A River of Song

I wrote this short piece as an introduction to Dónal Kearney’s book, a beautiful exploration of song, entitled The Little Book of Lore

I wrote this short piece as an introduction to Dónal Kearney’s book, a beautiful exploration of song, entitled The Little Book of Lore. 

A river of song surrounds us. Just beyond our senses, its supple and sinuous tendrils enhance those of us who were born seeking it out. Cultures still closely connected to the earth take it for granted. It seeps into their traditional music and literature, subtly variated to the tongue and landscape of indigenous peoples, growing as a culture grows and bringing forth stories that bind them together as a community. These stories have universally shared themes that form the basis for all human society. As an artist I strive to tell my own story within the context of this river of song, searching out new ways to say what generations before me have already said as they travelled down the same winding ways.

Today we directly access stories in the form of literature. It is a solitary experience despite being only one relatively small step away from the mind of the creator of the work. It hasn’t always been this way. In the past the skill of the storyteller had the greatest influence on the manner in which the listener perceived the tale. Subtle inflection could be infinitely more effective than bombastic drama in the telling of a good yarn. A good storyteller could control the level of complexity and ambiguity that the listener took away from the telling. 

I see myself as a storyteller. When I was very young, I remember creating my own tales, long, convoluted plots that developed and aged with me. It seemed natural to continue this interest in college so I chose to study English literature. I revelled in millennia of stories, setting them to music for my own enjoyment, something I continue to do.

In college I reached back to my ten year-old self and brought forward the songs and stories I had learnt in Coláiste na Rinne (Ring College) as a child. I can say without hesitation that the love of my culture first began there. I heard songs from the Irish tradition for the first time and experienced the musicality of fluently spoken Irish, a subtle, complex and highly sophisticated language that could carry meaning on so many levels with its gentle rise and fall. Within these poems and songs lay the seed that would grow to define my own work and, even at this distance in time, continues to do so.

I created Anúna as a mouthpiece to tell some of the stories I had collected, some of the tales that I loved to listen to over and over. Through the voices I gathered around me the monk Cormac sang again after eight hundred years of silence in “Cormacus Scripsit”. Francis Ledwidge told for us his sad elegies of lost love and death through our combined voices. Songs held exclusively in the domain of traditional singing were exposed to audiences that may never have had an opportunity to hear them. Irish texts were reset and reimagined, allowing Anúna themselves to experience what hitherto had been the exclusive domain of traditional singers.

Releasing these songs in this way has given them a new life and I am hugely proud of that. A few years ago I sat in a concert hall in Florida to hear a concert of my work. In front of me stood a group of very young singers of every shade and ethnicity imaginable. They told me the story of “Cúnnla” tickling their toes and of the rich old lady with more money than sense in “‘Sí do Mhaimeo Í”.  They told them to me in my own language and thus added a new layer to the many that stretched out into the past.

We can all be master storytellers. Any parent is capable of adapting a text in conscious and subconscious ways in order to illuminate, protect or entertain a vulnerable and fertile young mind.  A good storyteller travels on the journey with their listener and allows the words to speak clearly without impediment. Stories should grow with each retelling and a tale become richer and more complex within its own expanding landscape. A good story is local and universal simultaneously, a good melody illuminates the tale in profound ways, something we hear most evidently in songs like “Anach Cúan” or the deceptive “An Mhaighdean Mhara”.

I have found that the best way of composing is to let the music find its own path, allowing it to weave its own magic around the words of a text. Arranging a traditional melody is a different art entirely, but can illuminate in unexpected and sometimes powerful ways. In this rather intangible process author and composer/arranger become one and a new creation emerges. Long dead words live again in this wonderful relationship between the teller and listener.  Each time we experience songs created from the minds of those who have gone before us the past lives again. And we grow.

Their knowledge and experience enrich our own beyond measure.


5 thoughts on “A River of Song

  1. So honest and revealing. This is a beautiful telling of your life story in short form.

  2. Fabulous, though… when this popped up in my inbox, I only saw the words “River Song”. #WhovianDyslexia

  3. Thank you sir for passing on the stories and songs. Your work is such an inspiration and comfort. I am so glad to have found it.

  4. Michael, really enjoyed reading this. Trevor and I are looking forward to this Saturday’s concert. See you in St. Bart’s.

  5. This introduction to ‘A River of Song” is beautifully humbling. It embodies and is carried within Spirit. Music has been my path to light and life, to the Spirit within and it amazes me how long and how many succesive ones I have had to follow, one at a time and now I am home within the spirit of my ancestors of Gaelic / Celtic origin. Like the written word, books, might have two or three levels of meaning. So too does music. It is now, for me, deeper and higher. Sometimes I hear what has perhaps been said before. Your voices are ephemeral. And a precious gift you share.

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