irish people, the piece combines Dennehy’s characteristic energetic rhythms and repetitive fragments with harmonies associated with the Spectral movement. In this work, a third of the orchestra is tuned a quartertone lower than normal in order to create the rich, overtone-laden harmonies that give the piece its distinctive, gritty sound. Hive opens with a hazy oscillation of timbres. A shifting mobile of colors, along with the clatter of cast iron pot lids rubbed together by the percussionists, conjure up a floating, imagistic atmosphere. The voices of the choir are also offset from one another, making the text difficult to discern. Dennehy recreates a sensation rather than a scene, throwing the listener headlong into the overwhelming and blurry texture. More precisely defined musical fragments occasionally surface, soon to subside into the many voices. Flashes of harmonic spectra pass by like tall pillars. Oddly, as we progress to the second text, there is not a drastic shift in musical content. The voices may shout or form cluttered masses, but the shifting harmonies follow a similar progression as before. It is as though the choir presents contrasting subjective views on an objective scene. The orchestra provides the setting, while the choir proves both part of the setting and a commentator on the scene.
Dennehy’s works are perpetual motion machines, requiring performances that absolutely burst with energy, much like the ones on this album. Each individual part of a Dennehy piece does not usually look especially challenging for the player, as it will often consist of little more than sustained notes or an alternation between two or three pitches. However, in performance, the quick tempos mean these gestures speed by, often with varied rhythms or accentuation between instruments and sections. The pieces demand full concentration from every player, and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra executes these works with admirable attention to detail in each part. Perhaps it is this independence of voices, the feeling that each instrument is a pulsing organism within a larger context, that imbues this music with a connection to the body. There is a sense of immediacy to Dennehy’s music, as if it bypasses the brain and immediately accesses our bodily rhythms. This association with the corporeal would explain the composer’s interest in the harmonic series as a real, acoustic phenomenon which we can physically experience in the form of beating and sum and difference tones. This connection would also explain, at least in part, the music’s accessibility—it pulses and fluctuates just as we human beings do.
There are certainly some, namely those who cleave to the dictates of the neo-avant-garde, who will take issue with Dennehy’s style, with its pitch centricity, the simplicity of its gestures, its traditional instrumental techniques, and its perceived lack of concern for the realm of the conceptual. However, it is refreshing to find a composer who is unconcerned with writing “contemporary music,” but instead remains true to himself and his interests. The works spanning this CD apply Dennehy’s distinctive voice to a diverse set of subject matter, from historical scenes to modern times, and from mechanization to the cycles of the body. The composer’s niche, which resides on the periphery of the European art scene, allows him to evade what musicologist Bob Gilmore refers to as “the guilt of serialism.” Though Dennehy may paint himself as a vandal, he is not the delinquent who simply spray-paints moustaches and unibrows on bus shelter adverts; he is the street artist who, though maintaining an air of careless abandon, works painstakingly to create detailed murals constructed with practiced technique.
Christina Volpini is a composer, pianist, and writer based in Montréal, Canada. A new music enthusiast, she writes frequently for Bachtrack and is an organizer of the Montréal Contemporary Music Lab.