When he was a child, the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy would visit the small farm where his maternal grandmother lived. She sometimes hosted what he called “sessions,” in which her neighbors would drop by to recite a poem or sing a song. One kind of song made an especially potent impression on Dennehy. It seemed to emanate from a different sound world, one in which the notes “seemed to float radically between normal pitches as I knew them,” he recalled during a recent interview. He would later learn that these were a particular variant of traditional song known as “sean-nós” (“old style”).
“They had a lamenting quality to them,” Dennehy said by phone from his home in Princeton. But “just like in Irish dancing where people dance with the back straight and only move the legs, there’s also a kind of restraint to it, too.”
Years later, Dennehy would realize that the notes that “fell between the cracks” in sean-nós were not so different from the microtones that had become part of his own musical language, based in large part on the overtone series (in short: the pitches that resonate, at progressively more distant frequencies, in a given note).
That insight — an unexpected meeting between tradition and avant-garde — opened new possibilities for Dennehy’s composing. One of the first fruits was a major vocal work (“Grá agus Bás”) written for the singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, whom he calls “the most fascinating and defining sean-nós singer alive.”
The sean-nós influence was also critical to “The Hunger,” a music theater piece on Ireland’s Great Famine of 1845-52. Dennehy began composing the piece in 2012. Separate from its place in his musical syntax, sean-nós was also “the voice of the people who suffered” during the catastrophe. Dennehy completed the stage version of “The Hunger” in 2016 and prepared a concert adaptation in 2018. The latter version comes to Jordan Hall on Sept. 20, in a performance by the eminent new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, which just released a recording of the piece on Nonesuch. (Proceeds from the concert, which also includes music by the New York-based composer Eartheater, benefit Oxfam America.)
Though Dennehy thought about writing a piece about the famine for years, he initially found it difficult to locate his entry point. The path was opened by “Annals of the Famine in Ireland,” an 1851 eyewitness account by the American reformer Asenath Nicholson, who went to Ireland to record the plight of the country’s starving poor. A series of her observations, set for soprano, form one of the main strands of “The Hunger.” The other is a character invented by Dennehy — an old man in “the last stages of starvation” — to be sung by Ó Lionáird. His part was constructed largely from one of the few sean-nós songs to be written during the famine.
Throughout much of the piece the two characters sing audibly distinct music — Nicholson’s objective, chilling narrative set against the old man’s keening yet restrained sorrow, softly colored by Dennehy’s unsettling harmonies. The overall structure of “The Hunger” lies in the way the two perspectives gradually merge. Nicholson goes from observer to compassionate participant, almost begging for help, and her music takes on some of the piercing dissonances of the sean-nós material. “A, A, A trúa!” (What sorrow!”) they both sing at the end.
“There’s a flow that really accumulates through the piece,” the composer explained. “This kind of long-term unraveling of something, where you feel the separateness of them at the start, and then they’re both caught up in this energy of this unfolding [process] that’s out of their hands.”
In the stage version of “The Hunger,” the musical sections are intercut with videos of political scientists and economists (Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman) that explain the economic underpinnings of the famine while drawing parallels to other tragedies. Dennehy compared these voices to “a Greek chorus,” there to emphasize and draw lessons from the famine’s contemporary relevance. (Some critics have not taken kindly to this part of the piece.)
In the concert version, by contrast, the focus is entirely on the two characters, and the unfolding seems to happen in an almost dreamlike state. That was intentional on Dennehy’s part.
“It was really important that there was a kind of distance, that was almost beautiful,” he said. “It’s like in a David Lynch film where something terrible happens and there’s just this beauty [everywhere]. And it registers more of an impact on you because of that than if you’re hammered over the head with all systems agreeing.”
Alarm Will Sound
At Jordan Hall, Sept. 20, 8 p.m. Tickets $25-$250. 617-585-1260, www.necmusic.edu