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.

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

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey. I hope to find your papers for some insight into what makes Michael McGlynn tick in time to his music.

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