Interview: David Fennessy


First published in The Herald on 6 February, 2019

It’s a routine many artists will recognise: long periods of solitary graft then every project accidentally culminating at once. Glasgow composer David Fennessy is in the thick of it. In January, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra premiered an orchestral work called Ground – intensely jubilant music built on archive pibroch recordings and the heartbeat of Fennessy’s unborn daughter. The piece is bright-eyed, bright-lit, lion-hearted; it reconfirms the visceral and original way Fennessy writes for instruments.

This month brings the long-awaited premiere of Fennessy’s full 70-minute orchestral trilogy Conquest of the Useless, which would have been unveiled at the New Music Dublin festival last year if the entire event hadn’t been cancelled due to the freak snow and ice of the so-called Beast from the East. The aptness, or possibly the irony, of that intervention from the heavens was not lost on the creative team. The piece is the summation of a decade of work for Fennessy, inspired by diaries written by Werner Herzog while making the film Fitzcarraldo. The piece is about obsession, crazed ambition, compelling vision – and failure. When Conquest of the Useless finally comes to fruition in Dublin on 28 February, many fingers will be crossed for meteorological cooperation.

And then there’s the small matter of a debut album release. Despite major commissions in the UK, in Ireland and especially in Germany (not least from the Munich Biennale), Fennessy has been notably underrepresented on disc. That’s about to change with a portrait album due for release next month on the NMC label. And even though one CD could never encompasses all the intricacies of his music, the showcase is an ideal introduction to concerns that keep coming back and back.

Let’s start with a matter that has preoccupied generations of composers: what counts as pure art and what counts as intrusion, and what happens when one collides with the other. “You mean if you wanna be a great artist you have to turn off the radio?” Morton Feldman, irked by hearing transistor radios blaring rock n’ roll on the beach, posed the question to John Cage in the late 1960s. It’s a glorious image, Feldman grumpily stalking the sands in a swimsuit, and the anecdote triggered one of the great ‘radio happenings’ that took place between two heavyweights of the American avant-garde. (From July 1966 to January 1967, Cage and Feldman recorded four open-ended conversations at the studios of WBAI in New York.)

20 minutes of that radio happening provide skeleton, soul and sinew of Fennessy’s Piano Trio. The music exists in the extravagant gaps that punctuate the conversation. Nothing is altered in the recording – the hefty silences are integral to the rhythm of the Cage/Feldman discourse, and at first Fennessy’s instruments sound like observers, echoing and riffing on the intonation of the voices. Then the roles start to shift and it’s the voices that seem to accompany the instruments. The outside world infiltrates the inner and becomes part of the fabric. It’s just as Feldman concludes: “you wanna leave the door open.”

Fennessy’s music is about real-life feel. “My musical background,” he explains, “was really about that. About the feel of things. My idea of a singer was someone screaming down a microphone in your face, or a guitar was so loud you felt it in your belly before you heard it. The sensual and the intellectual, I don’t really get the distinction. They go hand in glove for me.”

He grew up in Maynooth, Co Kildare, playing guitar in rock bands. He started reading music around the age of 16, and jokes that “the writing was on the wall”, compositionally speaking, when he started turning up at band rehearsals with 20-minute instrumental tracks that were “basically all bridge. You can guess how much my bandmates loved that.” Tendonitis and an increasing preoccupation with writing long-form shifted him away from a career as a guitarist and towards Glasgow to study and eventually teach composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. But he never lost touch with how it feels to be part of a group. He describes classical music as “a party I wasn’t invited to, so I’m always finding ways of putting myself in the middle of things to see what it feels like.”

The key is this: Fennessy yearns for musical utopias but he also invites the world in and turns our attention to the skill and dignity of those making the sounds. There’s a robust set of social values in the way he grants agency to his players. Since a student piece called graft (2009) – four instruments doing identical things, pulling in the same direction but also pulling apart – all of his chamber works have explored the function of leaders and followers, the potential for individuality within the collective.

So it is with a piece called Panopticon, which is on the new album. The word generally refers to an 18th-century prison design in which cells were arranged around a circular central chamber from where a governor could keep an eye on prisoners at all times. In Fennessy’s score, the cimbalom becomes the governor at the heart of a string ensemble arranged in a semicircle.

Also on the disc is 13 Factories – a piece about place, space, the dignity of work, the dignity of an individual in a crowd. It was inspired by five weeks spent in Hong Kong; the title refers to the factories of Canton (now Guangzhou), built on the banks of the Pearl River in the late 1600s. There was also a specific image that struck Fennessy during his trip to China. A woman talking on a mobile phone on a crowded train, her hand cupped over the mouthpiece in an attempt to maintain her own privacy and respect the privacy of those around her. “I noticed it in restaurants, too,” he says, “that while people used a toothpick with one hand, the other hand would come up to protect the mouth from view. Somehow this image took on a metaphorical significance – the mouth as a vehicle for self expression and the difficulty of making its individual voice heard in a place as densely populated as Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Guangzhou.”

The sounds we actually hear in 13 Factories come from much closer to home: recordings of old looms traditionally used in the Outer Hebrides to produce Harris Tweed. “Apart from the obvious contrast to the huge factories of the Pearl River Delta,” Fennessy notes, “it’s their dignified solitude and perhaps the loneliness that comes from the rhythms of their machines that attracted me.”

The album ends on the windswept cliffs of St Kilda, whose last inhabitants were evacuated in the 1930s. Fennessy’s piece Hirta is full of the atmosphere of the place: the gannet stacks, the sense of time frozen and a whole culture abandoned on this barren rock in the middle of the ocean. Islands too fierce for habitation whose tough traditions we might now romanticise as untainted… In that slow conversation with John Cage, Morton Feldman suggests that what we like we call real while what we don’t like we call intrusion. David Fennessy shows us the impossibility of separation, the beauty of both.

Conquest of the Useless is at New Music Dublin on 28 February; David Fennessy’s Panopticon is released on NMC in March