I never knew, and I still don’t know, what to call it. I flirted with “docu-oratorio,” “document-orio,” “documentary opera,” and in the end opted for “docu-opera,” more out of a sense of wanting to abandon the naming conundrum than anything. After all, it was intended for the stage, and it had characters: Asenath Nicholson and Man, and other real-life characters on video.
Some people, mainly critics, get very protective of genres. They want an “opera” to have the same type of structure as all the operas they love from the past. I don’t. In fact, I believe if you have trouble categorizing, you may be on to something. It means that you’re experimenting with the form, that you’re allowing content to drive a new approach to form.
I knew that I did not want a normal narrative opera about the Great Famine of 1845-52 in Ireland. I did not want to simply locate and neutralize it as an historical melodrama. I felt passionate about some of the parallels with the world today, and about the fact that the Famine was most certainly an avoidable catastrophe.
The Hunger is entirely based on source texts. Every word that the character Asenath Nicholson (sung by the wonderful English soprano Katherine Manley) sings comes from her own book, Annals of the Famine in Ireland, published in New York in 1851. Most of that book is descriptive, chronicling what the American Asenath saw as she traveled around Ireland. Only in one place in her book, in the form of a letter, does she directly plead with us. That becomes a crucial part of the piece, when Asenath has most definitely crossed the threshold from observer to participant and cries out, “What can I do?”
The Man’s text, sung by the esteemed sean nós (“old style”) singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, is taken from a keening song (a lament for a dying child, in fact) potentially dating from that time, as well as the only song that I know of that actually deals with the famine: “Na Prátaí Dubha” (The Black Potatoes). I wished to tightly circumscribe his material, as a way of demonstrating tangibly that there is precious little extant from the vantage point of the victim. The great song collector George Petrie complains of “an awful, unwonted silence” through the Famine period. Essentially, the native, principally Gaelic-speaking, Irish that suffered the most were too weak to write or sing anything. They were too weak even to protect themselves from devouring dogs and rats. If that sounds extreme, it is because it was extreme. They were mainly illiterate also, as a result of years of punitive policies against the education of Irish Catholics, and lacked the armory, as it were, to document their plight. I wanted this to be reflected in the structure of the piece. Our knowledge of this time mainly comes from outsiders, and non-sufferers, with their biases and preconceptions.
The third, and most controversial, strand in the piece is again sourced, taken from video interviews conducted by the director Tom Creed with the linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky; the economist and columnist Paul Krugman; the historian and Asenath Nicholson biographer Maureen Murphy; the historian and expert on colonial famines Megan Vaughan; and the economist Branko Milanovic. Both Tom and I agreed on a set of questions beforehand that was to be posed to all the interviewees, and I joined Tom in person in the interviews of Krugman and Milanovic in New York.
Even though Florent Ghys (whom I hired to help me with the task) and I made musical transcriptions of all of these interviews, I very rarely made use of the speech melodies in the instrumental or vocal material. I didn’t want to treat this matter in a tricksy way. Instead, the transcriptions enabled me to place the video voices rhythmically, and the pitch material influenced changes in harmony. I used overtone-derived material, as I do throughout the piece, to color the timbre/harmony, reaching a kind of apex at the point where the interviews shudder and are transformed harmonically and timbrally in a chorus against the Man’s cries of anguish towards the end of the piece.
Crucially, my decision not to integrate the melodic content of the interviewees’ contributions into the instrumental texture means that each video snippet serves as an interruption to the strange, almost ritualistic, narrative developing between Asenath (the observer) and Man, where each of Asenath’s developing observations shines a different shade of light on the fragmentary, exploded text of the suffering man. The interviews jolt the listener/viewer out of this historical world into the present, and they act to contextualize the historical sources, as it were, in an argument of today’s making. This jolting is established immediately and slightly humorously at the very beginning of the piece when Maureen Murphy comments on Asenath’s only supposed vanity – her singing voice.
Starting with descriptions of Asenath, the commentary gradually becomes more and more political, dealing with the causes of the famine, and comparing it with situations developing today. This is where this strand starts to take on a kind of crusading role, and I’ll readily admit that this is what contributes to The Hunger being without a doubt my most political piece, almost amounting to an act of political activism. It asks us to consider among other things the enormous and deleterious effect of economic and social inequality, and the major power imbalance of colonialism, or even semi-colonialism, which allows the more powerful to manipulate the dominated “other” while simultaneously blaming the “other” for what transpires. At the time, incidentally, the Irish were represented in British satirical magazines (such as Punch) as monkeys, or at least exhibiting strongly simian features. They were definitely “other” in the popular imagination, not quite human in fact. If this sounds positively Trumpian, it’s because Trump is absolutely making use of this playbook in order to look for someone “other” to blame.
The piece asks other questions too. Asenath’s descriptions concentrate on the unyielding inhumanity of bureaucracy in the face of a quickly transforming catastrophe, and deal with her horror at the way resources are not distributed adequately. Krugman and others question the efficacy of charity, and even ask whether the excuse of not interfering with the free market is simply a handy get-out clause. Chomsky asserts outright that this excuse was used to passively punish a colonized people.
I suspect for a certain segment of American intellectuals, the mere appearance of Chomsky in a piece makes them uneasy. Certainly, a number of people asked me if I might have perhaps considered some more right-wing views for the video segments. I wondered did they want me to interview people who believe that famine is a very handy tool for ethnic cleansing. Sarah Bryan Miller lamented in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “there wasn’t much about all the modern-day calamities in countries where despots and kleptocracies make off with the aid provided by democracies and charities instead of giving it to people in need.” This is a fair criticism to make, although to be accurate, Megan Vaughan did mention the case of the Sudan where aid has been manipulated to punish certain segments of the population. However, this criticism fails to take notice of the incalculable damage that many of these societies faced right off the bat due to European colonialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
I live now in America, and it just struck me the other day, when I was asked to write this article, that maybe The Hunger is my first American piece, that it’s not just about the Irish famine, but rather about the resurgence of certain nineteenth century approaches to government in American political thought today: domestically, the idea that one should not interfere with the free market (neo-liberalism); and in foreign policy, the idea that America is the world’s policeman, unequivocally a force for good (a kind of neo-colonialism). Maybe the anti-colonial arguments have more resonance, and are more difficult to tolerate here, because the lure of a self-serving neo-colonialism is strongest here. Miller, for example, assumes that the aid given by democracies is entirely altruistic. I’m not so sure. Often, a defense of America’s “world’s policeman” role rests in fact on an argument of enlightened self-interest. However, a normal policeman operates within a shared culture and legal framework. No such homogeneity applies across the world. And in a time when the role of the police is under huge scrutiny, rightly so, especially among the black population, if we can’t even ensure fairness within the same country, how can we assume it in the world at large, especially if the policing is complicated by one’s own agenda? Self-interest can be very dangerous, if we only assume it is enlightened.
I am not convinced for that matter that Europe, which has largely moved beyond a colonialist attitude, has altogether learned from the sins of the past. How much do we discuss what happened in the Belgian Congo? How much does Europe take responsibility for the havoc it wreaked in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia? Most of my otherwise very well-read English friends know very little of the workings of the Raj in India, and almost nothing of the Penal Laws or Famine in Ireland. Until the pioneering work of the historian Christine Kinealy in the 1990s, possibly in response to a well-meaning but misplaced period of revisionism in Irish history, nobody knew that Britain actually increased food exports from Ireland during the famine. While more than a million were starving!
Yes, I suppose I am a bit angry about the fact that we don’t always seem to learn from history, and that blatant inequalities and iniquities are allowed to flourish afresh with each new generation; that often history is forgotten, and simply repeated in different contexts; that we continue to view some people as the “other” in order to dehumanize them. And yes, I suppose that energy, or even that ache, showed in the piece; in fact it may have driven much of the emotion of it.
I readily accept that some forgetting is a necessity from time to time, especially in entrenched conflicts. Forgetting was needed in Northern Ireland in order to advance the peace process of the 1990s. The relationship between the UK and Ireland has now radically changed for the good, and I hope that the seemingly suicidal Brexit vote on the UK side will not interfere with that adversely. On a side note, I hope too that it won’t affect the city of London too much either, one of my absolute favorite cities of the world, whose vitality is so dependent on its multiculturalism as much as anything else.
Mostly though, I am highly aware that history is “contested ground,” as Salman Rushdie said in a recent interview with Paul Holdengraber published online in The Literary Hub:
“History is an act of interpretation. Every age rewrites the history of the past in its own image, in the image of the things that it cares about. So history is an imaginative act. And very often, especially in our time, history is contested ground. For example, in the Middle East, you could say that there are two historical narratives competing for the same space. There is the Israeli and Palestinian narrative, which are both historical narratives, but which have such radically different readings of history that they are just about incompatible. So that idea of history, that it is something that is contested ground, that is fought over, argued over, is something you learn very early on in the study of history.”
The contested ground of The Hunger is not simply reflected in its content: it is evident in its structure. Every source is a firsthand point of view, whether that comes from Asenath Nicholson or Noam Chomsky. There is not actually a unilateral argument espoused by all of the voices in the piece. They are arguing over the history of the famine afresh, creating new narratives from it. In truth, I don’t actually know what views Maureen Murphy or Megan Vaughan hold on income inequality or neo-liberalism. Yes, I have framed it in a way that often relates to the politics of today, but that’s because some of the issues are just as pertinent now. I am not normally such a political composer, but by the same token, I feel passionately that an artist should not fear engaging with the world as they find it. If that makes it awkward and problematic for some, so be it. Life can be problematic. Too much so-called classical music lives in isolation from the world. But we don’t.
Born in Dublin, composer Donnacha Dennehy has had work featured in festivals and venues around the world, including the Edinburgh International Festival, Royal Opera House (London), Carnegie Hall, The Barbican, BAM, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Dublin Theatre Festival, ISCM World Music Days, WNYC’s New Sounds Live, Bang On A Can, Ultima Festival (Oslo), Musica Viva (Lisbon), the Saarbrucken Festival, the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, and the Gaudeamus Festival (Amsterdam).