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.

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