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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