An Interview with Michael McGlynn by Naoki Hayashida

In advance of visits to Japan this Autumn, and the release of the album “Illumination” there, journalist, writer and broadcaster Naoki Hayashida interviews Composer and Artistic Director of Anúna Michael McGlynn.

Please tell me about ANÚNA at its foundation, just come together in 1987, for example, the concept and atmosphere of the members.

First it was a sound in my head. Then I had to get people to make it. I didn’t realise at the time that that was not the way things were supposed to be done in classical music as I only began to sing in a choir at the very late age of nineteen years. I spent about four years trying to create the noise that I could hear very clearly in my ears, and I wrote songs to help my singers create that sound.

Early concerts were a mashing together of medieval music, contemporary music, some traditional and rock music and then my own material of which there was very little performed by us at that stage. I remember us standing on Grafton Street singing an arrangement I had done the night before of U2′s “Mysterious Ways” with Bono listening on the launch day for the album in Dublin. We did everything – and Anúna could have just turned into a novelty choral group able to do jazz, rock, folk and classical. But even at this early point in Anúna’s life it was my own work that was getting the strongest reaction from the audience. So I chose very early on to stop performing works by other composers and writers, and to concentrate on reinterpreting the music and literature that inspired me from my homeland.

The singers were and continue to pass through our group. Some are very influential and have a deep personal relationship with what Anúna is and what it stands for. Some do not really understand what the basic nature of the group is, but everyone of us is affected by what we do. In the very earliest times of the choir the singers were not engaged with the ethos that we now recognise as Anúna. This is very understandable, as I did not clearly see what we were doing myself! It is very hard to explain a sound.

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What has been inherited, never changed, since the beginning until now where ANÚNA has became a world renowned ensemble?

Me I suppose!
I have a sound in my head that I want to create and mould as I wish. The singers are the instrument, and I encourage and train them to be the most accomplished that they can be as vocalists. In recent years we have clarified and created the Anúna Method of choral singing, and this has helped enormously in unifying the vocal sound of the group. Also many of the singers in the last two years in particular have become actively involved in defining that special sound we make, and this has been very exciting to see.

Our Method is a simple idea – a child can breathe, stand and sing naturally and with a relaxed flow of air. We spend our later childhood and adulthood forgetting what we could do so naturally when we were five or six years old. So, I try to take the singers back to that time, before they were able to hide their true selves. It can be very hard with some people to be honest and open when they sing. Much of our adult existence is taken with concealing how we feel. The purpose of the Anúna Method  is to facilitate the singers to transmit genuine emotion and truth – both the true nature of themselves as singers and, for me at least, the truth that is within the texts that I set to music or the songs that I arrange.

In the last year or so we have begun to give workshops of this Method. We learn as much from these as the participants do, so I am very excited about travelling Japan in advance of the tour to pass on some of these methods to singers and choral ensembles. This technique, I believe, is at the basis for what distinguishes Anúna from so many other choral groups all over the world today. We analyse and develop our vocal sound at every rehearsal and every show. No two performances are the same in any way. That is what it has always been like, and why I continue to perform with the choir after so long.

Which composers of church music of the Medieval/Renaissance are you influenced by? Also, how are you influenced specifically?

Gesualdo, Victoria, Tallis, Palestrina and Machaut would be my greatest influences. I love the work of Purcell and early Medieval music too. I have also been strongly influenced by the work of Hildegard von Bingen, the great German mystic. I’m not particularly interested in whether something is sacred or secular.

I recently wrote a piece for the American ensemble New York Polyphony which strongly echoes the tonalities of Carlo Gesualdo called “O Pia Virgo”. I particularly like his work, as the sense of the unexpected can catch your breath. Hildegard’s influence can be strongly heard on my arrangement of “Jerusalem” and my “Sanctus”, with their meditative purpose and the arching soprano lines that echo her own musical phrases.

My use of block, homophonic writing could be traced back to Renaissance masters. Palestrina has been a particular influence in relation to the use of motifs within phrases and harmonic structures. I love also the energy of early music. The first time I heard Perotin’s “Viderunt Omnes” many decades ago I knew that this was the kind of atmosphere I wanted to generate in my own compositions.

The oldest forms of Irish and Scottish music have always been of great inspiration too – Psalm singing from the Western Isles, Puirt a Bueil and the long and elegant phrases from Irish traditional slow airs have blended together with these medieval colours to produce my particular compositional voice.

Is Anuna music created by singing with a clear musical score, like a classical choral ensemble? Or is each member doing something improvisational or using personal decoration? Otherwise, do you it create only in a studio while recording?

Unfortunately there is no improvisational element to Anúna. That may change with time, but every note that the choir sing or that is heard on CD is notated. In Ireland the art of classical singing is not old. People from Southern Ireland have a great sense of being musicians, and there is much great music happening in other musical forms such as Traditional music and Rock music. In Classical music it is very different. It is often closed and a clique. I don’t like cliques. I often find it difficult to get Southern Irish singers that can read music, but it is almost impossible to get young Irish singers who do read music adequately and have choral experience to audition for Anúna and they often have no understanding or appreciation of what Anúna does and what it stands for.

Anúna and my own work as a composer have always existed outside of music in Ireland. Far too difficult to put in a category or musical box. Riverdance was not a help to us in that respect, as people still associate us with the myriad of Irish shows that promote Ireland as a country of athletic dance champions or ballad groups. We are not a traditional music ensemble, nor a classical chamber choir. We are admired by some musicians here, but in my specific field of composition and choral music we are pretty much ignored.

In the last few years most of the singers we have taken in are from Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. They have a much better music education system and Anúna is very well respected there by many musicians. We also have singers from other cultures – Dutch, Italian, American, English – I am always very happy to include singers from different musical backgrounds. It provides a perspective to the music that is vital to keeping it fresh. Although we travel with only twelve singers, they are drawn from a pool of up to twenty five from all over the world.

ANUNA’s music consists of not only Irish but also various traditional music from all over the UK, Europe and beyond. Is there any point in common?

There is no conscious point. Sometimes when I put an album together I see patterns forming that I was completely unaware of after the fact. Yes, I have a very strong sympathetic reaction to Ireland itself, understandably. I use it as a battery charge in many ways and that helps me work. But it is only one place, and the people’s experience here is often limited and sometimes, as with all small countries, parochial and without a world view. My inspirations are sited within the land of Ireland, but my intellectual stimulation comes from outside it.

In my art forms of choral music and composition, I no longer gain inspiration or stimulation from working in Ireland, which has always been a source of regret to me. I don’t work here either as a composer or as a performer with my group Anúna despite my best efforts. This has had quite a negative effect on my work unfortunately. It is hard to create in a place where there is no interaction with other artists. So when I travel, and increasingly I am doing that, I interact as much as I can with everyone I meet. That, I suppose, is the thing that ties my work together in an indirect way.

Outside influences are what have created Anúna and my own compositional voice. The musical inspiration I have gained from my home country has come from my limited exposure to the traditional music of my land and the sublime texts that flood out of the mouths of Irish writers, past and present. Writers in every culture have drawn on their own homeland for their inspiration. It is no different in most great literary countries.

Ancient words from past centuries are often used in ANÚNA’s lyrics. I guess you have researched these a lot. So, how has experiencing many languages from ancient cultures influenced you?

I majored in English when I went to college. Throughout my career as a composer I have concentrated on the relationship of language to music. I see my compositions and arrangements as creations to transmit information, not really as entities in themselves. Often I will choose a text because it touches me very deeply, and more often I will write a song text because I have a feeling that I want to transmit, maybe something I have felt while out in the Irish landscape.

Ireland is an ancient place, and all ancient places have a resonance or an echo from the past. I believe that my compositions have a dual relationship to this resonance. I remember those people that lived, loved, worked, played and died in the past. But also there is something else – something I cannot put easily in words. You could call it a subliminal understanding of the land itself. Ireland has a particularly strong aura within the landscape. I have been to many countries, and often this aura is hidden under cities or manicured by farming or even tourism, so it is less obvious than in Ireland. But it is there nonetheless. In a recent visit to Arizona I was deeply effected by the sensations of the American landscape in that area, and it has compelled me to find out more about the Native Americans and their relationship to that land.

One of the reasons I love travelling to Japan is because I believe that many Japanese people understand this aura better than Westerners. It is part of your culture, your heritage. It is in your literature, your art, your traditional and contemporary music. The main reason I set older texts is because I believe that virtually everything that we need to say about the human condition as artists has already been said. All we are doing is finding new ways of saying the same thing over and over again. It was David Bowie who said that he has been writing about the same things all his artistic life. Maybe that is because only the simplest things are of any importance in the greater scheme of this existence.

The lyrics of “Illumination” which is the album title, is like a letter from past to present, I’m very interested in it. What kind of person was James Galwey who passed away in 1627? Why is this song titled “Illumination”? Please let me know about the source of this song in as much detail as possible.

There is nothing more illuminating than death. In modern culture it is seen as a horrific thing, something to be terrified of and to deny. In ancient cultures death was present in every aspect of daily life, so it is seen as something inevitable and part of the natural cycle of things. The atmosphere I tried to create in this piece was one of acceptance of what cannot be changed. We remember those who have passed on because the realisation of the fragility and beauty of life enhances the experience of it. You could imagine that Lucy Champion’s voice on the solo is that of the soul itself, soaring above the declamatory voices of the congregation. It sings with them, but also exists above them, almost like an angelic guide to acceptance and illumination. We know nothing about Galwey except what is left carved on a stone, but I imagine such a philosophical man is one that I would have liked very much.

Strangely enough, the song “Mignonne Allons” which is in French and dates from the sixteenth century is like a companion piece to “Illumination”. For the Japanese release of the album I have recorded my eldest daughter Aisling, who is ten years old, singing with me as a duet. That song expands on this theme. The rose, so beautiful in flower, has scattered its petals all over the grass. We are no different to a flower, so we must value what we have and accept what we cannot change.

In the case of a Japanese Amateur Choir trying to sing one of your songs, what points should they take note of?

If you buy my music from my website at www.michaelmcglynn.com, it comes automatically with pronunciation guides if it is in the Irish language. While the language is difficult, it is less difficult that English! No, Japanese choirs have no problem with singing my songs at all. If they do not make the sound artificial and forced, for example, singing the songs that are folk-like in a classical manner or ignoring the speed markings, any choir in the world is perfectly capable of singing these pieces.

I am so proud that my choral music has introduced so many people all over the world to the beauty of the Irish language and the songs that I loved as a child. However, much of my output is in other languages – Latin, English etc. Choirs would need to approach such pieces as they would any other work by a contemporary composer.

I heard that you performed for the children of Fukushima Elementary School. Thank you very much. Please tell me your impression of that time. The tragedy is still continuing in silence. Please give your message to the people in Fukushima who are still suffering having been driven from their contaminated homes.

There is no need to thank me or any of the singers who travelled so soon after the disaster to Fukushima. We were honoured to have been able to sing for those children. We were not representing Ireland, just ourselves. We were humbled by the strength and positive mindset of the people we met. Our intention of going there was to raise awareness in Japan of the great horror that had been visited on these innocent people.Our music is often called healing music in your country, and if it gave any comfort at all to the people of the area I am very grateful for that.

In great disaster we see the true nature of humanity. If there has been any good to be salvaged from this terrible event it is that there has been a greater strengthening of community and a desire to help others. I am so looking forward to returning to meet the children of Iwaki, as they performed brilliantly for us and their energy and joy on that day has stayed with me

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Come Away to the Skies : A High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass

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

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.

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

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