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Tessellatum is an album and a film, with music composed by Donnacha Dennehy and animation by Steven Mertens, performed by violist Nadia Sirota and viola da gamba player Liam Byrne.
The film and the music both work with the idea of man vs. nature. Steven Mertens’ electric animation toggles back and forth between man-made geometric perfection and the natural oddness of the deep ocean. Donnacha Dennehy’s addictive timbres move between tuning systems created by humans and the ones found in natural resonance. As a result, the two works of art support and enhance each other, using the same form and structure to create an incredibly moving work of art.
 

Violist Nadia Sirota on Tessellatum

Tessellatum was commissioned in an acute fit of jealousy. The first time I heard Donnacha Dennehy’s music I was seduced, I needed to be a part of that sound world, to inhabit it, even. Donnacha’s work is almost cubist — he fractures sonorities and re-assembles them into intricate kaleidoscopes of sound, thrusting piles of animated drones and pulses next to ionized timbres derived from the harmonic series.

Tessellatum is an album and a film, with music composed by Donnacha Dennehy and animation by Steven Mertens, performed by violist Nadia Sirota and viola da gamba player Liam Byrne.

The film and the music both work with the idea of man vs. nature. Steven Mertens’ electric animation toggles back and forth between man-made geometric perfection and the natural oddness of the deep ocean. Donnacha Dennehy’s addictive timbres move between tuning systems created by humans and the ones found in natural resonance. As a result, the two works of art support and enhance each other, using the same form and structure to create an incredibly moving work of art.

For this piece, we settled on an odd and kind of unprecedented instrumentation: 11 bass viols and 5 violas. I had spent a loopy, jet-lagged morning reading renaissance duets with the viola da gamba player Liam Byrne in London, and become obsessed with the weird timbral pairing of viola and bass viola da gamba, which flips the darkest sounds to the highest register and the brightest sounds to the lowest.

Donnacha took this idea and spun gold with it, creating a kind of unrelentingly-beautiful wall of sound, which he deployed, along with harmonies derived from the harmonic series, to gradually un-moor the ear from its ingrained, equal-tempered references. For this record, Liam and I multi-tracked all 15 parts, producing a tapestry which moves from almost-medieval textures through spectral vales to nearly-Celtic passagework.

The animator Steven Mertens had a kind of crazy task: creating a way for audiences to absorb the structure of this tightly-woven work in real-time. Mertens solved for this in a completely unique way, creating his own syntax of abstracted deep-sea tabelaux, forming an alien but parallel world, structurally identical to the music but fully translated and adapted to his rich visual universe. The result is gorgeous, illuminating synergy- two works of art that support and enhance each other.

 

A note on tuning the viols

 

The viola da gamba is most often associated with early music, music written in the 500-year span from the thirteenth century onwards, so how do you make that instrument perform the very modern task of playing Donnacha’s microtones — pitches that would be found in-between the keys of a piano?

It turns out that viols were kinda built for this. Back in their day, specifically the 16th-ish century, tuning systems were all over the place. Western music didn’t completely settle on our neat-n-tidy 12-equal half-steps thing until something like 200 years ago, and even so, equal temperament’s domination came about super gradually. So all this is to say: viols are actually pretty easy to modify. For Tessellatum, Liam split some frets and tied on a whole bunch of new ones. The tricky part was that, unlike oddly-tempered early music pieces, Tessellatum is constantly toggling between equal temperament and just (harmonic series) intonation. So this meant that Liam and Donnacha had to conspire pretty epically to make all these pitches physically possible. But they did it! And it’s ingenious and gorgeous and completely unique. 

 

 

 

Composer Donnacha Dennehy on Tessellatum

I think of Tessellatum as a kind of monumental mosaic full of shifting perspectives.  I’d been waiting quite a while to write a piece like this, and I saw my chance when Nadia Sirota, a ferociously talented violist among other things, asked me to write something.  We quickly settled on the seemingly crazy idea of my writing an extended composition around 40 minutes in lengthfor her and viol consort. She knew of a wonderful Irish/American violist based in London called Liam Byrne, who could lead this viol consort.  Liam turned out to be a brave man, entertaining requests for various contortions of the frets so that I could produce a large palette of overtone-based, microtonally-tuned pitches, essential to the harmonic and timbral world that I was imagining.

 

I eventually settled on the unusual instrumentation of solo viola, 3 ensemble violas (functioning as ghosts of the solo viola) and a consort of 11 microtonally-tuned bass viols. It may seem grand, but the music required this instrumentation, although I’ve since made two performance versions for smaller subsets, complemented by the other parts on a surround-recording. On this recording, incidentally, all parts are played by Nadia and Liam. I long dreamed of being able to write something approaching the wall of sound that I encountered in various almost utopian Renaissance vocal pieces, such as Tallis’s 40-part Spem in Alium or Ockeghem’s Deo Gratias, pieces that veered between being finely detailed and singularly overwhelming almost simultaneously. In fact there are even small references to Deo Gratias in Tessellatum. Liam inspired another approach from Renaissance music, when I visited him at his strikingly opulent studio at the V & A Museum in London. (I never suspected that viol players worked in such conditions.) There he played me a surprisingly prescient little piece for five parts by Thomas Picforth in which each part moved according to a different rhythmic motor.  That had an indelible influence on the way I layered material in this piece. 

There’s a quote from Alfred Schnittke that I love: “I set down a beautiful chord on paper and suddenly it rusts.” Of course, Schnittke was concerned with a kind of polystylistic irony, whereas I'm more concerned with a kind of luminous resonance. In fact I am obsessed with luminosity in music. It influences most of my decisions: about harmony and timbre, process and even form. I think of the beautiful harmonies at the start of each of the three sections (which run into each other as part of a continuous whole) as rusting into timbre because I often think of both harmony and timbre in relation to the same phenomenon, the natural overtone series. I follow quite an extreme 'overtone' approach in this piece, due to the possibilities afforded by movable frets on each of the viols, allowing me at some points to make use of naturally played overtones up to the 32nd partial. All the sounds that you hear in this recording are played naturally by the way – nothing is electronic. An abiding influence on the way I thought about luminosity in this piece comes from the way the light changes radically through the seasons in Ireland. Despite living with this perennially until quite recently, this never ceased to fascinate me.

 

Tessellatum is dedicated to the memory of Bob Gilmore, a great friend and a wonderful musicologist who shone a light often on fascinating music that otherwise may have remained in the dark.