ANÚNA@30 : My Last Competition

I am not a huge fan of competitions for choral music. You might think that that is a rather hypocritical statement considering I have adjudicated at the Tolosa (The Basque), Cork and Tampere (Finland) Choral Festivals (and will be in Tampere again this summer!). But I have to be blunt and say that while it can bring out the best in people it also brings out the worst.

Nevertheless it can push a choir to improve, experience new repertoire and enable people with an interest in the art to discuss and explore the huge panorama that is this wonderful form of music. In a healthy choral environment competition can be a very positive thing.

I’ve never thought that the choral environment was particularly healthy here in Ireland and I’ve always been wary of attending, adjudicating or performing at competitions as a consequence. The lack of an integrated choral infrastructure combined with non-proactive funding choices by the Arts Council of Ireland continue to disappoint. And no doubt will continue to do so until I am under the sod. But that story is for later on.

This story is about Anúna’s one and only competition.

The Cork International Choral Festival is the main competition for choirs in Ireland and in 1990 I decided to enter our choir, then called An Uaithne, for the main category. Much to all of our surprise we were chosen to compete and I selected diverse material thanks to very good advice from the Artistic Director of the Festival Geoff Spratt to read the application carefully before submitting my repertoire list. In the end I chose an eclectic mix – “Moro Lasso” by Carlo Gesualdo, Debussy’s “Dieu, Qu’il la Fait”, also repertoire by Robert White and my own “Tenebrae I”.


We faced off against a tough field of international ensembles, being the only Irish choir chosen to take part. We were at a disadvantage from the start. We were too small numerically to take part so we added in a few singers for the competition who hadn’t sung with us before. And I couldn’t conduct. And we didn’t really know the repertoire very well, but we managed to sing most of the notes but not always in the right places. And we were grand. No one died which was a bonus.

My own piece “Tenebrae I”, very flatteringly got the highest mark  of our performance and pushed us into second place behind the highly acclaimed Lithuanian ensemble Jauna Muzika. So this was a great result for our fledgeling group and I was very pleased.

An Uaithne c. 1991

I also won the Seán Ó Riada Trophy for my composition “Dirigh Bhar Sleagha Sealga” that year and the great English composer John Tavener, who adjudicated it, when asked to describe our performance thought about it for a while. Then said “Primordial”… you can’t get much better than that. That night I spotted him wearing a long robe dancing at the the disco with a couple of young wans from one of the Dublin choirs. Different days I suppose.

Back to the story – at the gala performance that night something  special happened. We sang three songs from Ireland that I had arranged – “Deus Meus”, “Gol na dTrí Muire” and “A Stór mo Chroí”. Despite the presence of so many Irish ensembles we were the only choir who sang in our own language. At the last gala performance I attended at the Cork Choral Festival many years later the only Irish piece was performed by a Canadian choir singing an arrangement by a Finnish composer.

I remember the atmosphere at the end of “A Stór” – a profound silence and intake of breath, something I had never experienced as we had never performed before such a large audience before. So it was here on the stage of City Hall in Cork, at that moment, that I knew that An Uaithne were doing something very different, very new, something profound that related strongly to our own beautiful song tradition. It was a mystical moment. Some of the international choral singers came up to me after and told me that they had never heard or seen anything like what we had done.

And thus Anúna was born from An Uaithne.

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.


Meeting with the Remarkable Mr. Mawby

Sometimes you can be lucky as an artist and meet someone very special early in your career whose influence remains with you throughout your life.

Colin Mawby and I first crossed paths in 1988 when I auditioned for the RTÉ Chamber Choir, a sixteen voice choir that offered a bursary to young classical singers and a professional environment in which to develop. By that stage my own fledgeling group, Anúna, was a year old. I didn’t think I had a hope of getting in, but I did. Colin was not shy about telling me that it wasn’t my singing that got me the place, rather it was my compositional aspirations. He believed that I would gain enormously from being part of an ensemble such as this.

I did in so many ways.

We met last March in London. Between a selection of inspired contemporary Indian dishes at the Lotus Restaurant of Leicester Square, and a very pleasant bottle of wine, we took up from exactly the point where we had left off last time we met, an unbelievable twenty four years earlier. Today Colin is very active as a composer, producing new work on a daily basis with an enviable schedule of commissions and performances. He divides his time between London and Dublin and despite the odd line and grey hair he appears to be pretty much the same as he was last time I met him almost quarter of a century ago.

Michael McGlynn & Colin Mawby March 2016, London

He says the same things about choral music now as he did then. I wish I had been able to remain silent for long enough to allow his words to sink in so long ago, but it is the nature of young people that they ignore good advice. Experience is a cruel teacher, but it does help on the journey when you know that someone else has travelled that lonely road before you.

There is much written about Colin and his music. A superficial glance at his C.V. and a brief listen to his substantial choral output indicate immediately that he is a serious and gifted writer with a very individual harmonic language coupled with a sincere and deep faith. I am very lucky to have experienced his music with his guiding hand present. The passion he very obviously felt for the work he created was evident and often showed up our own lack of engagement with the process of making it for him. This may all sound very serious but working with Colin veered from profundity to absurdity within a single session. His sense of wicked humour constantly broke through even the most sublime choral moments.

Over the years my ideas about what a choir is have changed dramatically. In fact, many of the theories I now carry all over the world in workshops and presentations about the art of choral singing were formulated while I watched him work. Before, and after, my time with the RTÉ Chamber Choir I had worked with a number of other conductors. He was the first one that challenged my perception of what the relationship between the singer and the conductor should be. He did not give basic guidance. You were the instrument and as far as he was concerned you were in charge of what you did with it, and crucially, you were responsible for the musical impulse behind your individual expression. His job was to attempt to mould our collective efforts into a coherent artistic statement. 

The RTÉ Chamber Choir, conductor Colin Mawby, 1990. Image copyright RTÉ.

The relationship between conductor and singer was, for many hundreds of years, very simple. The leader was one of many, but part of the whole. The advent of orchestral conductors in the 19th century has had a knock-on effect on choral music that has not been positive in the main. The precision that a conductor can offer more complex contemporary repertoire is not in dispute but so often today conductors take on responsibility for every aspect of the production of sound – shaping the basic lines and directing musical responses from singers. This makes the singer, the instrument, reactive and not proactive – a receptacle for direction.

There is a huge difference between being led by the nose and thinking for yourself, being the instrument and being permitted by the director to be the instrument. The skill of any conductor should be to create coherent shape from collective artistry, not to impose an artistic vision on top of an ensemble. It is very easy to put the blame on conductors for this, but in fact the blame falls squarely on the singers themselves I believe. A conductor can’t make singers proactive. 

I am very proud to say that over the last decade Anúna have evolved well beyond this limited relationship through observance and working with some of the finest choral minds in the world, through both compositional relationships with professional ensembles such as Chanticleer and New York Polyphony and through interactions with Charles Bruffy and the Kansas City Chorale in particular. I am very proud to say that that journey to this point in time began with Colin and is very much still ongoing.

For Colin, simplicity is the basis of great music, chant being a perfect expression of that. If it can’t be said in the simplest of language then maybe it shouldn’t be said at all. In the art of composition, complexity can often conceal vacuity.

He emphasised to us the responsibility we have as performers to the composer. When we sing their works they are with us. I remember a performance we gave of Palestrina’s “Stabat Mater”. Even thinking of it still gives me chills. It was the first time I ever felt the presence of a composer in our midst, listening, judging. Breathing with us. Colin explained the circumstances of the work and allowed us the freedom to sing the lines freely as individuals, but with one destination that he led us to.

Every week coming in to rehearsal was a new thrill, a new experience for us to savour. It was the formative experience of my life as a professional musician.

He treated my compositional aspirations with great respect. One day I found him in the office going through one of my pieces and muttering deeply flattering things. He was founding father of the magnificent Cór na nÓg (the RTÉ children’s choir, today in the inspiring hands of Mary Amond O’Brien) and it was through them he commissioned my first large-scale work “Gawain and the Green Knight”. He programmed a number of works of mine, allowing me access to my first professional experiences as a composer. 

So many people owe him so much. So many young people have grown into adults that remember him with deep love and appreciation. His work with the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir is remembered by the singers with the deepest of affection.

As our lunch ended and we wandered on to the streets of London it struck me that I had done most of the talking. Throughout our meal he offered advice and encouragement. Colin hasn’t changed. Nor have I really. Time is only an illusion, and those of us permitted to document it in musically creative ways are among the most blessed.

On Saturday May 21st at 6pm in St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin there will be a very special concert of his work to celebrate his 80th birthday. Tickets are available from HERE

The Natural Voice

Once upon a time I would open my mouth and just sing. It really was that simple. A child singing, completely relaxed, no pressure to do more than savour the experience.  Living in a house full of music was taken for granted as it flowed through a day filled with Frank Sinatra, piano practice, three-part Beatles songs in harmony on the back seat of the car on the way from school to the latest number one by ABBA. It was all natural, unforced and part of the fabric of life.
Then we went to secondary school and things changed. Music was a minor subject in a day full of Mathematics and English. When the school did put on its annual operetta we made the chorus line, never a solo. We natural assumed that we just weren’t good enough to merit such things, and we could always sing our songs at home. The music continued to flow in our house but without the ambition to become a solo vocalist.

At nineteen I discovered choral singing and began studying Music and English at college. I decided that I’d get my voice trained as I had developed a passion for Early music and I knew I needed increased vocal strength to sing it. Teachers came and went, talking about “support”, “head voice”, “the ribs”, “registers”, “passagio”. This was the correct way to sing. Something I believed was so simple, so natural, became hugely complicated.

I managed to gain a place in Ireland’s only professional choral ensemble, The RTÉ Chamber Choir. The Artistic Director Colin Mawby told me without ambiguity that I had not gained the place as a singer, rather because he had recognised a fellow composer and he felt that I would benefit from the experience. Very few solos were forthcoming. Whenever I had a solo to do I became very flustered and nervous. I was aware that other singers around me could make a big noise that allowed them to attempt operatic arias or oratorio to a paying audience even at this very early stage of their professional lives. I was happy just to sing in the choir and luxuriate in the music that has fed my artistic soul since then. I had no aspirations to create the sound I heard from most of those around me. It seemed that they wanted to sound older than they were. I didn’t want to do that so I must be wrong and I left well alone.

Then things changed. My compositional voice began to develop and I needed an instrument, thus Anúna was born back in 1987. While it was just about acceptable to hear Purcell sung with voices of greater age than the bodies that they inhabited, it simply was not acceptable to do the same with my own music. If they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, make the sound I wanted then I would have to sing the solos myself.

Often I avoided singing a solo, handing it to one of the other singers to record instead of me if at all possible. I just didn’t think I was that good and it was cowardice to some extent. I believe that unconsciously I wanted to concentrate on the way the overall piece sounded without letting my personal misgiving about my solo singing get in the way. I was also hampered by the confusion as to what I should be doing technically. What I noticed was that if the solo was to successfully transmit the story of the song, the message of the text, then I had to just disregard all the pushing, placing and projecting I had been trained to do.

I just wanted to get the singer out of the way and let the song speak for itself.

Time passed. Anúna became more and more successful and a succession of vocalists passed through our ranks. Due to a brief stint with Riverdance, Anúna’s vocal sound became associated with small, thin sound. Singers entered the group with that sound in their minds, and my technical knowledge was not sufficient to correct them and to get them to sing the song in the way I had intended it to be sung. I started creating music for these small voices, restricting the colours that I could paint.  What I did provide was the basis for successful careers for so many of them. But my own voice suffered.

You can hear, and see, how difficult I found solo singing in this video from 1999 of my song “Where All Roses Go”. I reference Jeff Buckley in the introduction having shared a stage with him a few years before. I spent a wild night with him in London talking about the singer and the song. He produced a sound that was free, with an untamed passion. This was the antithesis of what I had been trained to do.

My voice survived on despite shouting my way through rehearsals and then presenting and singing in concert. It lasted for a long time – longer than it should have. Then in 2007 it began to fail. It had always been somewhat variable and the final outing for me was as part of the Celtic Origins project that year.

And then it was over. I couldn’t sing live except to bolster up the performers that surrounded me. I continued to record, but it was a staggeringly stressful experience that never allowed for spontaneity. Then I met Sylvia O Regan. Sylvia is a gifted teacher, and she coaxed my voice back from a very dark place. You can see her in action here with some of her students.

She has allowed me to sing again. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t but her patient determination and positive outlook has allowed me to regain confidence in my voice. You can hear me sing on the album “Revelation” by Anúna, older, a little more frail, but the sound comes now. Returning to a natural sound shouldn’t be such a difficult thing to do, but we are the measure of the experiences we have in life, good and bad. All joy, all sorrow write themselves on our voices. Thank you Sylvia…


Out of the space between waking and sleeping came an unearthly sound, something ancient, incomprehensible and yet immediate and visceral.

I remember very well the first time I heard “Fionnghuala” very late at night on one of the many pirate radio stations that populated the airwaves of Irish broadcasting in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While many of the DJs may not have had the Dublin-centric voices that featured on our national broadcaster at the time, some of them really knew their music. They would jump between punk, medieval music, electronic, jazz and then sometimes they would come up with something like this.

Today with the ubiquity of internet infiltration anyone can access such musical wonders, but at that time you got one listen and then it was gone.

I didn’t even know who the artist was, not coming from a family that was involved in any way in traditional music, but the sound resonated within me for years before I discovered it was the work of The Bothy Band, an imaginative and powerful arrangement of a Scottish traditional piece in a style called mouth music. The track was originally released in 1976 and by the time I heard it the band were no more, and the song was consigned to being another quirky footnote in the ever-evolving landscape of Irish music at the time.

In 1993 Anúna went to church to record our first album (I Took Them To Church… ok, I’m sorry I couldn’t resist it) and part of my intention was to awaken the general populace in my homeland to my own obsession with choral music. Pompous as it sounds now, I really was on a crusade, and “Fionnghuala” truly deserved another day in the sun. The ambient recording space required an incredibly precise delivery and an understanding of the essential nature of projecting the immediacy of this unique song. The last thing I wanted was a classical “choral” sound.

Brian Masterson created the space and John McGlynn sang into it in an approximation of what we had heard The Bothy Band do. I thought he was superhuman in his ability to sing something so complex in such a fluid manner. It was different to the Bothy Band, a new sound-world and the only track I didn’t write or arrange on the album.

Within a year or two this song was back up there in the popular imagination, even featuring on an advert for the Irish Lottery with us singing it. In 1995 when Elvis Costello joined us on stage for a concert in London as part of his Meltdown Festival we were accompanied by Dónal Lunny, one of The Bothy Band, and managed to convince him to come on stage and sing it with us. In 1996 we sang it on Later with Jools Holland on the BBC. “Fionnghuala” became an anthem to us on so many complex levels, part of what defined Anúna. It was Scottish, so sidestepped the political difficulties of the time and it was pretty much unique, and I built up a musical vocabulary around it that included my setting of the text of “Dúlamán”.

 However, the single performance of this version of the song that stays with me occurred at the BBC Proms in Belfast in 2002. In front of a crowd of 14,000 people we sang a programme in English, Irish and then “Fionnghuala”. Magical! Like “Danny Boy”, written by an English man, “Fionnghuala” is a Scottish song that we have taken on board as our own in Ireland. No need to translate the words, no need to pretend it is something that it is not. We are incredibly privileged to be able to speak the words of the forgotten past and make these poets and writers live again no matter whether they are from Galway or Tokyo. Such is the great gift given to us as singers, and in the form of a choir this becomes something that transcends the mundane nature of our musical existence.

Maybe in a few decades someone will come back to ANÚNA’s version of this song and it will fan an ember which will turn into a flame… as it did with me.

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.


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, 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


Come Away to the Skies : A High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass

At the end of December last I unexpectedly got an invitation from a friend, composer Reg Unterseher, to come along and hear Tim Sharp & Wes Ramsay’s, “Come Away to the Skies : A High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass” in Dublin. The performance was to take place in Taney Church, only ten minutes walk from my front door! It was an opportunity not to be missed, as I had heard very positive mention of the work when I attended the American Choral Directors Association National Conference in Dallas in March of 2013.

As the Mass was due to be presented as part of an actual service, my whole family went. The first thing that I noted was that the children in the congregation, including my own, were entranced right from the first moment the music began. Parents struggled to stop them jumping and swaying. For an Irish audience, Bluegrass is not a form they are very familiar with, and the instruments juxtaposed on the choral ensemble took everyone initially by surprise. This was something truly different to what any of us had expected.

I was already familiar with the atypical modal colours of Bluegrass vocal harmony and I have sat through many performances of contemporary choral works written by my esteemed American composer colleagues. This work was unlike anything I had experienced of either – and yet at a fundamental level it was completely familiar to me. The Mass is something rooted firmly and unapologetically in a powerful traditional culture. I could hear elements of shape note singing and sacred harp interlaced with the direct and simple melodic shapes and structures of Appalachian folk music. It should be familiar to me, because hidden away within the melting pot of European and African influences from this region is the voice of my own country.

Below the choral part sits the unique, and comforting, instrumental colours of the Bluegrass band. They never intrude, they don’t elaborate. They accompany and carry us forward without artifice. It couldn’t be simpler really, nor more effective. I am all for exploring traditional instrumental colours in a contemporary context, but equally they can sound very out-of-place when used to develop contemporary harmonic and linear elements of a work. There is a sense throughout the entirety of this piece that a strong musical hand is expertly juggling these disparate elements. Each movement has a satisfying structural sense to it, and there is a unified musical language present in the whole composition.

This is honest, direct music that treats its source material with respect. While the harmonic colours employed by Tim Sharp can veer towards the contemporary at times, this never feels forced. Two movements stand out for me – Credo, with its infectious and simple affirmations of belief. Bluegrass was created in a society where faith and music sustained people through the best and worst of times. Functional, but also inspirational, music. Then there is the sublime Agnus Dei – a masterclass for any composer in how to treat traditional source material. This was, for me, the highlight of the Mass.

The performance, in a cold church on a dark day, was beautifully realised, with some virtuosic and flexible singing from the sopranos in particular. This was strongly contrasted with a vibrant and earthy tone from the men’s lines. Tim Sharp himself played and conducted [very well too]. It was unsurprising to hear that most of the performers were educators and musicians, as there was a lovely musical shape to all the singing. They succeeded in warming up and enthralling an Irish congregation more used to the joys of Anglican Church Music. Well done to everyone involved!

20131229_212453I was very surprised after the performance/service how modest Tim was about his achievement, because that is what this work is – a real achievement. Its heartfelt and honest musical core, created within the context of a quintessentially American musical genre, is a celebration of a uniquely beautiful cultural ethos.

Me and Tim Sharp in Christ Church Cathedral, Dec. 29th 2013

You can check out the whole Mass on YouTube HERE, but in the meantime here is the Credo and Agnus Dei for your enjoyment [and mine for the 6th time today…].