‘I thought music college would be like Fame, with people hanging from chandeliers’

From his earliest days in a rock band to his years in music college, David Fennessy realised he would be composing music rather than performing the works of others


The way David Fennessy tells it becoming a composer was either unlikely or inevitable. He’s from Maynooth, and grew up there in the 1970s in “a not particularly musical family. I played the piano, but there were no trained musicians or anything like that.”

He went to a school that did not teach music, played guitar in a rock band, and it was towards the end of his time at school that “music began to dominate my life”. When he talks about the band it becomes clear that he started functioning as a composer without even knowing it.

“I used to go into rehearsals and I would sit down and show the lead guitarist how to play their part, and play the bass guitarist their part. And I would go over to the drums and show them how to do it. And my songs were, like, 20-minute long wordless instrumentals that were all bridge. There was a certain sense even then of the writing being on the wall about what I was doing. I just didn’t know how to write it down.”

A turning point came when he was mitching from school up in Dublin. He came across the American guitarist David Bond, who lived in Ireland for a number of years, busking on Grafton Street. “I stood there and listened to him play two Bach lute suites, from start to finish. I was mesmerised.”

He studied with Bond, “who taught me the rudiments of reading music, and then how to play classical guitar. I put an ad up in the local Quinnsworth, as it was then, to get theory lessons to do my Leaving Cert, and then I went to the College of Music as a classical guitarist, studying with John Feeley. ”

Music college turned out to be a shock. “I thought it would be like that TV series Fame, where there would be people hanging from the chandeliers and dancing on tables. I thought that all players were composers and all composers were players. And I thought that everybody was involved in the ‘creative’ part of music-making, not just the interpretative side. It very quickly became clear to me that being in a room for four hours every day and practising the music of dead people was not going to sustain me in the long run. The composing came into view in a really major way then.”

In 1998, at the age of 22, he moved to Glasgow to study for his masters under James MacMillan, and has been based there ever since. Now, in parallel with his career as a composer, he teaches composition at his alma mater, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

His new work for Paul Hillier and Chamber Choir Ireland, Ne reminiscaris, is related to an earlier work, Letter to Michael, which he wrote for the choir in 2014. Fennessy is not drawn to setting poetry to music. So he tries to “find other ways into the piece that might not actually start with text. It might be a feeling or a situation or a mental state, often an extreme mental state, that might give me a lead in to a kind of physical result, which is basically how you might get to the state from which the body might produce the sound of singing. For me that usually comes from a very emotionally heightened state.”

The starting point for Letter to Michael was a text by Emma Hauck, a German woman diagnosed with acute schizophrenia and confined to an asylum in Heidelberg in the early 20th century. “In the university at Heidelberg at that time they used art as a means of having patients express themselves. In a book called Art and Psychosis I came across these letters that Emma Hauck had written, very intense scribblings, over and over and over again. They were basically a plea for her husband to come and collect her and take her away. Some of them were just the word Komm – come, in English – over and over again.” The result was a work that created a “quasi-keening” sound, “dense, overlaying lines, quite contrapuntal”. It was written for choir as a collection of 16 solo voices rather than in the conventional groupings of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. “Choir can be quite a loaded term. It’s a genre all unto itself. For me it was more interesting to think of 16 solo voices.”

In rehearsals, Paul Hillier suggested he create more pieces with the work so he went on the hunt for another text “that might give me a similar kind of gut reaction to make a piece”. He’d been reading about people who suffered from extreme amnesia. “Dr Suzanne Corkin wrote a book called Permanent Present Tense. Actually it was that title which really alerted me to a state of being that might be interesting to explore, this kind of ambiguity between a sleeping state and a state of awakeness.”

One famous case of amnesia is that of Clive Wearing, a radio producer and choral conductor who lost the ability to acquire and retain new memories through a viral infection in 1985. Although he cannot understand why he is where he is or how he got there, he can still play the piano and even conduct a choir. His unimaginable state of being was among the cases that set Fennessy’s new work in motion.

The title Ne reminiscaris translates as Remember not and the piece is “a kind of dialogue” with a snippet from one of the Penitential Psalms by Orlande de Lassus, which also features in Chamber Choir Ireland’s concerts.

“In opposition to the my earlier piece it’s more ecstatic, more an affirmation of being alive. I take a small quotation, a tiny cadence, from the Lassus, which is looped, almost as a DJ would do loops. But it’s expanding all the time until it reaches a climax where there are solo voices singing against the Lassus, singing a kind real-time translation of the text in Latin, talking about waking up, or being awake but also being weak.”

There is, he says, “a clash of two kinds of singing, soloistic personal singing, and a more Renaissance, Lassus style. At the peak is this outpouring of emotion, which is really where I was trying to get to all the time. It’s a big build up to get to this moment which lasts just a few seconds. That’s quite typical of the way that I construct pieces, which is an exploration of a moment that leads up to an exclamation, or leads up to an outpouring.”

He describes the process as “freeze-framing what might be a millisecond. You can take a freeze-frame and not expand it, but go in ever-increasing circles from a point, so that you revisit the same point again and again. Music has for me a unique way of exploring a moment in real time, but also over and over again, so that it’s relived and overlaid.” It’s a permanent present tense translated into a musical experience.

Chamber Choir Ireland’s The Great Mystery – featuring works by Lassus, Bernd Franke, and Peter Maxwell Davies as well as David Fennessy – is at St Thomas’ Church, Belfast on May 23rd, and St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin on May 24th. chamberchoirireland.com

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