Come Away to the Skies : A High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass

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At the end of December last I unexpectedly got an invitation from a friend, composer Reg Unterseher, to come along and hear Tim Sharp & Wes Ramsay’s, “Come Away to the Skies : A High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass” in Dublin. The performance was to take place in Taney Church, only ten minutes walk from my front door! It was an opportunity not to be missed, as I had heard very positive mention of the work when I attended the American Choral Directors Association National Conference in Dallas in March of 2013.

As the Mass was due to be presented as part of an actual service, my whole family went. The first thing that I noted was that the children in the congregation, including my own, were entranced right from the first moment the music began. Parents struggled to stop them jumping and swaying. For an Irish audience, Bluegrass is not a form they are very familiar with, and the instruments juxtaposed on the choral ensemble took everyone initially by surprise. This was something truly different to what any of us had expected.

I was already familiar with the atypical modal colours of Bluegrass vocal harmony and I have sat through many performances of contemporary choral works written by my esteemed American composer colleagues. This work was unlike anything I had experienced of either – and yet at a fundamental level it was completely familiar to me. The Mass is something rooted firmly and unapologetically in a powerful traditional culture. I could hear elements of shape note singing and sacred harp interlaced with the direct and simple melodic shapes and structures of Appalachian folk music. It should be familiar to me, because hidden away within the melting pot of European and African influences from this region is the voice of my own country.

Below the choral part sits the unique, and comforting, instrumental colours of the Bluegrass band. They never intrude, they don’t elaborate. They accompany and carry us forward without artifice. It couldn’t be simpler really, nor more effective. I am all for exploring traditional instrumental colours in a contemporary context, but equally they can sound very out-of-place when used to develop contemporary harmonic and linear elements of a work. There is a sense throughout the entirety of this piece that a strong musical hand is expertly juggling these disparate elements. Each movement has a satisfying structural sense to it, and there is a unified musical language present in the whole composition.

This is honest, direct music that treats its source material with respect. While the harmonic colours employed by Tim Sharp can veer towards the contemporary at times, this never feels forced. Two movements stand out for me – Credo, with its infectious and simple affirmations of belief. Bluegrass was created in a society where faith and music sustained people through the best and worst of times. Functional, but also inspirational, music. Then there is the sublime Agnus Dei - a masterclass for any composer in how to treat traditional source material. This was, for me, the highlight of the Mass.

The performance, in a cold church on a dark day, was beautifully realised, with some virtuosic and flexible singing from the sopranos in particular. This was strongly contrasted with a vibrant and earthy tone from the men’s lines. Tim Sharp himself played and conducted [very well too]. It was unsurprising to hear that most of the performers were educators and musicians, as there was a lovely musical shape to all the singing. They succeeded in warming up and enthralling an Irish congregation more used to the joys of Anglican Church Music. Well done to everyone involved!

20131229_212453I was very surprised after the performance/service how modest Tim was about his achievement, because that is what this work is – a real achievement. Its heartfelt and honest musical core, created within the context of a quintessentially American musical genre, is a celebration of a uniquely beautiful cultural ethos.

Me and Tim Sharp in Christ Church Cathedral, Dec. 29th 2013

You can check out the whole Mass on YouTube HERE, but in the meantime here is the Credo and Agnus Dei for your enjoyment [and mine for the 6th time today...].

Flowers, Sunshine and Shadows

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The waves were magnificent and the sun was flashing through dark clouds. I had just sprung, alive, from wild, grey green water after an icy January swim. January is not the coldest month to swim in the Irish sea, but it can be the most beautiful, and this day was perfect. One of my fellow swimmers who had also just emerged from the water turned to me and said “I can see now where you get the inspiration for your music – how couldn’t you be inspired by this?”.

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The correct response was that, of course I was inspired by this experience and that my life was a continuous search to feed the ravenous maw of inspiration. But I would have been lying. The truth is that for a short, ice-cold few minutes I became a citizen of the cold, soulless Atlantic. Neither the seductive icy morning nor the wild mane of crashing waves yielded up the fragile flower of inspiration. Not even a scent of one. I hear no sympathetic songs resonating from the lonely cry of a gull or the murmurations of the sea on the grey rocks.

My inspiration to create is rarely born in the wilderness or in splendid solitude. Composition is an ongoing process rooted, for me at least, in the real world, not an artistic ethereal place I have to go to to create. Most often it comes in the kitchen, on a street, cycling in the cold rain or, as in the case of “Flowers, Sunshine and Shadows”, in the back of a bus travelling across the Netherlands with Anúna.

As part of my final visit to Florida Atlantic University, completing my tenure as the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in Music Residency [2011-2013], I was required to produce a piece that would be performed by the music department. I had many ideas for it, some pretty conservative, some off-the-wall. But I knew that at the core of it would be the choral department where I had spent much of my time working. Over the three years I had made a connection with the staff and students there in a way was unexpected. I wanted to create something that was pretty much immediate, but also very clear in its intent and in the way it needed to be performed.

Back to the bus… well, this piece rose out of a series of conversations with the singers of Anúna, most of whom are around the same age as the singers at Florida Atlantic are. When I outlined my initial ideas for the commission to them, they were pretty surprised. Did I really want to write about real life? Well, I always thought I had been doing just that. The very positive reaction they gave me to some of the ideas was heartening. So I took the plunge.

For this commission I wanted to write a piece about simple aspects of life – a baby, children playing and old age, so the compositional process was all off-paper until the last week before the piece was due for submission. I went back to my Dutch cabin in the woods and wrote the text for “Flowers” that evening.

If you can’t see the Soundcloud links below, as some devices can’t see them, you can hear all of the three movements by clicking HERE.

Flowers

I sing flower,
Pretty flower
Sun, warm, cold water
Rainy shower.

Water trickle
Daddy tickle
Shiny bell ringing,
Mommy singing…

Soft, cool pillow
Curtain billow,
Little star peeping,
Teddy sleeping…

I sing shower,
Pretty flower
Shiny bell ringing,
Mommy singing…

The text is created around my own memories of my children and how they responded to certain things. The piece is gentle, but not trite, playful but also bitter-sweet. The musical language of “Flowers” is simple, with ostinati figures in the piano part and some rather heavy-handed effects of yawning, noisy daddies being too loud and over enthusiastic and, of course, Mommy sings in the kitchen in the morning, as she always does. I’ve wanted to have whistling in my music for a long time, so we end the piece with a whistle. Possibly the least and most profound piece I’ve written, and fun to sing.

Sunshine

Run into the golden sunshine
Run beneath a blue unfurling sky
Run into the bright blue morning
Catch the fleeting shadows as they fly.

Come into the golden sunshine
Run into a great unfolding song
Sail the new-blown dandelion and
Catch a wind to carry you along.

Running through the summer sunshine
Paint a new-born rainbow way on high
Come into the bright blue morning
Catch a fleeting swallow as they fly.

Every stream a river
Every pool the sea
Every hill a mountain
Every dream will be.

Every song to sing
Every tree to climb
Every bell to ring
Every word to rhyme

Sunshine, sunshine.

“Sunshine” explains itself. Joy, running in an endless summer day. I chose to set the vocal lines as expansively as possible, with arching lines. There is also a definite Gospel feel to this, which I hope the singers enjoyed singing as much as I did listening to their efforts. I love the very staccato piano part in this, played on this recording by the brilliant David Rossow. We had some great conversations about how to perform this entire work, and this movement in particular. David is the only composer I have every worked with very closely. He is a very, very fine musician, and his input on this score was always perceptive and intuitive.

Shadows

Shadow fall, Shadows calling.
Shadows call, shadows falling.

A song is ending, a failing melody
Scented wine of summer now a memory.
Golden leaves fall, echoing the autumn sun.
Cold winds call, their silent song begun.

Shadow call. Shadows calling.
Winter shadows dark and deep.

And the great wave will always weep upon the shore
And a cold wind caress the sea
And the white bird will one day sleep forever more
And her pale song will fade with me.

This movement has a very strong medieval flavour to it, using lots of false relations and modal colour. I had forgotten how much I love writing for the piano and David played the part without milking the obvious out of it, always using restraint and sensitivity.

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The position of Eminent Scholar has been a hugely educational process for me, and hopefully FAU too. I wanted to write something that reflected the energy and vitality of both staff and students. Much of my output in recent decades has reflected the career-path of my choir Anúna, and I’ve been somewhat restricted by that. Creating this work just at a time when I needed to look carefully at the trajectory I wanted to travel for the future has been an invaluable experience. This opportunity to write for, and work with, such an immensely talented and dedicated group of people will stay with me forever.

I can’t leave this without thanking a few people. Thank you so much to Dean Heather Coltman and Professor Rebecca Lautar for their support, advice and good humour. Thank you to the brilliant Professor Patricia Fleitas. All I can say is that I wish I had had a guiding hand like hers through my degrees. Her passion for her work is balanced perfectly with a sincere compassion for the students. Her musicianship and commitment to her art has been a revelation to me.

IMG_8465maStacie Lee Rossow [Pic. Marian Dolan]

Thank you to my friend Dr. Stacie Lee Rossow, conductor of the ensembles featured in the Soundcloud clips above. Stacie is a wonderful conductor, an inspiring leader of young musicians and was a huge influence on the tone I adopted during my time at FAU. I can’t begin to say how much it has meant to me to have worked with her so closely over these years. The work is dedicated to her.

Finally – thank you to the staff and students who crossed my path during this time. I will miss you all. To the students I have to say that you inspired me so, so much – and I envy you your teachers. You made me feel welcome, always a part of the myriad of things that were constantly evolving and being created around me. Until we meet again…

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Soundcloud clips

“Flowers, Sunshine and Shadows” for SSAATB Choir and Piano. Text and Music by Michael McGlynn.

Premiere date- April 20, 2013 by FAU Choral Organizations (FAU Chamber Singers, Patricia P. Fleitas, conductor and Krisztina Kover, pianist and FAU Women’s Chorus, Stacie Lee Rossow, conductor and David P. Rossow, pianist)
Premiere conducted by Dr. Stacie Lee Rossow with David P. Rossow, piano
As part of the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in Music Residency

New York Polyphony and John Tavener, “O Pia Virgo”

In 1990 I didn’t consider myself to be a proper composer. I sometimes dreamed that I would one day be able to have my works performed by groups other than my own, but I was also pretty realistic about my music. It didn’t appear to speak in the same language as my Irish contemporary music colleagues. In fact, it was pretty much ignored, being seen as too tonal and accessible. Yet even at that early stage I was acutely aware that I was doing something quite different to other composers. Not better, just different. I couldn’t work out whether it was sheer stubbornness or just lack of flexibility that kept me exploring the same ideas over and over – modality, melodic structure, cascading rhythms and drones. That year remains with me as a very important one. I submitted a piece called “Dirgidh bhar Sleagha Sealga” to the Séan O Riada Memorial Trophy competition in choral composition at that year’s Cork Choral Festival. I won, very unexpectedly, as the work was unlike anything else being written in the contemporary Irish music field and I had assumed that the adjudicators were my peers. I was wrong. One of them  was none other than John Tavener.

Being brash and young I sought him out as he wandered around Cork, surrounded by an entourage. I asked him if he had any comment to make on the work. Any feedback, good or bad, would be massively valuable. He was silent. He mused, he pondered. Then he said one word – “primordial” and walked on. Its amazing how one word can colour your views of what you do so profoundly. It literally means “existing at or from the beginning of time”, something I would have said about much of his own output.

I had begun to feel that some of what I write wasn’t written by me at all. I often didn’t know why all the bits ended up together on the page, and I could always clearly tell when I was, and am, forcing them together rather than letting them flow naturally into structures and forms. While I still explore the same ideas, I have learned to take it slower – put less ideas on the page and develop what I do put down further. Which brings me to “O Pia Virgo”.

In 2013 I reconnected with the group New York Polyphony. I’d managed to miss their one concert in Dublin many years ago and had been so disgusted with myself that I vowed that I would take the first opportunity to properly introduce myself. I was pretty familiar with their performances of the sublime motets of composer Andrew Smith but there is no substitute for hearing performers live. When I contacted them I was rather flattered that I appeared to be pushing an open door and we decided to make something happen, so I began work on a new motet for them in November last.

New York Polyphony press photos, November, 2011.New York Polyphony [photo copyright Chris Owyoung]

New York Polyphony have a visceral sound capable of intense virtuosity. It is a very dark, masculine timbre, trained vastly but also very unaffected. This gives them a powerful and rich tone which instantly appeals. Its unsurprising that their last disc Times Go By Turns has just been nominated for a Grammy Award. While time was very tight it was just enough to create something that is simple but, hopefully, sympathetic to what this great group of singers do so naturally. Sometimes it is very hard to let go of something that I compose, but I know that this one is in safe hands.

I never met John Tavener again, and now never will. He was a unique composer, a special artist and he uttered the right word into the ear of a young man who just needed something at that moment. So, I dedicate this piece to him. When he hears the song of the angels, it won’t be an altogether unfamiliar sound.

“O Pia Virgo” will be premiered at the SWACDA conference in Little Rock by NYP on March 19th 2014.

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“Omnis” and Riverdance, 1995-96.

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This week sees the arrival of the new artwork for Anúna’s third/fourth album Omnis. The CD has had no less than five, yes, five separate covers and three released versions. You can see the original artwork at the bottom of this article. You may justifiably ask why have a sixth cover? Are you an obsessive compulsive? Do you have no life?

This new cover was actually intended to be the first one, and despite being pretty off-the-wall now, at the time it fitted into my own view of what Anúna was. You see, in 1995 we were pretty cool, so creating an image such as this would have fitted very much into the ethos that I had created for us. I can’t remember why I didn’t include it as I had planned, but I suspect it was because Omnis was created when Anúna were involved in Riverdance.

Its hard to believe that Anúna was once “happening” in the early 1990s in this country. We were a genuine underground “cult” band – rock stars, cool people and our general audience mingled together at our concerts. In 1995 we were stars…

We had an ever increasing following, and while Riverdance catapulted us forward onto an international stage in an unprecedented manner, we had earned the right by 1994 to be called then what we still are today – a true Irish original. While Anúna had migrated from audiences of 3-400  to playing 4000 seater venues with the biggest show on the planet in just a few months, I only saw the original vision I had for the group. I created Omnis to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground, and also to make an effort to bind the singers who had travelled part or all of the way with me to that concept. I decided to record this new album in the same church acoustic as I had Anúna (1993) because many of the new songs needed “space” within them. I believed that I could only achieve this in a sacred space.

I remember that Dúlamán and Geantraí were originally one single piece, but needing another up tempo number forced me to split the song in half. Some of the material was wildly odd – O Viridissima was like a banshee conference, while Tenebrae III sounded like it had fallen off the soundtrack of 2001: a Space Odyssey. But for some reason the album worked quite well. The 1995 release sold by the bucket-load at home, probably the first and only time an Anúna album would do so well in our own country. Its mix of traditional Irish songs on the same disc as works by Hildegarde von Bingen was oddly cohesive.

As my fledgeling ensemble realistically couldn’t compete with the trappings of Riverdance it was time to leave the show or die. While some of the singers loved being a minor celebrity in London, they also wanted to be part of the thrill that forms the essence of Anúna. It just wasn’t possible for them to have both. A handful of singers tried to remain as part of both for a short while, but life is not about going backwards. They eventually went their own ways and new singers joined us. So Anúna was reborn, albeit tainted by a two edged celebrity status in Ireland, something I managed to shake off everywhere else except home. Still today the word “Riverdance” is usually among the first few words that any interview of media appearance we do in Ireland begins with – that is very sad, as we have become so much more than that.

Paradoxically the influx of new blood in 1996 resulted in what is arguably one of our finest recordings Deep Dead Blue, but at the time it was pretty hard going for me. By the time Omnis was hot off the presses it was a historical note, not a new album. I remember my mother saying to me after she first heard it that she couldn’t believe something so beautiful had been born out of so much trouble. In retrospect I can’t either. The beauty of it is in the music rather than the performances I believe, and I am still very proud of the compositions on that record. Dúlamán has become a choral mega-hit all over the world thanks to my friends in Chanticleer who included it on their album Wondrous Love in 1997.

By the way, the image was photographed by the photographer Nigel Brand who
had taken many pictures of the first lineup of Anúna (circa 1991-3). I remember discussing the album with him, and giving him free reign to create a image with an impact rather than something out of the “Celtic Mysts of Ancient Tyme” ethos. Thanks Nigel…

The Beginning – An Uaithne to Anúna

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25 years of clutter. 25 years and piles of analogue videos and cassettes, silently gathering dust and deliberately avoided. Memories of good and bad things, happy and unhappy things. I knew that hidden in the decades of material were things that I simply didn’t need to remember, but there were also things I had forgotten that maybe should be rediscovered. The cassettes were deteriorating so, despite my reservations, I decided to use this small gap in my Autumn schedule to complete the vast task of digitising the Anúna sound archive.

A couple of things became apparent pretty quickly. The first one was how many interviews there are. This is a huge contrast to the period 1994 onwards. Today I rarely am interviewed, but that is balanced by my being able to post my ideas and opinions online. From about 1991 until 1994 there are multiple appearances on panel discussions, reviews, opinion pieces and analysis. Prior to Riverdance in 1994, which resulted in 18 weeks at number 1 in the Irish pop charts and a top 10 single in the U.K., Anúna was hot stuff. Indeed, many of the interviews directly after that mention Riverdance only in passing, as we were already known to most of the journalists for our work prior to that.

A couple of years ago Dr Stacie Rossow wrote her doctoral thesis on my work, and she insisted on interviewing me extensively as, until that point, there was virtually nothing written about my work as a composer. I thought that these interviews we did together were full of new perspectives and insights that I had never expressed before. I was wrong. I had said most of what I needed to say about choral music and my compositions by 1994. I was amazed that I have actually stayed on message consistently for so long despite the decades and experiences that intervened.

Another feature of the interviews was how clear I was about our mandate. I wanted to define an Irish form of choral music. In the late 1980s and early 90s, I had been putting together some eclectic concert programmes – Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten mixed with Clannad, traditional Irish music mixed with medieval pieces, contemporary Irish classical music mixed with 16th century pieces. However, despite huge effort, An Uaithne were making little impact, with audiences usually only numbering slightly more offstage than on.

In 1990 that changed. I just listened back to our performances at the Cork Choral Festival of that year. We came second in the International competition with a programme of Debussy, Robert White, Pearsall, Gesualdo and my “Tenebrae I”. That was a huge achievement for an Irish mixed voice choir, and the performance was actually quite good. However, it was three songs we sang on the Gala night at the end of the Festival that really shone – “Gól na dTrí Muire”, “Deus Meus” and “A Stór mo Chroí”. I had forgotten the silence that descended on the audience during the performance, and how the power of contralto Yvonne Woods held them so enthralled for the final piece. I remember now that the Lithuanian winners of the International competition came up to me as we left the stage. They had been deeply effected by what they had heard. They described it as something they had never expected, something very different. Despite the fact that we had performed in mismatching costumes and held music, while I waved my hands in a rather futile way, something had happened. An Uaithne had grabbed a huge audience for the first time and held it spellbound.

As I type I am listening to a performance we gave a year later in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin – what a concert! Medieval Irish songs ["Media Vita" and "Christus Resurgens"] combined with contemporary Irish works by various composers including screaming and whispering in the works of Mary Kelly and Michael Holohan. There were movement pieces with tape and dry ice created around my arrangements of the “Caoineadh” and “Gol na dTrí Muire”. Our guests were a rather extraordinary bunch and included Aylish Kerrigan [mezzo], who sang John Buckley‘s Wind on Sea, and Anne-Marie O Farrell [virtuoso Irish harp] mingling their high-classical sensibilities with the Uileann pipes of Declan Masterson and the virtuosic percussion of the great Noel Eccles. I loved our performances of Seoirse Bodley‘s two works “Nocturne of the Self-Evident Presence” and “Homage to Marcel Proust”, an Irish classic of contemporary choral music.

There sitting in the middle of it is the end of An Uaithne and the start of Anúna.

I can now hear two types of singer on the recording. There are large, plummy voices favoured by the classically trained singers I had gathered around me for An Uaithne, but now I can hear the “others” – early music singers, traditional singers and untrained singers. There is a fight going on. The performances are rough, but hugely energetic. Many of the more classical singers or choral groupies are stuck to the inadequately learned sheet music, while the new people are singing without music and without affectation. And there at the end of the night is the first version of The Rising of the Sun – wow! It was specially commissioned for the Project’s 25th Anniversary and it is something else. Then the night was over. I remember my brother John, in his first year with the choir, asking for quiet in the dressing room and thanking me for giving him the opportunity to perform all this amazing music. It was the first time any member of An Uaithne had pointed out that they had gained something from one of my concerts, and I was quite shocked. There was silence, broken only by a few smirks from some of the singers, and then An Uaithne died.

So the archive hasn’t been so painful to transfer after all. The bad bits are far outweighed by the good things. Crucially, it reminds me how many people I have to thank from this period of An Uaithne/Anúna’s history.

In the An Uaithne days there was Professor of music at Trinity College Harmoz Farhat who consistently supported my early efforts with rehearsal space and encouragement, and even attended some of the concerts. He wasn’t even my professor, as I was attached to the Medieval English department. Colin Mawby, my boss at the RTÉ Chamber Choir, consistently programmed my pieces and even commissioned works from me, including my first major work [currently being revised] “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” for children’s choir, piano, percussion and two soloists. Colin has what he calls a “choral ear” and it was through him that I gained my understanding of pitch and the symbiosis of choral voices. He is a huge inspiration as a person and his music is truly beautiful. He said in 2006 -  “I cannot write choral music unless I work with choirs. Now that’s a subjective judgement: I know that lots of people can do these things; I can’t. I have to write for particular people” – I can only agree with him. Thank you Colin.

I’d like to thank broadcasters Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny, Mike Murphy, Bernadette Comerford, Doireann Ní Bhriain – I don’t know whether any of them had any love for Anúna specifically, but I do remember that their support, and that of their production teams, helped enormously. I want to single two people out in particular – broadcaster Mike Moloney and producer Maggie Stapleton. In 1995, ’96 and ’97 they devoted three shows to my work, and listening to these today reminds me just how important they were at the time.

I can’t end this article without mentioning my friend Sara McInerney-O Malley. Thank you Sal. Rest in Peace.

“Illumination” – the new album. Some thoughts…

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I clearly remember the day in 1987 that I set Anúna up. I sat, surrounded by a group of young singers in a Dublin bar, and outlined my plan to create a new choir.

The subsequent journey was incredible. In the last quarter century our voices have resonated through vast halls in China and Japan, and echoed across the sacred spaces of European cathedrals. We have sung together in some of the greatest concert venues in the world including The Royal Albert Hall, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Radio City in New York. Our music has taken us through fifteen albums, collaborations with rock stars and symphony orchestras through to video game soundtracks. We have represented Ireland as international musical ambassadors for our country of origin. All this time we have continued to develop and refine the uniqueness of our unique vocal sound and performance practices. Anúna have come further than I could ever have imagined. This sixteenth album is titled Illumination specifically because our journey has been about casting light on so many things – choral music, ancient songs and cultures, performance practices, hidden textual truths.

Initially when I began recording Illumination with my long-time collaborator Brian Masterson, it was with the intention of presenting music which had featured as part of the history of the choir, material previously unrecorded or incomplete. We also wanted to develop further some of the unique recording processes that we had experimented with over of the years. All of the material on the album is newly recorded despite some of the original arrangements and songs dating back as far as the late 1980s.

I had to include three songs that we were constantly being asked for on CD, “Dormi Jesu”, “Illumination” and “Cúnnla”, all of which have featured in our live repertoire since around 2007. Then there were the many pieces that had, for various reasons, never made it on to a CD. Foremost among these were “Fegaidh Uaibh”, which dates from 1999 and was intended to be the tail end to the piece “Ocean”, “Agincourt” and “Mignonne Allons”. The latter two songs were intended for the earliest albums by Anúna but didn’t make the cut. “Agincourt” was replaced by “Heia Viri” on Invocation in 1993 while “Mignonne Allons” was simply forgotten at various sessions because its art is concealed in its deceptive melodic simplicity.

“La Chanson de Mardi Gras” started life as an arrangement that I made of the well-known Cajun folksong for a beer commercial in 1990, and it is here presented as a complete piece, displaying many of the characteristics that I would later use in some of my best-known songs. “Summer Song” exists in various aborted recorded versions over the last decade or so, and is, at last, here presented on disc. I made four separate attempts to set the text of one of my favourite Irish songs and here present what I came up with in the form of “Siosúram Só” specially written for the 2011 Anúna International Choral Summer School.

Other pieces are included because they tie up loose ends of our history. “Fionnghuala” is presented with Gaelic pronunciation as accurately sung we can manage in an arrangement I did for the massive 2007 PBS project Anúna : Celtic Origins. I have also separated off the two folksongs “Greensleeves” and “Scarborough Fair”, as they were originally presented as a medley for that TV special. “My Songs Shall Rise” completes the cycle of poems I set by the Irish writer Francis Ledwidge. “Ah Robin” acknowledges where Anúna came from, as our original repertoire consisted primarily of music dating from the 11th to the 16th century. My love of English music and text from this period has been hugely influential on the sonic direction the choir have taken over the decades.

Finally there is “Danny Boy”. I set this last year, and I have to admit that it took me considerable effort to do so. Ireland is two things, a real place and a dream. As a real place it can leave a lot to be desired. It is a country where systemic corruption, nepotism and parochialism have been tolerated and allowed thrive, but it is also a dream. As a dream it is unique. The land itself is old and very beautiful. The folk music is among the finest on the planet, and the people, to this day, dance words on their tongues. I’m not sure why I have chosen to include the song on an album now. Maybe its because I see the song for what it is at last, a beautiful melody with a universal text. Maybe there really is no such thing as a real place, and dreams, like Anúna itself, can be formed and made real with enough belief and honest passion.

Michael McGlynn, May 2012

Illuminating “Illumination” – guest blog by Dr. Stacie Lee Rossow.

I was lost. Thank you Michael.

Your directions were excellent and entertaining, but far too nebulous for this Floridian.

After wandering through an industrial area of Dublin city for some considerable time I saw two Anúna men coming out of a bakery and, at last, I found the world-renowned Windmill Lane Studios. The previous week I had been one of the facilitators at Anúna’s First International Choral Summer School (July 2011), and Michael had casually mentioned that Anúna would be recording parts of the new album Illumination. Would I like to come along and see the choir in action? I was delighted, as I could fit this in for a few hours and even have a last visit with my friends before returning to Florida the next day. I climbed up the three flights of stairs in the old Dublin building to the studio, innocently looking forward to an interesting experience. On entering the large and modern studio I was met by Michael, beaming. He announced to the assembled choir that I was to serve as conductor for the forthcoming seven hour session. I was, as you can expect, delighted and horrified simultaneously, but if there is one thing I have learned working with Michael it is to expect the unexpected.

Anúna record in an unusual fashion, with the conductor standing in the center of the choir. This means that some of the choir are behind you. This is complex enough to deal with, but almost immediately I became incredibly aware that the floor creaked. A conductor by definition, MUST move, especially for one like me who is accustomed to conducting in buildings created to withstand hurricanes in South Florida.

In hindsight, I think the necessity to minimize my movement helped me to work with this unique ensemble. Anúna never use a conductor and were completely unused to following a standard beat. Much of what they do involves acute listening, being aware of each others breathing and watching each other for physical cues. I was forced to make each and every motion count focusing on what was of the greatest necessity for them at that moment.

That afternoon we worked on many tracks including Fegaidh Uaibh, Summer Song, Dormi Jesu, Siosúram Só, Danny Boy, and a piece that I commissioned in 2009, My Songs Shall Rise. At first there was a little resistance to working with a conductor, but by the end of the session, so many of them who had never been forced to rely on a conductor for cues were thanking me. It appears that while Anúna love working without a conductor in performance, in studio Michael was less-than-patient with people who couldn’t follow the quasi-mystical ideas of pulse and breath that have made Anúna’s performances and recordings world-renowned.

You may ask how a choral conductor from Florida came to be involved with an Irish choral ensemble who work without a conductor… Well, it was actually an interesting journey. In 2008, as I began to formulate ideas for my doctoral thesis at the University of Miami, I was stumped for a topic. I remembered a conversation with Dr. Patricia Fleitas, my undergraduate and master’s professor at Florida Atlantic University about wanting to do something in my master’s to synthesize Irish music. When I was in high school a friend gave me a “world music” CD that contained Puirt a Beul [mouth music] by the Scottish female duo Sileas (Michael informs me that Sileas have done a number of concerts with Anúna. Small world…). I was so intrigued by the rhythm, language, and melody that I learned the piece off by heart, having NO IDEA what the words were or if I was even grouping the words properly in my rendition . Funny thing – to this day I remember almost all of it. It was a sound that stuck with me. Dr. Fleitas, always the practical one, told me “Oh no… that is something for your doctoral work someday.”

It was that conversation that came back to me during my first year of doctoral work. So I set about to find a choral composer whose work was interesting enough to warrant doctoral research. I went through all the normal means of finding composers. I searched Oxford Music Online and came up with two names: John Ireland [actually an English composer] and Charles Villiers Stanford [an Irish composer usually classified as an English composer]. Unfortunately (or fortunately), there was already so many documents written on both that I knew that was not going to work out. So, I set out on a quest. I had all of these CDs with Celtic and Irish music performed and written by unfamiliar names – there had to be composers or arrangers listed. Only one of the CDs in my possession had the name of an ensemble or composer listed; Anúna was the ensemble on the CD of Riverdance that was in my living room. An internet search for Anúna brought me to dozens of scores by Michael McGlynn. Then I looked at a Chanticleer CD (Wondrous Love) and the Irish selection Dúlamán was by the same person. Well, if this composer’s music was recorded by Chanticleer, then …

So, with deadlines approaching I wrote to Mr. McGlynn. In May 2008, he told me that my first idea of Celtic and Irish choral music and arrangements would be “pretty tricky… not a great topic I have to say.” So, I set off to research further and refine my idea. Over the summer I was able to narrow it and wrote back to Michael in September 2008:

“[My professor suggested the possibility of using your "Celtic Mass" as the basis of the dissertation and working around the Irish musical/traditional influences found in a sacred composition. I immediately LOVED the idea as it was truly what I had been wanting to do for some time..."

My subsequent correspondence with Michael nearly made me forget the entire idea. Not only did he tell me at one point that there were too many flaws in certain components of his work but on another occasion, when I asked for his permission to interview and use his scores, he replied only “You don’t need my permission.” That was the entire response to a quite lengthy email!

Funny thing about life though, events are put in your path that bring people to you. A few months later I applied for a research award, The Theodore Presser Award for Research in Music. I applied only because it was expected that all doctoral students in my department do so, I never anticipated the call to the Dean’s office to inform me that my proposal had been chosen. The application was to allow me to visit the composer and other people and locations in Ireland that summer and then to complete my doctoral recital with a visit from the composer. He would interact with the university community and community at large, and would include a commissioned work for performance with a university ensemble, in this case The Frost Chorale.

My first meeting with Michael was as he was preparing for a performance of his music with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra [Ireland's national orchestra] at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, later that week. It seemed, even though we came from diametrically opposite training, we understood each other immediately and what the other was trying to accomplish. Although we had various correspondences and Michael responded to questions about his music, our next meeting was not until he came to South Florida in February of 2010 to complete the process. By that time I had already finished my complete draft of my thesis and was ready for my final recital, which was comprised entirely of his music.

During his twelve-day residence, numerous drives from his Ft. Lauderdale hotel to the Coral Gables campus, and dinners, I came to the conclusion that the vast majority of my thesis needed to be rewritten. All background information I had accumulated on Michael before I interviewed him was in the form of interviews he had given over the decades directly relating to Anúna. Indeed he had become so closely associated with this unique choral body that often his role as an original and singular composer was hidden behind his having to promote a tour, or an album in interviews. I was very surprised to discover so little information about his music in Irish music resources. My conversations with him were frustrating and illuminating simultaneously. One conversation would be contradicted in the next, absolutes became uncertainties between lunch and dinner. Michael explained to me that, as he had neither been interviewed about his music, nor discussed it with a music journalist or fellow composer by any academic his theories on vocal production and choral composition needed to be teased out slowly an carefully. These interviews with me involving question and response were causing him to examine, without his PR hat on, what it was he had based his life’s work on for the first time ever.

Kathartic as this may have been for Michael, I was acutely aware that my final draft was due to be handed in two weeks later and he would conveniently be leaving for a two-week tour of the Netherlands almost immediately upon his return to Ireland. On the last afternoon of his stay, we sat in a restaurant for hours while I asked (actually demanded) final and absolute clarity from him. The result… The Choral Music of Irish Composer Michael McGlynn. That April I premiered the commissioned unaccompanied choral work My Songs Shall Rise with the Frost Chorale at the University of Miami.

I have always viewed my role as a conductor as one that should be unobtrusive; it is not about me. I am merely the prism that focuses the ensemble-generated sound and energy into something that is unified and, hopefully, together we create something beautiful, a rainbow of sound if you will. I think it was this concept that Michael and I connect on. I conduct from the front of the ensemble much as he does vocally from within. It is the reason that later in 2010 Michael contacted me to see if I would be interested in serving as a facilitator at the first ever Anúna International Choral Summer School at the National Concert Hall. As fate would have it, in May 2011 the department of music faculty at Florida Atlantic voted to ask Michael McGlynn to serve as the 2011-2012 Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in the Arts. The rest, as they say, is history.

As Anúna celebrate their 25th Anniversary, Michael has reliably informed me that our association has helped hugely in the definition of both his work and, as a consequence, the future of Anúna. I am delighted to have been able to contribute so directly to the creation of Illumination, the 16th album by Anúna. I know that our association has been greatly insightful for me as both a conductor and musician. Onwards to the next 25 years!

You can read Dr Stacie Rossow’s entire thesis online HERE.

Stacie Lee Rossow, D.M.A

Associate Director, Choral and Vocal Studies. Conductor, Women’s Chorus

A native of Florida, Stacie Rossow has been a member of the faculty at Florida Atlantic University since 2000 and has served as conductor of the Women’s Chorus since 1998. She has taught courses in choral conducing, choral literature, applied voice, and sight singing at Florida Atlantic University and serves as a member of the departmental committees in Music Education and Curriculum. Rossow holds Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance and a Master of Arts with an emphasis in Choral Conducting degrees from Florida Atlantic University under the tutelage of Dr. Patricia P. Fleitas and a Doctorate in Musical Arts degree in Choral Conducting from the University of Miami. Her thesis, entitled The Choral Music of Irish Composer Michael McGlynn, was the first of three graduate papers on Mr. McGlynn and is held in the Irish Traditional Music Archive. Dr. Rossow has participated in conducting master-classes with Dr. Morris Beachy and Robert Porco and the FAU Women’s Chorus, under Rossow’s direction, has performed at the Florida ACDA Fall Conference. Recently she has presented sessions and served as clinician and conductor at state conferences and symposiums.

Dr. Rossow is an active adjudicator and clinician and holds memberships with the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, MENC: the Music Educator’s National Conference, the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the American Choral Director’s Association, National Collegiate Choral Organization, College Music Society, and Chorus America. She has held positions with the state boards of FCMENC and FMEA, has served as the FAU chapter advisor to both ACDA and MENC, and was the 2005-2006 recipient of the Florida Atlantic University Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Advising. While at the University of Miami she was awarded the Theodore Presser Award for research in music for her work in the area of Irish choral music. Dr. Rossow served as a faculty member at the Anúna Summer School in Dublin during the Summer of 2011 and as studio conductor for Anúna’s upcoming CD.

Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic

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Last year Belfast composer Philip Hammond was in a coffee shop in Belfast with me. He told me about this amazing piece he was writing. The title would be “Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic” written in memory of those fallen to the dark depths of the ice cold ocean. His passion was infectious, so I jumped in and offered Anúna for whatever he wanted simply because the idea was so inspiring and so appropriate to the centennial of the loss of that great ship.

I am a composer, and Philip is one of the very few that I have any contact with on this island, and is the only one I ever talk about music and composing with. Indeed it was Philip who recommended me to the Ulster Orchestra as a composer way back in the mid 1990s. The recommendation eventually led to a commission and an album “Behind the Closed Eye”. He is a very modest man, a deep thinker with a wicked sense of humour and many genuine friends. So many of them were involved in this project.

I’ll let Philip introduce the piece himself :

Anúna’s contribution amounted to the Sanctus/Benedictus and a fantastical section at the end of the Lux Aeterna in Hebrew invoking the four Archangels. You can find a very good article about the performance here.

There were two performances – the first on the night of the 14th of April. Both concert was a spectacular success. St Anne’s Cathedral was beautiful, and the event became almost ritualistic. There was a bit of a media scrum to photograph Anúna entering with candles mid-way through the work, and I have to say that despite the unintentional humour generated by a camera being fired off six inches from my face while I was singing, we helped add to the overall drama and atmosphere of the night very fittingly.

The Titanic sank at 2am so after the performance we processed through the streets of a deserted city to Belfast City Hall where we we bowed our heads in silence for a moment to remember those who passed away in such terror. The atmospheric readings by Glenn Patterson, all related to the Titanic event, in combination with excellent playing by the Fidelio Piano Trio were very appropriate even inserted into the huge choral sections of the Requiem. However, the true stars of the night were the voices of the combined choirs - The Belfast Philharmonic Society, the Schola Cantorum of St Peter’s Cathedral and Cappella Caeciliana – and the brass ensemble The Downshire Brass Band.

Rehearsing in St Anne’s Cathedral

Anúna with Philip Hammond, centre

The next day we were involved in the insertion of the Requiem into a Roman Catholic service at St Peter’s Cathedral off the Falls Road. Some of the highlights for me, besides the magnificent score, were the amazing combined choral and brass effects of the three other choirs. The boys of St. Peter’s Cathedral provided beautiful singing – spine-tingling is the appropriate description and we shared a very crowded balcony. I only regret that the size of the forces needed prohibits many repeated performances, but to actually perform the music as part of a Mass was both powerful and moving for all the performers involved.

The boys of St Peter’s Cathedral in St Peter’s.

The Belfast-born, now New York-based, mezzo soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek was nothing short of spectacularly good in both perforamnces. Many of you may be familiar with her work with Anonymous 4, but nothing prepared me for the level of virtuosity that she exhibited for her very difficult solos. Jacqueline is a very elegant lady, and I very much hope the our paths cross again professionally in the near future!

Jacqueline, Philip and myself

I speak for all of Anúna when I say that we had a memorable weekend. It was particularly poignant for the seven members of our choir who come from Northern Ireland. Thank you Philip for giving us the opportunity to be part of this monumental and wonderful event. Your music was truly inspired.

For a very limited time you can hear the opening section of the Requiem streamed on the BBC website – you have 5 days left to listen HERE!

The Choir, the Violinist and True Love in Sweden

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Sometimes my job can be simply magical. Maybe it is something to do with the music, or maybe it is the ambiance generated by the performance. Or maybe life is full of magic, and I have simply been lucky to see it from a different perspective to most.

Last November Anúna gave two very special performances in Sweden. We have only performed once in Stockholm, so I was anxious to sing there again [our last visit being in 1996]. This time we had a very special friend with us, the violinist Linda Lampenius. She looked radiant and played beautifully, as always. The next night was Annedalkyrka, Gothenburg one of my favourite places to perform in the world.

Anúna perform with Linda Lampenius (violin), Sofia Kyrka, Stockholm [pic. A.McGlynn]

Linda Lampenius [pic. Tommy Wiberg]

In October a young man by the name of Kristian wrote to me to ask me for a favour. I’m usually not great at deviating off the focus of a performance I have to admit, but this was a very special request for a special person.

The performance was technically so complex that I had put Kristian far to the back of my mind so, as I read down the programme, I noticed that there was one odd piece on it. Suddenly all that occupied my mind was Kristian… the song was “The Flower of Maherally”, one I don’t sing very often anymore, but I had been asked for a special love song.

You see, Kristian wanted to propose to his girlfriend Marijune who was visiting from the USA. He has been a long-time fan of Anúna and he wanted to ask her to marry him on the stage just after we sang a love song that was dedicated to her. I can describe it, but I think that all you need to do is look at Tommy Wiberg’s images below. They capture the moment in a way that words simply can’t.

Kristian and Marijune

That special moment…

Needless to say, the concert and the tour ended on a huge high for all of us.

My short story ends with a postscript. I received the photos only on Saturday last, and wrote to Kristian to see if he would mind me posting a note about his proposal. It turned out that he was actually in the USA and that tomorrow, Tuesday April 3rd, Kristian and Marijune will become Mr and Mrs Lejsund. Long life and happiness to you both. Thank you for including us in this wonderful moment of your lives. Have a fantastic day…

Finding my voice again…

When I was young, I used to open my mouth and sing. It was really simple. My brothers John and Tom and I sang so much that my parents just assumed that having three little boys harmonising in three parts was normal. What was odd was that while in school, and despite being involved in concerts and operettas, I never sang a solo. No-one ever noted that I had a particularly good voice,. When I went to College I should have registered as a singer, but instead chose to subject numerous unfortunate examiners to my piano expertise.

Having my singing ignored at school and later college had good and bad consequences. The good was that I wasn’t shoved down a path before I had any idea what singing was about. Ill informed “experts” never got hold of my voice, and believe me, there are many of them. The bad was that I had no confidence in my singing. It took my work as a composer to push me forward into using my solo voice for the first time.

Whenever I had a solo to do, I became very flustered and nervous. I was aware that other singers around me could make a “big” noise, allowing them to attempt operatic arias and sing semi-professionally even at this early stage of their careers. At the time I believed that this “big voice” was correct, and that I was wrong. I heard people talking about passagio, and breaks and chest and ribs. None of it seemed to relate to what I was doing. I tried some singing teachers, but found no one that could explain to me what the hell was going on…The noise I made was small and restrained, even tight because I wouldn’t let it go. When I did, it wobbled and sounded ugly – out-of-control and unpleasant. It also made my face go purple. Around me I saw young singers with jaws wobbling, heads shaking and generally sounding like very old people. This appeared to be the only route forward for me – stick to my guns or have the voice of a 65 year old in the body of a 25 year old.

Then Anúna began to take off and I found that I had to sing solos. Since I wrote the songs it seemed logical to sing them, but often I avoided doing a solo, handing it to one of the singers to record instead of me. One example of this was the track “Island” which I wrote for Tenor solo, but ended up putting a soprano vocal on the first version of Deep Dead Blue simply because I had no confidence and I believed that I could not sing the solo well enough. I reinstated the solo to tenor much later, which I suppose means that I was eventually acknowledging that I wasn’t that bad.  It was cowardice to some extent. As I didn’t think that my voice was that good I honestly wanted to concentrate on the way the over all track sounded without letting my personal misgiving about my solo-singing get in the way.

Here is a performance I gave in 1999 of my song “Where All Roses Go” – you can see the effort it takes for me to sing quite clearly, although the result isn’t unpleasant.

My voice seemed to be able to survive on minimal technique despite shouting my way through rehearsals and then presenting and singing in concert. This lasted for a good long time – longer than it should have. Then in 2006 it began to fail. Something that was completely natural to me became unreliable. I continued recording and singing solo in concert, but even that began to falter, eventually leading me to sing no solos for full tours, and take literally weeks to sing a solo in studio. The latter was the worst of all. You can hear it particularly on the solo vocal of “Agnus Dei” on the Sanctus album by Anúna recorded in 2009. Strangely, it does no damage to the performance, and even adds a degree of strain that helps in the transmission of that composition…but it nearly tore me apart.

Then a friend told me to go and see Sylvia O Regan and get her to listen to my voice. I know Sylvia for decades. To cut a long story short, Sylvia found my voice. She told me that I had a very good voice, much to my surprise, and then proceeded to coax it back bit by bit. I had to travel back thirty years and proceed cautiously through a minefield of decades of bad habits and erroneous technique. That journey was long, but has resulted in my being able to sing again. I don’t sound exactly the same as I did. A bit older, a bit lower and darker. A lot wiser. Definitely stronger and capable of filling a large Hall unamplified if I work hard. If I don’t play by the rules, it lets me down. Now I know what the rules are for the first time, when my voice won’t work I know why.

Sylvia has a gift. She has the ability to transmit the precious information that she holds, which is the greatest gift of all. This she does in the simplest language. For her singing is breathing, and now that I can sing again, it feels like I am breathing properly for the very first time. You can see her in action in the Anúna Summer School video below. Thank you for everything Sylvia.

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