Ritual in music
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
I joined Anúna in the early '90's, coming direct from Architecture. When my brother Michael formed the group [An Úaithne] in 1987 it consisted of trained singers. I had no interest in being in a choir. I had drawn up my thesis with Michael's music soundtracking the process. When I decided to sing these songs that I had been listening to for years, I was standing beside people who genuinely believed that they were the focus of the music. Early on it made huge sense to me that they were in fact, completely incidental to the music. I sang on the eponymous first Anúna album. It was wonderful. We were using original speculative singing techniques. When I arrived in the group I had never envisioned further than merely singing in the back line, I was simply struggling to stay in tune some of the time. Apart from arrangements [The Lass of Glenshee, Siúil a Rúin, Buachaill ón Éirne and the original Fisher King] on the early albums I really didn't have interest in writing anything. I was however extremely interested in the implications of movement and visuals. The following is a guide to the original performances of Anúna.
All of the early work I did with Anúna was meticulously planned and drawn out. The group gigged regularly in Trinity College in Dublin which had a central nave. We tried new techniques and ideas. In the early days the excitement around Anúna was intense. The group were actually learning the music and moving while singing. While that was innovative in itself, what made it hugely relevant was a growing sense of modern ritual. I attended a church service in the village of Tanworth 2014 and was stunned to see the choristers and the vicar Paul Cudby involved in moving, fluid, ritualistic vignettes. It was like watching Anúna in Trinity in 2003. At the end everyone assembled in a semi-circle at the back of the church and discussed the service. It reminded me of those early days when I would try to see how the space could be utilised to give the music it’s deserved gravitas. There was resistance to movement until we did some concerts with Noirín Ní Riain in the early 90’s. I was amazed at how she just did things in performance because they felt right. Things which should have looked absurd simply didn’t.
Ireland in the early 1990's had no choral tradition. Choirs were amateur and nearly all of them were trained by opera singers. There's a little church in Dublin with a plaque on one of the pews dedicated to a loyal chorister who "sang enthusiastically" there for many years. Listening wasn't the highest priority. Movement meant leaving the comfort zone of the group and putting the music down. We had a stunning new album and had to be able to perform it live. I had a part in guiding the group in that direction but ultimately it was all of us who were responsible for the metamorphosis. Movement as ritual did not have to be based on any historical precedent. It was not a case of “trying things”. Movement could only have relevance if it was intended. Primarily we had the pilgrimage template. The layout of early Christian Churches was fairly standard and was as good a place to start as any. I can’t remember the first time we moved into a theatre to do a gig. All I know is that I simply saw it as a sacred space and transposed the same ideas on to it. In the Albert Hall in London in 1999 I knew that it wasn’t just a whim to put women singing in the audience, it was essential. I remember a production meeting where the staff laughed out loud when we suggested it. We did it anyway and it worked. Drama was also a reason for movement. An architect friend mentioned after one of the performances that he could smell the singers as they walked past him. All these possibilities opened up. Coming from a design background makes you very aware of the importance of intention. You do things and they have an effect. That may vary from individual to individual. What is important is that intention. I have an anecdote which sums drama up perfectly. As my staging was becoming more adventurous I decided to do something completely different. It was in Trinity College and we had a large group of singers. I started the performance with 9 singers on the altar and they did 5 songs. As the final song progressed, candles were laid along the nave. Then the main doors opened at the back and the rest of the group entered in procession and we finished the piece spread out the length of the church. Reaction was mixed. I was delighted. People who had come to be bored into a coma and leave with numb backsides were challenged. In my philosophy, drama when coupled with intention and planning, has integrity. A singer in a costume is simply that. A singer with belief in what they are doing becomes something different. Opera singers play a role. Choral singers don’t. If you dress them up and stick a candle in their hands they are the same as they were when they walked in the door. If the audience sees someone pretending to be someone they are not, the illusion is ruined. When the singer understands the relevance of their presence on that stage then it is no longer illusion. When the audience knows more about what you are supposed to be than you do, then you shouldn’t be on that stage.
My underlying certainty is that when I am involved with any gig, my sole aim is to honour the music and to reinforce the importance of the performance. I have struggled with this for many years. Communicating these ideas is not necessary for me but many feel that I should. If you tell someone that they are representing an angel they start to act. They are not actors. If they trust you and your vision they might get something special. Many don't. One of my favourite lines in poker is that if you are looking around the table for the fish then it’s you. If you’re a singer reading this and smugly knowing that I’m not talking about you, watch your chips. There is much more to this and there’s a blog below that outlines a 2013 performance in Finland in great detail. Over the years I have derived incredible satisfaction from watching the singers and the audience facilitate each other in realising wonderful moments. They were created at a time before the global Irish cultural renaissance. It makes me immensely proud and humbled to think that it has been seen and understood by so many.