DENNEHY Surface Tension. Disposable Dissonance
Donnacha Dennehy’s arrival as a composer in the late 1990s heralded what was dubbed the new Irish classical. Often performed by the amplified Crash Ensemble (which he co-founded), Dennehy’s music injected welcome verve, grit and streetwiseness into the Irish classical scene. As a teacher at Trinity College Dublin, Dennehy had a lasting influence in the early years of the new millennium on the youngest generation of Irish composers. Now based in the US, Dennehy in some of his recent music has shifted more towards the centre ground, but these two works hearken back more to that early edginess.
In Surface Tension (2015), inspired by the Irish bodhrán drum, Dennehy explores glissandos on the drumskin’s surface. A pulsating texture of continuous semiquavers on tom-tom gradually rises and falls in pitch, with strikes on other drums cutting through the texture. After a while, a marimba joins in; later, a bowed vibraphone carves out a shimmering tonal centre. Dennehy’s characteristic mélange of post-minimalist rhythm with light spectralist harmony evokes a ‘journey’ experience. Works for percussion can sometimes suffer on disc, the music’s dramatic charge when witnessed live being hard to replicate on a recording. Here, though, Third Coast Percussion produce a winning display full of dynamism and sensitivity.
The three sections of Disposable Dissonance (2012), linked in a continuous texture, explore different types of dissonance. The opening section is a waterfall of polyphony cascading around a minor-key centre. Its harmonic character reminds me of Philip Glass, albeit with individual melodic lines subsumed within the overall ensemble polyphony. Accordion and glockenspiel occasionally come through with splashes of colour. The second and third sections are more interesting. Polyrhythms, stratifications and syncopations are employed alongside harmonic dissonance and modulation to create ambiguity and tension; electric guitar and clarinet have brief moments in the spotlight; before eventually we end back in the relative stability of the opening material. As always, the Crash Ensemble shine in this material.