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.

6 thoughts on “The Beginning – An Uaithne to Anúna

  1. I remember this time so fondly. More good than bad times and how once the classical and trad singers got to know each other well, an amazingly interesting blend was achieved. I also remember the working out of the name Anuna on a blackboard at the rehearsal space in Parnell Square. I learned so much about singing and performing by working with you and your brother. Despite the clashes we had, I am forever grateful!

  2. Isn’t it amazing? I wish I could have been around for the earlier stuff. (Well…I guess I was, but I was only 7 at the time.) I came in (as a fan) at Riverdance, but even I can hear and fully appreciate the ever growing and ever changing sound and energy of Anuna. I could go on for hours, but I won’t. I would, however, like to thank you for sticking to it and staying around. Happy 25th and I look forward to 25 more.

  3. This is a great write up Michael, thank you for sharing it with me. I may not have studied music or sing or can sing for that matter yet I know what speaks to my heart and soul when it comes to music. You are an amazing writer and composer, AISLING is one piece that shows how much of your heart and soul you put into your music.

    Love to Lucy and the girls.

    By the way, how are your parents doing, well I hope. Is your dad still working on his photography?

    Sincerely Tanya

  4. i am just pleased to have your music in my life. grateful for your personal journey as a composer and as the ensemble Anúna which you brought together. also, might i add, that as a fan, it was imperative and important that you digitally archived all your stuff! yay! and once more, i love this picture of you all so young, so serious!

  5. As a newbie to the group and one who is still finding his feet it’s so interesting to hear about the early days. I was only 7 when the group started so I’ve a lot of lost time to catch up on, if that’s even possible but for now I’ll contend myself with being extremely proud and honoured to be involved with Anuna in it’s 25th year, I wonder what the next 25 years will bring…

  6. Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Taking the time and actual effort to generate a top notch article…
    but what can I say… I put things off a whole lot and don’t
    seem to get anything done.

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