Donnacha Dennehy’s New Music

Donnacha Dennehy’s New Music

Donnacha Dennehy is one of Ireland’s leading composers of contemporary music. He has premieres of two new pieces coming up in San Francisco and Dublin, The Kronos Quartet will perform One Hundred Goodbyes this weekend at the SF Jazz Center and a Dennehy composition, The Dark Places (to a text by Colm Tóibín), will feature at the National Concert Hall, Dublin on March 31.

One Hundred Goodbyes (Céad Slán) remembers some of the forgotten sean nós songs of his homeland. The composition was inspired by archival field recordings, made nearly 100 years ago, of rural Irish people singing songs passed down for generations. Dennehy responded to some questions from Irish Culture Bay Area’s Tom Clancy about his career.

I see that you were neither a child prodigy or from a particularly musical family? But -like a lot of us Irish- you listened to a range of music on the radio. What is the origin of your passion for music?

I loved sound from an early age. Just the sound of everything.  Then I fell in love with the radio, and the charts (when I was about six or seven).  I became seriously interested in quite strange classical music from the age of 9 and 10: Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Bach. Traditional music did run in my family a bit though, and I remember sean nós singing quite vividly from summer holidays in Kerry.

Many people are very happy to be musicians playing music composed by others. You seem to have known from early on that you wanted to write music. Where did that urge come from?

It was very natural.  I never questioned it.  Maybe the fact that my father was a writer had something to do with it.

You are a founder member of the Crash Ensemble, a group that have become synonymous with contemporary music performance in Ireland and elsewhere. How did that group emerge and where did the name come from?

I was eager for something new in terms of performance when I returned to Ireland after studies in America and also briefly in Holland. I also wanted to have a vehicle for the kind of music that I wanted to write. I set it up with friends, and we bandied around loads of crazy names before settling on the relatively straightforward Crash Ensemble. I suppose we wanted to suggest a certain kind of irreverent energy.

Tony McMahon played with Kronos out here a few years ago. David Harrington was very taken with his authenticity and artistic integrity. How did this commission come about?

I think that David came to my music through Bob Hurwitz, the president of Nonesuch Records.  As far as I know, Bob played David a piece I wrote for Iarla O’Lionaird and Crash, called Grá agus Bás, and that David was quite taken with it.

What can traditional music fans expect at the San Francisco Kronos performance?  

I think it’s always a dangerous thing to assume how anybody will construe your work.  I believe that there is a lot of beauty in this piece, but I incorporate very old sean nós recordings that may not be so well known and I treat them in unusual and idiosyncratic ways to make my own kind of statement, principally about lost voices, lost lives or something like that.

How does Irish traditional music influence your work? Is it a primary influence or just one of many?

One of many.  I am particularly taken with the sean nós tradition. It speaks to me, and I’m very interested in the older ways of doing it, where the constraints of equal temperament held less sway.

You’re at Princeton now. How are you contending with the spirit of Einstein and the presence of Paul Muldoon? Are you working on anything musical with Muldoon?

I really enjoy being at Princeton, and I’m happy to report that Paul Muldoon and I are planning something, hopefully with the Jack Quartet and Rachel Calloway!

For more information on the prolific Dennehy see his website

For more reviews and interviews, visit Tom Clancy’s blog here