Friday, March 08, 2024

Ireland's music: Roisin Reimagined: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and The Irish Chamber Orchestra

Róisín Dubh, a love song that with time became one of Ireland’s most well known political songs

Slan le Maigh, a song of love for a place, and a song of leaving and farewell

An tSeanbhean Bhocht, a allegory of Ireland celebrating the Rising of 1798 and the spirit of independence

An Chúilfhionn, with poetic words of loved place and loved woman set to a slow air that has become one of Ireland’s best known melodies

These songs and a good number more are al part of this story.

These songs go back centuries. Some have connections which reach back further in time as well.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh found her world turned upside down when the pandemic struck.

A touring musician, she couldn’t tour; an artist who loves to share Ireland’s traditional culture and engage her with audiences in person, she wondered when and if she’d be able to do that again.

Nic Amhlaoibh is also a person who likes to look forward and to plan.

A conversation with her friend, producer and instrumentalist Donal O’Connor, got her thinking.

What would you like to do, when this is over, he asked? What would be your dream project?

Maybe something with strings, a string quartet...? she said.

Why not go bigger? Why not have an orchestra? O’Connor suggested.

They did.

The result of that question: Roisin Reimagined, first a concert and a broadcast, then as a recording.

The creation of these saw Nic Amhlaoibh, O’Connor, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, six contemporary Irish composers, several players of traditional instruments, the Kilkenny Arts Festival, and more folk behind the scenes join together to create a project that brings together folk and classical music, stories from Ireland’s sean nos canon, the high art of Irish song, told with new perspectives.

A gathering of songs mainly from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century (though some are thought to have origins far older), sung in Irish, form the basis of the project.

Most are what is known as big songs, songs from the history of Irish song. They are part of what is known as the sean nos or old style tradition, a style which was passed own singer to singer.

“A singer may give you a song, the basics of it, but you have to find your own way inot it,” Nic Amhlaoibh said. In sean nos, the emotion of the song is conveyed by the style and ornamentation the singer chooses through which to tell the tale, that finding your won way into the song.

Does that sound confusing ot unfamiliar? It’s not; think about a song you enjoy in another style and you will see that there are connections.

In recent centuries sean nos has been thought of and passed down as unaccompanied singing. Nic Amhlaoibh’s research has found that was not always the case, though.

If you’re Irish, or well familiar with Irish music, you’ll know some of these songs. Róisín Dubh, Slan le Miagh, and An tSeanbhean Bhocht, for instance, those three mentioned at the top have melodies which will seem familiar even it you cannot quite place where you’ve heard them.

Nic Amhlaoibh learned many of the songs on Roisin Re-imagined growing up in the west Kerry Gaeltacht, and has sung some of them on occasion as part of her own concerts as a solo artist.

“In some ways it’s a full circle love story back to these songs,” Nic Amhlaoibh told Matthew of the Oboe Windfree podcast.

Several of the songs were newer to her repretoire; she’d learned sean-nos traditional style growing up in west Kerry, though.She’d done occasional one off gigs with orchestras, working with composers?arrangers and an orchestra on a full on productionwas new to her.

All of this “was a challenge I wanted,” she said.

There are songs of love, of longing, of leaving. Some have words written by poets, some with authors unknown.

There are songs with other stories too, a song trading wordplay in Irish and English, for instance, as well as the march rhythm of An tSeanbhean Bhoch, and a set of fast paced songs including Cuirfimid deaindí, a lively piece often sung to and with children.

In the songs in varying combinations, there are the voice of traditional singer, singing in Irish, the musicians of a chamber orchestra playing violin, viola, cello, and bass; players of traditional instruments including fiddle, harp, uillean pipes, arrangements by six Irish composers, each coming from different musical worlds...

What holds these elements and combinations together?

Respect -- respect of the musicians for each other and for what each brings to the music -- is clear and central to every idea and every note.

It is a powerful unique, creative project that respects the musical traditions from which it comes and frames them with new ideas.

Nic Amhlaoibh’s voice, presence, understanding of and love for the material form another centerpiece.

So does the skill of producer Donal O’Connor.

Muireann grew up in the west Kerry Gaeltacht with Irish as her first language. Music, language, and landscape have influenced her style and the material she chooses as well.

Thirteen years touring the world as lead singer and flute player with the top traditional band Danu,a thriving solo career with albums featuring songs in irish and in English, collaborations with artists from a range of genres including classical, elctronica, and Scottish folk form part of Nic Amhlaoibh’s story as well. She is also a successful broadcaster, presenting programs on Irish and English language radio in Ireland and on Irish and Scottish television..

Donal O’Connor is from the other side of Ireland on the east coast. He is from a musical family that saw him having lessons in both fiddle and classical violin while growiing up. He is in demand as a player, and as a producer of recorded music and broadcast projects including Se Mo Laoch, Celtic Connections, Bosca Ceoil and mnay others.

Then there’s the Irish Chamber Orchestra -- known for its willingness to explore connections between classical and traditional music. The Kilkenny Arts Festival, which co-commissioned the project, is equally willing to explore musical adventures, as are the six Irish composer/arrangers involved in Roisin Reimagined: Cormac McCarthy, Paul Campbell, Linda Buckley, Sam Perkin, Niamh Varian-Barry, and Michael Keeney

You will find your own way in to the songs of Roisin Reimagined. Each piece is well worth your time: there is a lot going on in all of them, and there’s is directness and clarity, too to be experienced as you take time to listen. You may like to know, too, that the sleeve notes for Roisin ReImagined include lyrics in Irish and English as well as notes on the stories of the songs.

You may also wish to see
Muireann Nic Amhloaibh’s album Foxglove & Fuschia
Dual, a recording Nic Amhlaoibh made with Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis from Scotland
Women of Ireland: Four Musicians, including Nic Amhlaobh along with Katan Casey, Cathie Ryan, and Cara Dillon

Photographs of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, The Irish Chamber Orchestra, and Donal O'Connor courtesy of the artists

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