An Interview with Donnacha Dennehy
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Jonathan Grimes: Donnacha, you've just been elected to Aosdána [Ireland’s state-sponsored academy for creative artists]. Congratulations. How do you feel about this?
Donnacha Dennehy: Actually I was really pleased. Roger Doyle rang me up and I was more excited that I thought I'd be. I didn't expect to get in at all because he'd nominated me before. Then there was a slight mixture of 'Oh my God, now I'm part of the establishment.' Because you do fear that you're part of an academy or something. The fact that it can give you a choice somewhere down the line of being able to devote yourself to composition full-time is nice.
JG: You mentioned about becoming part of the establishment. Does that mean that you are anti-establishment?
DD: Ah no. I don't have a provocative political stance of being against the establishment, like the way that Louis Andriessen and the collection of other Dutch composers protested against the Concertgebouw in the 1970s; I've never been as straightforwardly political as that. I suppose that, in a way, there's part of me that sees the logic behind everything. If you make all these decisions then you couldn’t write for orchestra because that is a hierarchical institution. I would definitely say I have anti-establishment leanings: on my bicycle, I would naturally break as many laws as possible; that is my tendency, all right. But then my desire for a big sound will make me accept an orchestral commission, so if I were truly anti-establishment I wouldn’t accept that; really, if one were a thorough anti-establishmentarian you’d have to be quite strict about these things. But instinctively I am and that’s why I felt a tiny bit queasy about getting in, but then I also felt elation -- maybe I’m a conflicted sort of person [laughs].
JG: You’ve just had a violin concerto recorded for TV...
DD: Well, there’s an example of this anti-establishment conflict. I wouldn’t call it a violin concerto, just a piece for violin and orchestra. ‘Big deal,’ you might say! To me, a violin concerto sums up all these nineteenth century notions.
JG: So what is the title of this piece for violin and orchestra?
DD: Elastic harmonic, because of these elastically changing, very slow-moving harmonic rhythms through the piece.
JG: That’s a very descriptive title and gives a lot of insight into the piece.
DD: It does. Sometimes my titles are quite obscure. I find it very difficult to come up with a title. I often make lists of about thirty titles on scraps of paper while I’m writing the piece and start voting on them. Not quite a PR [proportional representation] system but... There are often two highly contrasting titles in opposition with each other until the very end.
JG: So you don’t choose the title until towards the end of piece?
DD: Well, I usually have a working title but that’s usually entirely different, like A Piece of Crap 1.
DD: This has been a working title!
JG: Some composers think about a title early on when they’re writing the piece.
DD: Yes, there are some composers who can’t even write unless they have a title because that’s part of their conceptual thinking of the piece.
JG: This all relates to the whole area of your working methods, which I’ll come back to later on. Going back to this piece, Elastic Harmonic, this was an unusual birth of a new work in that it was recorded for RTÉ TV. How did you find this experience of hearing a work performed for the first time under those conditions as opposed to the concert hall?
DD: Very weird. It has just got its premiere in a TV studio with no audience and it will be broadcast in a few months time. It is really weird not to have that response from the audience. The next day, I felt... I didn’t know where I was: here was a new piece that I’d done, and nobody has heard it. The TV people involved were excellent. The producer was a very interesting man and he asked really intelligent questions about the score. This made me feel optimistic that there were people like this in TV in the days of Big Brother 29 or whatever.
JG: It’s quite unusual for an Irish composer’s work to be featured on TV.
|‘I think constitutionally I have to compose. It's like a kind of a therapy; I just have to do it nearly every day.’
DD: You’re right. And also, because I had prepared some of the first violins too, I can imagine some people in TV going ‘Oh God, what’s this going to be like?’ It is unusual and I was very pleased about it. I suppose it did influence the piece as well -- you knew it had to come out of this box. In a way the piece has got a lot of depth in terms of sonorities and I just don’t know how much of that will come through. Also, you sometimes write a piece for a certain situation but you know that the piece probably could have a life afterwards, so you just write the piece you want to write.
JG: And a lot of people have big TVs nowadays.
DD: Yes, home entertainment systems [laughs].
JG: So this is your third orchestral work so far?
DD: Well, I wrote two when I was a student in Trinity [College Dublin]. Fergus Sheil set up the orchestra and we wrote for it. That was great. Apart from those two, this is my third: there's The Vandal, O and this. And I'm also writing a new piece for orchestra at the moment.
JG: Do you now approach writing for orchestra differently to when you wrote your first piece? Is there an evolution or a change?
DD: There definitely is from The Vandal. I feel more aware of the sonic combinations you can get and I've been more interested recently in doing almost translations of electronic sounds that I want to get from the orchestra. Even though it's in a more harmonic world, [I've been] looking at unusual playing techniques for sustaining sounds for a long time, so the orchestra is almost like a translation of some things that you might only get synthetically. That has interested me a lot more recently. For instance, in Elastic Harmonic there are four prepared violins within the sound. In the end we seated them in front of the winds, and that was a great decision because the winds are doing the upper harmonics that the violins are playing; it's like this unusual electronic sound that you're getting. So one thing I became much more aware of after The Vandal was the concept of mass, i.e. if you have more than two or four instruments, how that influences the sound. This is something I was less aware of before; I was thinking of writing for an ensemble or one instrument, whereas the concept of mass has become much stronger in my conception of orchestral writing.
JG: Are you developing this idea in your next piece for the Ulster Orchestra [provisionally titled Hive]?
DD: Yes, they're going to be livid when they see this piece [laughs]. It's for entirely detuned orchestra, so in the wind section one instrument will be playing at pitch and the other will be playing a quarter-tone flat.
JG: That should be fun!
DD: As I've been working on it some days I think, 'This is a stunning sound,' and other days I'm less euphoric. I am, of course, always worried about the first rehearsal with an orchestra because it can be pretty frightening for a composer.
JG: I can imagine! You've got such a mass of people...
DD: They have differing views. Some would be for it and aware of how their part contributes to a whole and others wouldn't; it makes sense. The orchestra has changed as an institution. If you look at it in Haydn's day it was really the equivalent of an ensemble. Of course it has got much bigger and has become more like a nine-to-five organisation. Because I've become more interested in certain types of sound combinations that I can only get with an orchestra, it's not something I'd pass over at the moment. Actually, I really enjoy writing for orchestra.
JG: And this piece has a choral part as well?
DD: Yes, it does. It's for the National Chamber Choir and the Ulster Orchestra. I consider it a really layered piece. In a way, it's very slow moving: there's a lot of fast motion on the surface and it has a slow harmonic motion. I think of it as an immersive piece -- you immerse yourself in this sound. There's one section I'm writing which is worked out according to an overtone series. It feels to me like all these ambulances passing by. It has this feeling that you're immersed in a city: you're here in this district and you're aware of another district over there.
JG: You lecture full-time in music technology in Trinity College Dublin. How do you find the time to compose orchestral works and whatever else you happen to be working on?
DD: It's dead hard, although Trinity is very good to me. They put my hours into blocks rather than me having to be in every day; that helps enormously. But it gets crazy. It's crazy at the moment because it's exam time and I have stacks of stuff that I'm correcting, and there's this BBC commission [for the Ulster Orchestra] too. I'm looking forward to August. I have these images of going down Venice in one of these Vaporettos half-drunk! That's my image that sustains me.
JG: So your composing happens throughout the year -- you don't just block off the summer and compose?
DD: No, I haven't been able to do that. I think constitutionally I have to compose. It's like a kind of a therapy; I just have to do it nearly every day.
JG: So you compose regularly?
DD: Every day. During term time I wouldn't compose on a Tuesday because I put massive amounts of student meetings into a Tuesday, but every other day I would.
JG: Because you manage to pack in so many things, presumably you must be very organised?
DD: [laughs] I don’t think so! I often think I’m chaotic. I’m very good at switching off: if I’m doing one thing I’m very good at forgetting about the other things. I turn off all the phones upstairs when I’m working. I suppose I have become slightly more organised. Naturally my inclination is to be deeply chaotic but I couldn’t have survived.
JG: What of inspiration -- this old-fashioned word that conjures up lots of different images? Where does it come from for you?
|‘In a lot of new music, the whole conception of work and the way you're talked about in the programme notes is valued over and above the impact [the music] has.’
DD: I do believe in inspiration. I do think you can be inspired. You can definitely feel when you have a sense of flow. I don’t have a clue where it comes from at all, but you can feel when some piece of material has a bit of magic to it. Usually I’ve forgotten how I stumbled upon it. There are definitely beautiful accidents, and to be open to these is very important.
JG: So they just happen? You stumble across them?
DD: I think stumbling is very important. That's also why I compose throughout the year. Even some days when it mightn't be so good, at least you have that time cordoned off where you are allowed stumble. What's particularly lovely is when you don't have a deadline: that's material that you can save up for later because it's born of easiness, although there's stuff that can be born of real struggle, which can be just as good as well. There's this statement that art is 95 per cent perspiration. I heard an interesting interview with John Tavener and he said he wanted to turn that around so that it's 95 per cent inspiration and 5 per cent work. That sounds lovely. You're making your mint tea and going out to the back garden, it really sounds ideal. I know what he's taking about because particularly in a lot of new music, the whole conception of work and the way you're talked about in the programme notes is valued over and above the impact [the music] has. For me, the impact that [the music] has on me is very important. Like in contemporary art: I mentioned Venice earlier and I often go when the Venice Biennale is on. I'm not an expert but it's wonderful to suddenly be hit by something. And what is it that hits me? It's ineffable, in a way, and that's very important to keep that freshness as a composer too. You can get so caught up in this notion of the work of it. I think that the word inspiration may be a dirty word, but it's not entirely without validly.
JG: And the process itself? Do you approach every new piece in a structured way? Are you into a lot of pre-planning before you actually commit anything to paper or do you just start and see where the process takes you?
DD: I think I've a very emotional interaction with my material, and that's why I believe in inspiration because I believe in trying to find something that has some magic to it. You could set up an entire structure and pre-plan everything, and it's just like designing a suburb on the outskirts of a city with one pub, one shop, and it's banal. Pre-planning means nothing unless you're planning something that's very interesting. But I have become a little more architectural recently in thinking of the wide idea of the piece and then figuring out details to make them add up in a kind of gestalt way. I do change these things instinctively as well. I remember when I was a student in America, there were plenty of composers that would pin their pre-compositional schemes to the wall and then it would be like number crunching. Some of those pieces were pretty good but it did feel like you're almost taught to do this. In a way that's an establishment way of being a modern composer. I feel uneasy with this idea of everything being figured out in advance, but at the same time I do plot out large-scale harmonic movement. In fact, this piece I'm writing at the moment is like building a building, but it's a very unusual building. The reason for the amount of pre-planning in this piece is because some of the things I'm doing are so unusual in terms of this detuning, so that is the reason I'm doing it. I think a piece deserves its working method.
JG: You mentioned studying in the US at the University of Illinois. Presumably this had a big influence on your development as a composer once you left Trinity?
DD: It had a huge influence. Sometimes I forget about the effect that Illinois had on me; it had a galvanizing impact on me. There were so many different types of composers -- there were 12 composers on the faculty when I arrived -- and they used to have this Monday night composers' forum, which was often followed by a seminar at Herbert Brün’s house in experimental music. He was Professor Emeritus and had been at Cologne in the electronic music studios. His sessions would go on until midnight and it was electric. That had a huge impact on me coming out of a more conservative musical education that I had here. It was what I really needed at the time.
JG: And what made you choose America over Europe? Were you more drawn towards the things that were happening in the US or the aesthetic that prevailed there?
DD: I've always been drawn to American art from when I was a kid. Musically, early minimalism has been a big draw for me; Morton Feldman; Cage, even -- someone that was so democratic; and the whole outsider tradition in American art -- the encouraging of a maverick; the traditions of downtown music and art: all of these have been a big inspiration to me. The scale of American art appeals to me as well.
JG: And as a kid, you listened to a lot of American music?
DD: I liked Stockhausen at the age of 12 and Stravinsky was one of my big heroes. I became really enamoured of early Philip Glass at around 14 or 15, and also Reich and Ligeti. In terms of European music today, I do like the sonic approach of Lachenmann. I like his approach to sound and instrumentation. The negativistic, post-Adorno aesthetics that still dominate a lot of European thought about music has no interest for me.
JG: In 1997 you came back to Ireland...
DD: 1996, autumn 1996.
JG: ...full of ideas and enthusiasm.
DD: ‘We’ll knock that out of you.’ [laughs]
JG: It was a very interesting time in Ireland, a very optimistic time. You co-founded the Crash Ensemble. What made you set up your own ensemble?
DD: As you say, it was a very optimistic time and you could feel the excitement coming back -- it was great to come back. I wanted to set up a group that was going to do some new things with new music. There was very good stuff that was happening but I wanted to have a concentration on multi-media and a pulse-based new music which very rarely got done here. I felt you could either sit back and wait for the big institutions to do it or you could do it yourself. That’s another case where the whole American approach has influenced me: there’s a whole tradition in New York where you just set up your own group. And I was very lucky: I adore the Crash Ensemble, they’re great people. It’s beautiful as a composer to be able to bring in something and know you can try a few things out. In fact, stuff is often born in a Crash Ensemble piece that then germinates later. I also felt I wanted to make a contribution to my own country, and that Crash could engender a whole new approach to performance and also to new Irish music.
JG: Were you surprised at the immediate success of the group?
|‘I think I've a very emotional interaction with my material, and that's why I believe in inspiration because I believe in trying to find something that has some magic to it.’
DD: In fact I wasn’t. I was absolutely cocksure it was going to be a success; everyone else said I was an eejit. I had this feeling that it was going to be good. Then later I was a bit surprised. Of course, ensembles go through their ups and downs. There is a period for about two years when groups struggle after the excitement of setting it up. Then it becomes a more continual thing and you have to sustain it. It’s like falling in love -- you have the excitement of falling in love, then there are issues of maintenance. I feel proud of the people who have become very strong within the group: great musicians. That’s what has really surprised me -- that it has been able to sustain itself. It’s still a very strong group and there’s a lot of excitement among the musicians and an openness.
JG: The first piece you wrote for the group was Junk Box Fraud and this proved to be very popular with audiences.
DD: That surprised me a bit.
JG: Was this your first piece for ensemble and tape?
DD: Yes, it was one of the reasons that I set up Crash. I wanted to do material like this and give other composers in Ireland an opportunity to do this stuff. I’d wanted to write a piece like this for a while. That wasn’t even a commission, it was a labour of love.
JG: Just picking up on what you said earlier about the whole American thing and how you said you’re very drawn to the culture. You say you’re very interested in ‘urban’ music: can you describe exactly what you mean by urban music and, more importantly, how this concept has influenced your music?
DD: I don’t know if I know what I mean anymore. From being a kid and growing up in Dublin I’ve always had -- and still do -- a childish delight in cities. I just love cities. I enjoy the countryside too but as a kind of a relaxation. I enjoy the bustle and all the things that people complain about in cities. It’s all the weirdness of humankind concentrated in cities, and yet it’s also ordinary. That kind of energy has always been strong for me in my music. When I meant ‘urban music’, for a while I meant it very literally: translations of sounds that really excited me as a kid. And they’re in the new piece. Like Varèse’s Intégrales or Ionisation -- the sound-world of that had a huge impact on me, actually as a kid. In one way, it’s that literal. I still think there are so many sounds out there in the world that we haven’t incorporated into our art because there still can be a very academic way of looking at music and not enough of an openness to the everyday world around you. That’s one of the things that is behind it. Not even a desire to be open to the everyday world around me; I just am, that’s my way. And then the other thing -- when you refer to downtown art -- is the notion of a community of people who live in large centres that would just go to these things rather than it being a kind of constructed art in academic centres. This would be the art that just has to happen when people are combined in these small places together. So it’s that kind of quality I’m talking about.
I’ve never been that pastorally influenced, which is strange because being an Irishman you’d think I should be writing tone poems to the bog! But then, a lot of rural medieval Irish poetry has influenced me, and I’m really interested in sean nós [unaccompanied traditional Irish singing], and have been over the last two years. There are always these conflicts in me and I think some of these are fruitful.
JG: You went to live in the Netherlands in 2003. What made you want to do this? Did you need a break from Dublin?
DD: Yes. I really have a big fondness for Dublin but it can get a tiny bit small sometimes. It’s always good to have an escape from it. And I love Holland actually, particularly Amsterdam. I found living in Amsterdam for a year also had a really great regenerating influence on me. Just like going to Illinois, these bursts of being away are important for me.
JG: So creatively, living in another place was a help for you?
DD: Yes, and I’ve got lots of friends in Holland, and they’re composers too. It’s nice to be able to go to a café, have a few drinks and talk aesthetics [laughs].
JG: Holland seems to be another centre that’s opened up in terms of a lot of performances of your works. You’ve had a lot of performances of your works there and you’ve got a lot of commissions from groups based there. The other centre that seems to be opening up is the US, in particular New York. How has this come about? Is it through Bang On A Can?
DD: That has something to do with it but it’s not related entirely to it. Part of it is just accident. Also, these are two countries that have influenced me a lot in my music, so in a way it’s not so much of a surprise that my music will be done there because they would have some sympathy with it. When John Schaefer [producer from New York Public Radio] commissioned the piece for Bang On A Can [Streetwalker] that was a very lucky accident. He has broadcast a lot of my stuff so I suppose that makes a difference. Also, it can be quite accidental. Someone hears your piece at a concert and then says they’d like to do it at their concert. It has been a nice development. Also, I adore New York; it’s an unbelievably exciting place to see. To see it in the flesh, I feel like a kid in a toy store. Even the grid system -- the whole single-minded approach -- I feel that has influenced their art, and sometimes I want that quality to be in my music.
JG: Looking over performances of your work, a lot of your pieces have been receiving multiple performances. It must be quite gratifying for you to have written works and then for these to take on a life of their own.
DD: Yes, and it’s really surprising which pieces are done a lot. I am pleased that pieces live afterwards. That’s one thing that upsets me about orchestral music -- you write and it can go into a vacuum. I like ensemble music because it takes on a life of its own, and also it’s a culture that I really believe in. It’s weird because some of the pieces can get hammered in the press, and then you can see by their longevity and the amount of performances they get that there is something in them, so a few years later you’re less depressed about them.
JG: Looking back over the past ten years of composing, what works do you really hold dear?
DD: I’m still very fond of Junk Box Fraud and I really like O for orchestra a lot; Glamour Sleeper II and Streetwalker. There are a number of pieces that I still hold dear. And some pieces you can like for a while, then you hate them, and then you go back and you go, ‘Ah yes, there is something there.’
JG: I won’t ask you which pieces you currently hate [laughs]. You’ve composed for a number of different mediums now: ensemble, electro-acoustic, orchestral. Are there any media which you haven’t written for already, that you want to write for in the future?
DD: Yes, opera. I have a librettist and we’re working together. We’re only just planning it. It’s very early stages, we’ve no commission or anything.
JG: Is it going to be a chamber or large-scale opera?
DD: Chamber, hopefully, with video sets.
JG: When can we expect this?
|‘I still think there are so many sounds out there in the world that we haven’t incorporated into our art.’
DD: It will take about two years. Also, I’m getting really excited about orchestral music at the moment, and there will be a new piece that I hope to develop with Crash next year which I’m really excited about. I think it’s best when you’re doing something that it comes from within, rather than responding to a commission and then making the commissions cover the ground of those pieces. There are some pieces that I’m really excited about. Icebreaker want me to write for them and they were a big influence on me. Sometimes you can feel you’re stuck for an idea in a commission, and the best thing is to ring them up and say ‘I don’t think I’ll go for that one,’ and stick with this [writing the piece you want to write] where I really have ideas of wanting to do a particular work. It’s harder financially, I suppose.
JG: You’re being true to your art by following your creative voice?
DD: Yes, you know that it will be more exciting.
JG: You mentioned the Crash Ensemble piece: is this for 2006?
JG: And are there any other works coming up?
DD: There is the commission from Icebreaker and the one I’m writing for the Ulster Orchestra at the moment, and hopefully this opera at some stage.
Donnacha Dennehy was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 14 June 2005..
The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.