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Donnacha Dennehy: Crashing Through Cultures

Ireland has a strong tradition of folk music and poetry that's familiar to many Americans. But in the hands of Dublin-born composer Donnacha Dennehy, it's transformed into something completely different.

The first piece on Dennehy's new CD — out Tuesday — is called Grá agus Bás, which means "love and death" in Gaelic. The singer's plaintive cries sound very much like phrases from Irish folk music, while the accompaniment features a kind of pulsating minimalist shimmer, played by a classical music group called Crash Ensemble, co-founded by Dennehy.

"I need a kind of vehicle for my music and I need an ensemble that can do it, people I can trust," Dennehy says of his musicians. "I don't want to be this kind of old-fashioned composer waiting around for commissions for instrumentations that don't really trigger something in me. I was very lucky, though, because the [Crash] group is great. There's a great collaborative spirit among them. It feels like a band. I can ring them up and they'll come 'round to my house, even. We can record things to see — in the middle of a composition — how it works. It's like a lab, you know? It's like Haydn having his orchestra at Esterhazy. It's really helpful."

Classical Meets The Sounds Of Pop

Dennehy adds that Crash's mix of traditional classical instruments and such pop-geared sounds as electric guitar and drum kit are essential to his artistic ideas.

"The instrumentation's really important in it, actually, because you have that kind of full-ensemble thing, so you can get almost a quasi-orchestral sound out of them," he says. "And then it's got this edge from having the electric guitar and a percussion player who can play kick drum and snare, just as easily as he can play any of the tuned percussion."

It's the crashing of old and new that Dennehy wants to explore. Although he grew up in urban Dublin, both his parents came from County Kerry, and every summer he'd go there and hear sean nós music — Irish folk music in the old style.

"There'd be long all-night sessions in my grandmother's house with singing and poetry, and people remembering 30-stanza poems," the composer says. "These would go right through the night. As children, we would stay up, even through these sessions." As a result, he says, many locals can sing in the old style — and he was interested in it from his youth, as well.

Dennehy wanted to incorporate some of that old style in his new work, so he got in touch with an expert: Iarla Ó Lionárd, who, as the composer explains, "is probably one of the best exponents of that style today."

The two met several times, and Dennehy had Ó Lionárd sing his entire repertoire. Then the composer chose two songs, which he sliced, diced and otherwise deconstructed for Grá agus Bás.

"They were pregnant with possibility," Dennehy says. "So I made use of little phrases, little patterns from the songs, that then went into the patterns in the instruments. Little ornamentation became little minimalist patterns in the instrumentation. And the words are entirely taken from these two songs. So it's like they're embedded in the DNA, but they're kind of exploded."

Ireland's Pros And Cons

That Irish DNA allows for some other artistic freedoms, Dennehy says.

"Living in Ireland is kind of a drawback, in many ways," he says, "because Ireland is on the periphery of Europe; we don't have any of the tradition of supporting musical culture in the way that they do in someplace like Holland, let's say, or Germany. And the financial collapse is a bit of a drawback at the moment."

However, being Irish also affords great liberty, Dennehy says.

"It's a huge freedom, because we're making it up as we go along," the composer says. "And we have our own traditional music culture, which is extremely strong, and then, in terms of other global trends, we are just as open to America as we are to what's happening in Europe. The further you go into Europe, they're more closed off to that. So there's a real kind of open-mindedness in Ireland."

A Collaboration Is Born

When Bob Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records, played Grá agus Bás for American soprano Dawn Upshaw, she immediately asked Hurwitz to introduce her to Dennehy. A new collaboration was born.

"It was one of the first times that I kind of got together with a composer without knowing exactly what might come out of the conversation or what kind of project it would be," Upshaw says, "and everything has felt very easy and natural and warm."

Dennehy created a song cycle for Upshaw: Called That the Night Come, it's composed of six settings of poetry by the Irish national treasure William Butler Yeats. The composer says he read every word Yeats wrote before he chose the six poems — all about love and death — that make up the cycle.

"These poems are so rich, with lots of hidden meanings," he says, "and you could take a meaning in a different way. That's classically Irish, you know? When we say something, it has five possible meanings, and our conversations are constructed on those grounds."

The composer says that Yeats' work has had particular resonance for him.

"I would consider myself a very kind of optimistic person," Dennehy says, "but, you know, life is life and it's a peculiar situation, you know? We all have it; there's the struggle for meaning, there's the struggle for kind of a love that has a sustainability and then, there is that harsh reality of death. And no matter how sunny and optimistic we all are, these are facts that are there in the background. I suppose Yeats really... he beautifully put some of these issues into words."

A Voice In Mind

Dennehy says he crafted the Yeats songs with Upshaw's voice in mind — utilizing not just her upper register, but her lower register, as well.

"There's this kind of deep intensity that Dawn has now that people don't automatically associate with her," Dennehy says. "They associate just the pure, floating tone. But there's a lot of complexity in Dawn, and I really wanted to use all that."

In the title song of the cycle, "That the Night Come," the intensity of both the composer and the singer comes to a climax, Upshaw says.

"I hear in his music the struggle, the sense of needing to find release," she says. "You hear in the polyrhythms and all of the layering and this feeling of needing to break free of something."

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