Donnacha Dennehy

Donnacha Dennehy talks about his opera The Hunger

Promotional image for Donnacha Dennehy's The Hunger, 2016. Iarla Ó Lionáird. Photo: Colm Hogan

Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy teaches at Princeton University and is the founder of the Dublin-based Crash Ensemble. Here, he speaks about his latest opera, The Hunger, which was commissioned by Alarm Will Sound and coproduced by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It is based on Asenath Nicholson’s first-person account of the Great Famine and features Irish folksinger Iarla Ó Lionáird and soprano Katherine Manley, whose singing is interspersed with video interviews with Noam Chomsky and Paul Krugman, among others. The Hunger will be performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 30 and October 1, 2016.

I HAD WANTED to do something on the Irish Famine in the nineteenth century for a long time. There were actually many Irish famines, but this one is the famous one because it was so catastrophic. Out of a population of eight million, at least a million died, at least a million emigrated, and over the next fifty years, millions more emigrated. I’d been working with a Sean-nós singer named Iarla Ó Lionáird. (Sean-nós means “old style,” and it’s a type of unaccompanied vocal singing in Ireland.) I’d done a piece with him, Grá Agus Bás, for which I made analyses of his singing and noticed that I could do overtone versions of it. It was a meeting point of sorts, as I was doing more with overtones and then realized that this old tradition held a lot of possibility. It became a very fertile area for me, so I wanted to write more for him.

The Hunger had a rather complicated genesis but ultimately became a duet between two people. One is an outsider: an unusual American woman named Asenath Nicholson, who was a vegetarian and involved in the temperance movement. She traveled around Ireland and documented what was going on. Katherine Manley, an amazing English soprano whom I discovered while writing my last opera, sings Nicholson. The other voice is of the insider, a person of the people who suffered, the Gaelic-speaking majority—Ó Lionáird, whose voice I knew. Then there are video interviews with Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman, Megan Vaughan, Branko Milanovic, and Maureen Murphy, which cut in and out of the opera, so they become like singers. It starts coming at you quite fast and thick after a while. We asked them questions like: Is a famine an agricultural phenomenon, is it a political or economic phenomenon? When the famine happened in Ireland it was during a period of the greatest inequality that’s been measured to this day—and we seem to be approaching similar levels of inequality now.

The great thing about doing different versions of this piece over the years was that I got Alarm Will Sound used to my musical language. I make a lot of use of overtone-derived material. I had been doing that gently over the years, on natural harmonics, but I became braver and braver about what I wanted to accomplish acoustically. So it was helpful to hear what the ensemble could do each time. Each time I went back and went further in my writing.

There’s no doubt that I am strongly influenced by the Minimalism of the 1970s and later that came out of New York, like Steve Reich, early Philip Glass, David Lang, and Michael Gordon. They had a huge impact on my rhythmic language and on my sense of how harmonic motion works. Charlemagne Palestine and James Tenney also influenced me, for their single-minded, distinctively American, maverick quality. I think that in terms of rhythmic quality, my music is more volatile, though—it could shift or lunge into something else in a way that is less predictable than for the standard-bearers of Minimalism and post-Minimalism. I was taken with spectralist composer Gérard Grisey’s music as well. I loved his piece Modulations. It was like a window opening up into a whole new world for the ways the timbre and harmony fused, and because of his use of the overtone-derived material, rather than it sounding like funny microtonal music. Luminosity of sound is something I am obsessed with.

As for the traditional Irish singing, my first encounter with Sean-nós was through my mother’s family, which was incredibly sociable and had all-night parties with singing. Some of them were fine singers, but there were also versions that were even more out of tune than the standard ones. Somehow those resonated with me in particular. There was an attraction toward not just perfection of overtones but also the imperfection, the buzzing quality. Sean-nós opened up vocal music for me, almost like an emotional catalyst: I became aware of possibilities because of the spectral qualities of this tradition. So I came at spectralism from a personal, experiential perspective.