The Free Design and Clannad

This blog is great. I can rant and rave as much as I like, so this brief posting is a rave as opposed to a rant. I’m often asked by people what the formative influences of Anúna have been over the years, and there have been many. One of the greatest influences in the early stages was the work being done by Clannad. The first Clannad track I remember was called “Lisa” back in 1976 at Irish college, and Incidentally, my favourite Clannad album is “Magical Ring”, which helped me define my own attitude to my own country at a crucial time.

In August of 2009 I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Máire Brennan, lead singer of the group for a forthcoming documentary on Irish music. She asked me a number of questions that were considerably more insightful than many of those I get asked by others, one of which got me thinking. When I told her how influential the sound of Clannad was in the early days of my career she probed this statement, eventually ascertaining that one of the crucial attractions to me was the sameness of their blended voices. All of Clannad are related, and my earliest attempts at singing always involved my brothers John and Tom singing together or in parts.

So this may be the genesis point for the homogenous sound of Anúna. I’m looking for a specific rather than a universal tone to the choral group. This blog isn’t about choral techniques, but it is about the search for a unified sound. Maybe there is a point in all of our voices where we are the same on more-than an aural level? Dare I say that there are things about singing in a choir that choral singers subliminally know are there, and that some groups manage to touch that unconsciously? Anúna create a sound that is timeless and changes only slightly despite the nearly two hundred members that have passed through our ranks since 1987. Maybe that is why groups that are made up of siblings generate the sound they do. The singers know each other as individuals at a most basic level, and that influences the way that they listen to each other. Anúna is different from many choirs I know, as we get to know each other on a fundamental and basic level. This definitely has an effect on the sound we make.

My brother John sent me a link to a group on Wikipedia with the words “You ever heard of these guys? Stumbled on them and they’re amazing!” And it was there I found The Free Design. Here was something very different to Anúna and Clannad, but that used the same unconscious understanding of vocal timbre, with that “something extra” element.

I could write a thesis on what I think of this amazing group of siblings, long disbanded. Online you will find analysis that talks about their “bubblegum pop” sound and the failure of the group to break it big, for whatever that is worth. What I hear are very intelligent choral arrangements based in a classical idiom rather than a pop one and searingly honest lyrics that require a few readings to understand the depths behind them [I nearly typed “spiritual depths” but that categorises this group incorrectly]. The music has an appeal to a three year old and an adult, avoiding whimsy and tweeness.

Start with “Kites are Fun” and the extraordinary “Bubbles”

and move through “Daniel Dolphin” to what can only be described as the least commercial series of cover versions of well-known material I have ever heard – listen to “Light My Fire” – isn’t this just, well, mind-expanding? That is a top B in the soprano part!

At the moment my children love “2002 – a Hit Song” for the alternating 4/4, 12/8 4/8 time signature.

Thanks to this digital age material like this can never be lost, but simply rediscovered and absorbed by a new generation of ears. In 2010 I made contact with Chris Dedrick, the main writer behind The Free Design. He was terminally ill and has since passed away. He listened to some of my own music and we had some correspondence of mutual admiration, which I have to say I found deeply flattering.

Maybe the sound we all make will touch some younger ears somewhere in that “special” way. Maybe somewhere out there there is another potential Clannad or The Free Design that will again ask us to “Give a little time to the child within you, don’t be afraid to young and free. Undo the lock and throw away the key and take off your shoes and socks and run you”. After all, the best music is about simple things, and it can take a lifetime to say a simple thing well.


8 thoughts on “The Free Design and Clannad

  1. Michael,

    The Free Design is a group that was lurking around the back of my mind! Ye should also check out “Make the Madness stop” for its intricate tempos – there’s a mid-section that is crazy… and the use of cello…??

    Great stuff and with all the nostalgia around Woodstock in the past month, very apropo!

    Thanks for the tips on other great sounds… Are you intouch with Lisa Gerrard at all? I’d love to see if the two of you could do something together…?

    Bye from a nice autumnal Baltimore!

  2. Hmm…this looks interesting. I’m going to have get to The Record Exchange (in Salem) and see if I can find The Free Design. (You would be amazed at what’s in this place.) Hey, is there any way you can find out if this documentary will be aired in the States…or at least made availible on DVD?

  3. It’s interesting to understand what influenced you in the early days. I hope you find more influences that give shape to your sound.

    Free Design I remember as a kid in the early ’70s but for a brief moment. Even as a kid, I didn’t see them as “Bubblegum” compared to the teen junk that came out back then. They had an approach to a song that distinguished them from other groups and ensembles of the time. Probably it’s one reason I have such an affinity for voices. It was a nice rediscovery. If you haven’t heard these songs already try: “Ivy On A Windy Day”, “Where Do I Go” (A question I keep asking myself), and “Kum Ba Yah”.

    Take care and all the best for your upcoming concerts. Wish I could be there.

  4. I remember my choirmaster trained us to sing “as one man”. For that we used just several technics and tried to listen to each other. The sound turned out quite smooth and pure, but never so magic as Anuna…

    PS. Can’t pull my child back from the Toyota advert with The Free Design’s “Love You”.

  5. Hello Michael, As ever I’m a fan of Anuna, your compositions, and your voice. (Can’t get enough of ‘O Maria’. I am so grateful!). Just read your blogs for the first time. Funny thing, I am a twin, and my twin brother is a composer (choral and other). Also, he introduced me to Free Design a few years back. Never heard their ‘Light My Fire’ before. Wow! Anyway, such a lot of coincidences make me smile. Looking forward to the DVD! Best to you! Hoping you come out to the US soon.

  6. Michael,
    I am sold on The Free Design! I have never heard of them and yet I cannot help but be mesmerized by their intricate harmonies. Wow is all I can say.

    I saw a really good video on YouTube by Perpetuum Jazzille and they do an awesome version of Togo’s “Africa” complete with rain and thunder sound affects. I thought you might find it amusing. Keep up the good work in finding new and interesting sounds. I am always looking for new music.

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