PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Composer Donnacha Dennehy Tackles Percussion Quartets and Ensemble Atonality with 'Surface Tension / Disposable Dissonance'

Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker / New Amsterdam Records

Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy creates two distinct worlds with his latest release, focusing on experimental percussion and creative dissonance.

Surface Tension / Disposable Dissonance
Donnacha Dennehy

New Amsterdam

28 June 2019

Even within the vast worlds of classical and experimental music, Donnacha Dennehy is a bit of a musical polymath. Over the past couple of decades, his ambitious compositions have covered orchestral works, small ensembles with voice, chamber works, ensemble pieces for boom boxes, a handful of operas, and much more. With his latest release, two single-movement compositions are unleashed, focusing on two different styles that nevertheless tend to complement each other effectively.

The 25-minute "Surface Tension", performed by the Grammy-winning percussion quartet Third Coast Percussion, was inspired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's historic percussion collection. Dennehy was fascinated by the way various indigenous drums play with the tension of the instruments' skin to bend the pitch and, in his words, "produce something approaching melody". That was accomplished by having the ensemble's four percussionists blow air into tubes attached to the side of the drums, stretching the drumheads and thus increasing their harmonic range. The technique was learned from Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, whose own solo albums – particularly Mobile (2006) – greatly increase the sonic possibilities of drums and percussion.

The result is a lengthy piece of music that changes its overall mood and tenor with each unfolding section. Beginning with somewhat rudimentary – yet energetic - percussion devoid of melody, the piece gradually incorporates the tuned sounds of marimba and eventually, long, sustaining notes that eerily mimic glass harmonica or ghost-like woodwinds. The sounds produced through the different manners of manipulation are both haunting and feral. The tuneless percussion eventually makes a dramatic comeback at the very end of the piece, beating loudly and rebelliously, until it gradually fades.

There are some parallels between "Surface Tension" and its companion piece, "Disposable Dissonance" – mostly due to the fact that they share the same composer, not to mention a distinct dramatic flair - but they are decidedly two different pieces. Much of this has to do with the difference in instrumentation. For "Disposable Dissonance," Dennehy employs the Dublin-based Crash Ensemble, which he founded in 1997. The piece's three continuous sections are each driven by different concepts of dissonance, exploring techniques such as pitch suspensions and rhythmic consonance.

Heavy stuff? Sure. But while there may be deep levels of music theory inherent in what Dennehy has composed and arranged, the result is surprisingly easy to consume and get lost within. As a more melodic counterpart to the brasher "Surface Tension", "Disposable Dissonance" often evokes the air of a dark, striking, and at times swashbuckling film score. Moreover, the Crash Ensemble's rich, diverse instrumentation plays a large part in its unique sound. Flutes, clarinets, piano, accordion, percussion, electric guitar, violins, viola, cello, and bass make up the Crash Ensemble, and since Dennehy composed "Disposable Dissonance" specifically for their unique instrumentation, the composition fits the ensemble like a glove.

In some ways, both "Surface Tension" and "Disposable Dissonance" may require both deep patience and a healthy sense of adventure. But the melding of these different instruments under the compositional mind of Donnacha Dennehy has produced a result that is exotic, dense, and bold. The pieces are also likely to inspire the listener to seek out more of Dennehy's work, which is undoubtedly time well spent.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.