Celtic and classical: Tony McManus
“It was a left turn at the traffic lights, I think,” says Tony McManus, laughing. McManus, a top notch guitarist known for his ability to bring light and life into traditional Celtic music both with his treatments of traditional melodies and his original work, is speaking of his album Mysterious Boundaries. It is a collection of classical music, comprising works from J.S.Bach, Couperin, Granados, and others. It had its beginnings as a challenge from a friend.
McManus and Mike Marshall were playing at a music festival in Italy. “Mike has gotten involved in just about every genre of music you can image from bluegrass to newgrass to folk to jazz to new age, and for his piece he played the Bach E Major Prelude, which is a piece I’d always loved -- it’s just such a relentless torrent of notes that so inventive and creative. He nailed it, on mandolin, four nights in a row, and when I complimented him on it, he said, learn it!”
It wasn’t a challenge McManus took up right away. “I’ve no training, in either music theory or guitar, so I didn’t think it was even possible,” he says. Marshall kept nudging him, though and so learn it McManus did. Marshall challenged him to learn another Bach piece the Chaconne from Partita #2 for solo violin in D Minor, which is about four times longer than the Prelude. With those two pieces and one by Satie that he’d arranged for a project where it had not been used, McManus began to think about an album.
Not that he was thinking about changing directions in his musical life: he’s still very much grounded in Celtic and folk music, and regularly intersperses these classical pieces with his Celtic repertoire in concert. As is turned out, he found the process he uses for learning Celtic traditional music worked with classical pieces as well. “I have a very acute ear. I find I’m able to listen very intently, and to hold the big picture of a piece in my mind as I’m listening to different arrangements and interpretations, and to absorb bits and pieces I like, and then distill them into something that’s my own,” he says. He also points out that the guitar isn’t an instrument with a long history in traditional Celtic music, “so I’m already listening to music played on and arranged for fiddle, or pipe music, and making that translation.
“The instrument, at the end of the day, is not that important,” he says. “it’s an exercise in trying to convey musical ideas.” Which may be part of the reason that none of pieces on Mysterious Boundaries would be part of a classical guitarist’s usual repertoire, and ties in with one of the things McManus takes away from his immersion in classical music. “ A soloist, even in classical music, has the scope to put their individual stamp on a piece of music. You tend to think all they do is interpret dots on a page, but -- “ he draws a parallel with traditional music “ --if you listen to a song from Donegal sung by Mairéad ni Mhaonaigh of Altan, and then listen to the same song sung by Maighread ni Dhomhnaill, it’d be very different. But it’d be the same song. The same thing is true in classical music.”
McManus follows this path as well, naturally putting his own touch and dynamics and detail into the eleven tracks on Mysterious Boundaries. It is a path you’d do well to follow also, allowing the music to unfold as it is sequenced before you. That said, that fourteen minute Chaconne is there, and so is the Bach Prelude. Other standout cuts include Spanish Dance #4 from Enrique Granados, and the medieval Latin hymn Pange Lingua. “A Celtic guitarist, a folk guitarist, playing a classical repertoire, recorded by a rock and roll engineer -- we were quite new to the process, but we worked very well as a team, and I think the sound of the guitar is beautiful on this album,” McManus says.
As for what's next, McManus, who is from Scotland and now based in Canada, will continue to incorporate these pieces with his Celtic set lists, and to work in Celtic and folk genres. “ You know, I haven’t changed identities as a musician,” McManus says. “This is very much a Celtic acoustic musician’s look at this repertoire.”
photographs courtesy of Compass Records Group