The rise of new Irish classical


What is contemporary classical music? Donnacha Dennehybaulks at the term 'crossover' but writes that the 'open-eared' approach of some Irish music has led to genre-bending sounds

There was a time when rock was rock, when classical meant refined recitals of music by dead European males, and when world music involved long trips and field recordings. Crossover was a dirty word. I can understand why. I get a cold shiver whenever I hear people talking of "crossover" or "fusion". Images of carefully groomed string quartets playing Vivaldi to a drum beat, or of pop groups trying to add a posh element by using string arrangements spring to mind.

But there is a deeper and more meaningful sense in which musical categories are bleeding into each other, particularly at the more experimental and avant-garde edges. It is difficult for me as an insider, as it were, to imagine what most people make of classical music - possibly concert halls and well-to-do people dressed up to hear the classics. They might be surprised to hear that Crash Ensemble, a contemporary classical music group, puts on amplified concerts, sometimes at standard concert halls but also in places such as Dublin's Crawdaddy and Sugar Club venues. Crash Ensemble, in its search for new sounds, employs an instrumentation that crosses divide between traditional categories, using everything from violins and cellos to electric guitar and samplers.

The downtown scene in New York has for decades been like an experimental lab for this profound, non-trivial cross-breeding between previously hard-and-fast categories. It has produced indefinable but deeply engaging artists such as Laurie Anderson, Sonic Youth, the Books, Bang On a Can, Yoko Ono, John Cage and probably the world's most famous "classical" composers, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. New York has been joined in this open-eared approach by places such as Amsterdam, Berlin, and Scandinavia. Dublin has also been making a good running in this regard in recent years, even if it has been below the mainstream radar so far.

As a teenager I fell in love with the new classical music coming out of New York and Amsterdam in particular. I admired its openness and its connection with modern life. My feelings were made even more concrete years later after graduate study in the United States, and I was determined when I returned to Ireland to set up a different kind of new music ensemble - one that would play largely amplified, that would devote itself to interesting collaborations with multimedia and video art, and, most importantly, that would devote itself to a musical repertoire, which, while built on classical foundations, would be visceral and engage with the world around it. I wanted the music to feel necessary to the world of today, not some sort of diligent, well-meaning continuation of a museum culture. Happily, the ensemble I founded with Andrew Synnott and Michael Seaver in 1997, Crash Ensemble, is not only going strong but busier than ever. It will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend with a Shindig at SS Michael and John, with a concert devoted exclusively to new Irish music on Friday night, and an all-day marathon from noon to 10.30pm on Saturday, which will feature works by leading figures such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, Terry Riley, Kevin Volans, Kaija Saariaho, Raymond Deane and Henryk Górecki among many others.

Joining us for Shindig will be figures I consider emblematic of the new open, experimental attitude among Irish creative musicians across all genres - artists such as Julie Feeney, the Dublin Guitar Quartet and the sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. Feeney is not simply another classically trained pop singer. That is almost a cliche by now, the epithet being used by marketing teams to signify some sort of credibility. No, Feeney is actually deeply influenced by developments in experimental classical music. She talks in interviews of John Cage, and her studies with Louis Andriessen, the firebrand of Dutch contemporary classical music. She is not alone among the new breed of composers and performers working on the fascinating fringe of contemporary rock, classical and electronica in Dublin today. Neil O'Connor, aka Somadrone, has just released a beautiful album, Of Pattern and Purpose, which occupies a strange but richly productive region between electronica, minimal classical music, and experimental pop (for want of a better categorisation). O'Connor is also a film-maker, and will actually be involved in our marathon celebrations in that capacity. Others who work in the intriguing cracks between the genres include the Jimmy Cake (who count a few "classical" composers among their number), Daniel Figgis, Lakker, and Miriam Ingram.

In traditional music, Iarla Ó Lionáird is not only a sean-nós singer blessed with a beautifully expressive voice, but also an experimental creative spirit, concerned with opening up new sonic possibilities. This is especially evident in the solo albums he has released. I wrote Grá agus Bás especially for Iarla and the Crash Ensemble. This was the product of working with Iarla over two years, and I was delighted when Crash Ensemble took it to New York in spring (at the invitation of WNYC and Merkin Hall). When working on the piece - which will also be performed at the marathon - I was constantly impressed by Iarla's desire to engage in the project and by his interest in contemporary classical composers, from Ligeti and Xenakis to the Irishman Gerald Barry (whose new piece Crash will premiere on Friday). Through Iarla, I have started to become acquainted with a burgeoning experimental movement within traditional music, which includes impressive figures such as Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh.

But for all those mentioned above and others, there is a multitude that knows nothing of experimental classical music. The bias in mainstream Irish cultural life is towards commercial pop and rock and a traditional music that should know its place. Many would be surprised by the current vitality of the new "classical" music coming from Ireland. There has, arguably, never been so much creative activity in this arena. Composers such as Kevin Volans, Gerald Barry, Deirdre Gribbin, Roger Doyle, Jennifer Walshe, Raymond Deane, David Fennessy, Siobhán Cleary, Benjamin Dwyer, Ian Wilson, Andrew Hamilton, and many others, are busy producing works not just for consumption here but also for ensembles abroad. New Irish "classical" music is becoming known in major centres such as Amsterdam, New York, London and beyond.

And contrary to what some might think, composers are not some isolated 19th-century breed, quarantined from modern life. Maybe the critics - baffled by boundaries breaking down - are, but not the composers. They are as diverse a group as any. They are just as engaged with modern life and all its complexities, banalities and profundities as other artists. In Ireland, there has been an explosion in activity in the last 10 years, and one of the most interesting things is not just the openness of the newest generation but also the experimental cross-fertilisation between different genres. Crash Ensemble, I believe, has been instrumental in generating a certain amount of cross-fertilisation. We have certainly fervently believed in an "open-eared" attitude to new music. Possibly, one of the things that binds recent experimentation across previously hardened categories is an interest in sound, the new possibilities offered by amplification, and the use of electronics. Here, many of the new generation of classical composers are working with similar material as their counterparts in electronica and experimental rock.

For this explosion in creative activity to be sustainable, we need appropriate funding. The long-term vitality and diversity of the new music scene in places such as the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia should be an example to us. Funding fosters greater professionalism and performance opportunities for the composer. At the moment, only three performance groups devoted to new music - Music 21, Concorde and Crash Ensemble - receive funding from the Arts Council. This compares with 26 theatre companies largely devoted to new work, and this figure excludes the large establishment theatres such as the Gate and the Abbey, festivals, administration bodies, actual buildings and youth theatre companies. Of these 26 companies, 10 received more than €220,000 for 2007. Not one of the new music performance groups received in excess of this figure. Irish theatre is rightly recognised for its originality and vitality throughout the world. It is time now for similar levels of funding for groups devoted to the performance of original, new music, so as not to stifle this exciting period of expansion, just as it is getting going.

Crash Ensemble's weekend of new music, Shindig, is at SSMJ in Temple Bar, Dublin, on Friday evening and Saturday from noon to 10.30pm. Tickets for the whole weekend, or for the individual concerts, at