Sean-nós on Its Own Terms

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (Photo: Bríd Ní Luasaigh)

Sean-nós on Its Own Terms

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Ceara Conway and Inni-K have all recently released CDs that reimagine the performance of Irish sean-nós songs. Adrian Scahill reviews.

For some time now there has been an increasing engagement by musicians and composers from across the contemporary music spectrum with the unaccompanied Irish song tradition, working with sean-nós songs and singers. Part of this wave of new music has included works or projects that are driven by singers themselves – examples which come to mind include the breadth of music both inspired by and created by Iarla Ó Lionáird, and the projects of Lorcán Mac Mathúna. Adding to this corpus is a trio of new CDs from three women singers that focus on solo Irish-language songs. All three albums are similar in endeavouring to reinvent how these songs might be performed, and in aiming to create something novel based on, and remaining faithful to, traditional sources; this is emphasised in the sleeve notes and press releases for these albums. Ceara Conway states in her press release for Caoin that she wants ‘to bring a new sound to these traditional songs and to reinterpret them in a new way’. Róisín ReImagined, which features Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, has, according to Síle Denvir’s introductory sleeve note, ‘breathed new life into the noble, classical songs of our ancestors’, by commissioning composers to ‘explore the connections between classical and traditional music’ and to reimagine these songs for a new era. And Inni-K (Eithne Ní Catháin) aims for a ‘contemporary, vital and unique reimagining’ of the sean-nós tradition through creating a ‘re-hearing, in a way, of something dear, something essential’ with her album Iníon.

It might be argued that some of the descriptions hark back to the type of ‘progressivist’ stance on traditional music that was often espoused by commentators such as Annie Patterson during the Gaelic Revival, which imagined that a national, even cosmopolitan, art music could (and should) be developed from the natural resource of tradition. This might be read of Denvir’s comment that Róisín ReImagined ‘has elevated these songs to yet another level through this project’. At the same time, she reminds us that these songs ‘emerged from a practice that was part of a wider European and international culture’, presumably as a way of heading off any charges of appropriation (or innovation). However, the revivalist idea that traditional singing in Irish (or indeed traditional and folk music in its wider sense) needed to be ‘improved’ was of course flawed from the outset, as it failed to recognise these as highly developed and highly skilled art forms in themselves. Thus I got the sense here that these are not projects borne out of a sense of being constrained or limited by the traditional practices of the Gaelic song tradition; rather, they exude a deep sense of love and respect for songs, singers and the community that supports them. Reflecting this, all three singers (and their collaborators) treat the songs themselves as sacrosanct and inviolable – any composition, reimagining and arranging here is always extrinsic to the extant words and melodies of the songs. 

Because of this, these recordings demand careful consideration of where the reviewer’s critical focus might be directed: how might we balance our response to the singers’ performance and interpretation of each song, the work of the composer and/or arranger, and the suturing together of these elements into a coherent whole? The presence of additional voices also further enriches the dialogic qualities of traditional song in Irish, a type of process that Steve Coleman has described as ‘the bringing together of and exchange between specific persons, both in the past and in the here-and-now.’ Thus on Róisín ReImagined, ‘‘S Ar Maidin Moch is mé ar mo Leabain Bhoig’ bridges the voices of the eighteenth-century Cork poet Máire Bhuí Ní Laoghaire and the twenty-first-century Cork composer Sam Perkin, with a further connection to Nic Amhlaoibh’s source for the song, the West Kerry singer Séan de hÓra. Conway’s ‘Caoineadh’ is synonymous with Cáit Ni Gallchóir (Kitty Gallagher), the Donegal singer whose keening was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1951; here it is framed by the musical imagination of her collaborators. And Inni-K’s album includes several songs almost inseparable from their originators – Elizabeth Cronin’s version of ‘Lord Gregory’ and Joe Heaney’s ‘An Tiarna Randal’ – and her treatment of these stems both from her love of these sources, and her own musical journey.  

Róisín ReImagined: orchestral context
Muireann Nic Amhlaoidh is the most prominent and experienced of these singers, and her long career both as a soloist, collaborator and band member was marked by the Amhránaí na Bliana Gradam Ceoil award in 2011. This is an extensive and ambitious project in its scale, involving the Irish Chamber Orchestra; the composers Cormac McCarthy, Linda Buckley, Paul Campbell, Sam Perkin, Niamh Varian Barry, and Michael Keeney; and additional guest musicians, all under the production of Dónal O’Connor, and supported by Kilkenny Arts Festival. (A concert version of some of the pieces was broadcast on TG4 back in December). Nic Amhlaoidh is more than capable of holding her own within an orchestral context, and the songs are always sung with authority, presence and the depth of feeling which is reserved to those fully cognisant of the context, history and knowledge of this repertoire.  

While the approach taken on Róisín ReImagined produces a lot of variety of colour and style of arrangement, it also makes the overall album a little uneven. Campbell (who also conducts all the works) follows in a long tradition of more romantically inclined and expansive orchestral arrangements of Irish material. In particular he takes his cue from Seán Ó Riada’s and Shaun Davey’s work, outdoing them in the luxuriant treatment of the opening track ‘Róisín Dubh’, with its soaring uilleann pipe solos and intense climaxes underscored by the timpani. In his scoring of ‘Cailín na nÚrla Donn’, the large scale and dramatic interludes don’t really fit with what’s described as a light-hearted, conversational song. Varian Barry cloaks ‘An Rabhais ar an gCarraig?’ in a lush string arrangement that mirrors the flow of the melody line a little too faithfully, and which seems too constrained in its harmonic palette. On the other hand, the use of an extended ‘drone’ to open this and her other arrangement, ‘Táim Sínte ar do Thuama’, seems better designed to allow the singer more freedom of interpretation. Keeney takes a similarly conventional approach in ‘An Chúilfhionn’, where the opening harmonium drone recurs throughout an arrangement which is surprisingly tonal in its harmonic language. By contrast, McCarthy’s extended introduction to ‘Sliabh Geal gCua’ owes much to contemporary jazz and film scores; it’s beautiful and highly effective on its own, but I struggled to connect it to the song itself. Indeed once the song begins the mood of the opening is jettisoned, McCarthy instead recoursing to slow-moving string accompaniment, albeit retaining some aspects of his more progressive and complex harmonic approach. 

For me, the most successful and satisfying songs are those arranged by the two more established contemporary composers. Perkin’s treatment of the aisling ‘’S ar Maidin Moch is mé ar mo Leabain Bhoig’ is arresting for its clever spacing of the pulsing string chords so they overlap with the phrases of the melody; by its use of space, and avoiding simply following the arc of the tune, it seems to afford Nic Amhlaoibh more freedom in the song’s interpretation and ornamentation. Through the second verse the chords become more intense through use of tremolo, and the pulsations and chord changes quicken, reflecting the poet’s awe of the woman in his vision. What impresses is the economy and organicism of the arrangement, and how an individual compositional voice can successfully accommodate an eighteenth-century song. Buckley’s work on the album is similarly inventive and organic; ‘Slán le Máigh’ unsettles from the beginning with its avoidance of the usual tonic drone, and builds from this to increasingly full and more distant chords, always avoiding the obvious, which almost overwhelm the voice as the song reaches its end. 

Despite the unevenness, all of the composers have succeeded in mediating between the freedom and orality of the Gaelic song tradition, and the literate world of orchestral music; it would be fascinating to be able to see the scores themselves, and perhaps their being made available might open these versions to other singers. While there are plenty of good notes here on the songs, the collaborative nature of these projects isn’t always foregrounded enough here. Given the input of the arrangers in particular to Róisín ReImagined – and that it is the composers who are primarily doing the reimagining – a few details about each would have been welcome for those not fully acquainted with the contemporary music scene.  

Caoin: dark shading
The grainy black and white photographs and darker design of the second album under consideration here primes the listener for a much different experience, which indeed it lives up to. Ceara Conway describes herself as an Irish contemporary vocalist and visual artist, whose Connemara roots have instilled in her a love of sean-nós singing. She has arranged the material along with Seán Mac Erlaine (well-known through his many solo and collaborative projects, including the contemporary traditional group This is How We Fly, and sean-nós singer Lorcán Mac Mathúna), and he along with Ultan O’Brien (violin, viola) and Kevin Murphy (cello) do the bulk of the instrumental work here (with some input from Francesco Turrisi). 

The opening ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’ (‘Song of the Books’) begins with foreboding piano pulses and dark shading from clarinet and strings; as the song enters, the instruments create a background for the song, as opposed to just directly accompanying the melody. This creates an effective atmosphere, but means that there isn’t a whole lot of direction or sense of a developmental arc throughout, aside from an increase in tension and activity during Conway’s second verse, when the poet Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin curses the rock where the boat carrying his library sank. For ‘Liam Ó Raghallaigh’, an eighteenth-century lament for the eponymous husband drowned just after getting married, the instruments explore various textures within the context of long, continuous drone-like chords, evoking resonances of the harmonium, tanpura, and the organ. 

The central ‘Caoineadh’ which follows employs similar sonorities, although the strings are more prominent here. Consequently, while the arrangements give the album a real coherence and unity of sound – matching its theme of caoineadh (lament) – it does tend to leave most of the tracks sounding quite similar; balancing this, there are also two unaccompanied songs. The use of electronics, varied string sounds, and more ambiguous harmonies on ‘Anach Chuain’ create a more vivid soundscape, but even here the slow-moving ‘drone’ accompaniment is often to the fore. But perhaps my criticism here focuses too much on the syntactical elements of the arrangement; if we consider them as contributing to the ‘integration of poetry, music, and feeling’ that Lillis Ó Laoire describes as essential to the good performance of a song, then they are definitely finely attuned to the tragic and sorrowful core of many of these texts. They reflect and reinforce how Conway connects with this deep emotion, drawing on her fine traditional style to do so. One element that I felt lacking in the overall package was the type of contextualisation and connections which allow the listener to fill in the story and meaning of the songs, which might be helpful for songs like ‘An tSailchuach’ and ‘Liam Ó Raghallaigh’. It is always more meaningful (as with the other sets) to be aware of what sources have been drawn on; this is only evident with ‘An Caoineadh’. And while the texts are included, they’re not transcribed from the versions sung here – again it would be helpful to be able to have more information on this.   

Iníon: intimate dialogue
The third of these albums is also more intimate in its recording and scope, and as mentioned is presented very much as a dialogue between the Kildare-born singer and songwriter Inni-K (Eithne Ní Catháin), and the singers (and recordings) that inspired her – the generous notes are as much autobiographical as they are informative on the songs. This album marks a return to her roots as a traditional singer, after focusing on her songwriting on her previous two releases. She is joined by Matthew Berrill on clarinet, Mary Barnecutt on cello, and drummer Brian Walsh, all three of whom are seasoned musicians active across the contemporary music spectrum. Their input imbues the recording with the sort of cross-genre liminality which inhabits Lyric FM late at night (when life sounds more interesting rather than just better). 

The arrangements are sparse, often fragmentary, and seem to take their cue from a reading of Gaelic song as something more understated and restrained in its emotive communication. The opening song, ‘An Tiarna Randal’ (‘Lord Randal’ or ‘Henry my Son’) sets the tone for the album as a whole; the piano and clarinet ebb and flow throughout, sometimes countering the wonderfully liquid and sustained interpretation of the song with rhythmic patterns, at other times pausing to give more focus to the story. The most intriguing addition to the texture comes from Walsh’s drums and percussion, given the free rhythm of this and other songs here; his playing is deft and delicately points and adds muted colours to the performance. In the more playful ‘Cuc-a-neaindí’ the instruments initially play only a few notes at a time, if even that, avoiding any sense of line and keeping away from the downbeats. As these become denser, the drums move to the foreground between the verses, playing around with the rhythm and pulse of the song, even when the instruments come in with a straighter instrumental version of the tune. 

A highlight for me was ‘Éamonn an Chnoic’, firstly for the beauty of the performance itself and the Heaney-esque sense of ‘holding on to the lines’ that Ní Catháin achieves through her fully sung-through and extended ornamentation; and for the clever echoing of this by Berrill’s sinuous clarinet, perfectly complemented by the resonant timbre of the electric piano. The more free-form and improvisatory arrangements are the most effective (and affective) on this recording; where the structure and rhythms becomes more regular – as on the Oriel song ‘Úirchill an Chreagáin’ – the performances seemed more rigid and pedestrian. The recording of the voice is very direct and more to the fore in this set, really allowing Ní Catháin’s singing to be heard to its best advantage; the album also includes a solo song, a version of ‘An Raibh Tú ar an gCarraig’.  

There is much to admire in all three of these CDs: to return to my opening, they all underline how traditional music and contemporary musical forms can meet on their own terms, and illustrate how the production of new musical works does not have to result in the destruction or compromising of any of the component parts, but can retain and highlight the art inherent in them all. 

To purchase Roísín ReImagined by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, visit Caoin by Ceara Conway and Iníon by Inni-k are available from Bandcamp.

Published on 19 May 2022

Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.

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