Following on from last week’s review of the fascinating Preabmeadar, we felt that there was much more to discover about this album. The music speaks for itself, but there are always back-stories, fine details, and unexpected influences. To that end, we persuaded Daire and Lorcán to expand a little on the album, a wealth of musical connections and the excitement of finding new horizons in ancient traditions.
You both grew up in Dublin and I’m told you were at school together. Were there musical collaborations in those early days?
Lorcán: No there weren’t. Not between us anyway. I was obsessed with a Gaelic sport called Hurling in school, and that took my entire focus. My dad tried to get me to play an instrument but it never took hold of my imagination. There was always music, and particularly song in my house so perhaps it was just a matter of time.
Just when I was leaving school (about 18 years of age) I took a real fascination with sean nós. It gripped me and I had to dig deeper. About ten years later I met Daire on the street and I had my debut CD on me, so I gave it to him. A few years later I asked him to work with me on Tásc is Tuairisc, two songs from which are on the CD.
In a funny way; Daire had a musical relationship with my dad long before we tried to make music together.
Daire: That’s true. Lorcán’s Dad was very encouraging when I was progressing on the fiddle. Myself and my brother Shane along with the Doorleys, Kennys and a host of great musicians used to play concerts for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí na hÉireann with Séamus Mac Mathúna at the helm. I was the youngest at the time but he saw potential in my playing and introduced me to many a great musician and archived recording.
Our school is known for music; The Hothouse Flowers, Deiseal, Kíla… Slide! Truth be told, there wasn’t much music around our years as the musicians from Kila had just left but a teacher Frank Perry kept things going which meant I was very busy playing for every musical event until a whole new generation of musicians filled the school. I was the exception at the time playing music… football and hurling were the order of the day!
Was the Preab Meadar project started when you first discovered a shared interest in ancient texts and poetry, or did its inception take longer?
Lorcán: Well for me, the germ was planted in a place called Chanos de Somerón in Asturias. I had been researching the music and transmission/performance of other traditions and I had been travelling with some Asturian friends from the band Tuenda on what could possibly be described an anthropology/song-collectors excursion. The people in this village danced to songs as they sang. I had never seen anything like it before. It was a total revelation, and it excited me.
Later that day in the square in Oviedo I rang Daire and asked him had he ever seen or heard of sung dance music. As it happened he was investigating rhythmic accompaniment in American folk music. Later on we talked a bit more about this and why there was no comparison in Irish traditional music.
We decided to work on techniques to join voice and fiddle on a rhythmic basis. We decided to do it from a first principle approach which involved creating new rules that we would both keep to. Very soon we found that there were templates laid out for us on in Irish medieval poetry. Unlike song metres in the western tradition it is unstressed and the rules of strict syllabic metre have a lot in common with dance metres. So it proved the perfect working ground to develop theories and performance styles.
Daire: I’ve been writing songs for years for Slide including songs through Irish. I had cast an eye on early Irish poetry for years but never really tackled it until I got an Arts Council bursary to study early Irish poetry (along with fiddle techniques and production as Lorcán mentioned). The main purpose of these studies was to assist in my Irish language song writing but the evolution into the Preab Meadar project with Lorcán really surpassed any of my expectations.
Inspiration ranges from the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann (Book Of Invasions) to the Victorian age of exploration. How do you go about selecting your source material from a 3,000 year catalogue?
Lorcán: The songs about the Franklin expedition was our first composition together and it came before the research into syllabic poetry. The composition started off as a piano solo that I had heard, based on Schubert’s Dei Winterreise, and I asked the composer would he like to expand it with lyrics. It was a very dark piece about the descent into madness and Daire provided the counter to that with an upbeat introductory piece (as well as contributing to the atmosphere in the darker parts). It was narrative driven and you can see that in how Daire’s building urgency accompanies Farraigí an Tuaiscirt.
But even in this early composition you can see Daire is not taking the conventional accompanying formulas, he was really finding a pulse in the sean nós style that others would struggle to identify.
As for Amergin, I think that is one of the most dramatic narratives in the Irish literal tradition. In the context of its age I’d say it was: revolutionary; challenging; transformative even. It still has that magic.
To what extent have the technical constraints of the ancient traditions (the specific metres, the alliterative patterns etc) influenced your song writing and composition for Preab Meadar?
Lorcán: Completely in some cases. We have four tracks where the music is composed using the poetic metres of the lyrics. Everything from how many note divisions is in each bar to where the stresses are, come from the rules of poetic metre. It is unstressed poetry but we introduce stresses based on where alliterations occur and what syllabic clusters are within the metre. Its can get quite complex, and challenging to sing because it requires a continuous flow of syllables.
We also have a few other tracks such as Teacht Slán as Anfa which are composed in the metre of a specific poem type.
In effect they are new tune typologies. In the same way that a reel is a type of tune, a Séadnadh Mór becomes a type of tune which can be categorised by its signature.
[pullquote]I bet this will cause a headache for the purists who have put a time limit on what is considered traditional in a living tradition![/pullquote]Daire: I think the possibilities of these new tune typologies are very exciting for Irish music. Traditional Irish musicians in recent years have been looking outside the tradition for inspiration in new rhythms (Bill Whelan for example) but these rhythms and melodic rules stem from an older heritage in Ireland than reels and jigs even. I bet this will cause a headache for the purists who have put a time limit on what is considered traditional in a living tradition!
Another fascinating side to these new/old typologies is that the lyrics from any poem written with the same rules set will inherently work perfectly with the melodies of its corresponding tune type. This synergy of vocal and instrumental dance music really ties two traditions in Ireland that have long existed in two separate parts – the solo sean-nós song and the instrumental dance tune.
Your web site (www.preabmdr.com) describes the work as “Inspired by oral dance metres, medieval Irish poetry and a massive chain dance by the people of New Ross on the building of the town’s walls”. Can you tell us more about this chain dance?
Lorcán: As you can guess there is very little information about what music sounded like in Ireland even 200 years ago never mind 400 years ago. A lot of this album is based on the metres of poetry that have been recorded for posterity and are well documented and studied, and they have given us rhythmic clues to try and create dance rhythms that may have existed before the 17th Century.
You must remember that there is no mention of reels or jigs (the meat and drink of Irish traditional music) before this date, and it is believed that these tune types didn’t arrive in Ireland until after that date, so we are completely in the dark about what people danced to.
One thing we do know is that people in medieval times danced simple chain dances. These are still evident in Brittany and in the Pharoe Islands. These are examples of Oral dance music
There was a reference in Brendán Breathnach’s monumental work, ‘Folk music and dances of Ireland’ to a chain dance which took place after the building of the walls of New Ross, and this gives us a clue that there was some form of oral dance music tradition native to Ireland. There is no trace of this tradition now, and this is one of the reasons we went looking for rhythmic clues from contemporaneous sources to that event.
In an album full of powerful and historical texts, Amergin stands out, despite its subtle structure.
Lorcán: Amergin is an incantation, an invocation of the spirit in every element and creature. It’s about possession and power. It is constructed like a spell because that’s what it is, a casting in words of the spirit of all things. It merits, in my mind anyway, an elevated style of chant.
Unlike the other pieces of ancient text we used, it doesn’t follow metric rules. The shape is entirely based on the formation of the words and their power. Its sean-nós improvisation to the core. That is the spirit of sean-nós, to shape a melody to fit the power of the story.
In The White Goddess, Robert Graves said that “English poetic education should, really, begin not with Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin” Does Irish poetic education even begin with Amergin?
Lorcán: I think it does. I will explain the song in another item along with a video, but putting it briefly; Amergin establishes the place of the poet in Gaelic culture. It also puts the premium on the value of words and literature. I would go further in saying that it established that there is sorcery in the ordering of words. In fact it was believed that a well constructed satire could have a lethal consequence for a king in the same way that in other lore a sorcerer’s spell could cause mayhem, illness, or death.
Historic sources, and the folk traditions, tend to be full of dark tales. Aoibhinn provided contrasting sunshine and fresh air on the album – relaxed, light and merry. Are these lighter touches equally important in the ancient tradition?
Aoibha and Aoibheann would be the darling daughters?
Lorcán: I believe lightness is equally important. Not as exciting as darkness, and you do need to be wary of gratuitous cheesiness. But the older we get, and with growing families and all the responsibilities and pressures that that brings; the more you appreciate simple things. Lightness and joy is a feeling we all know, but it’s difficult to express the sentiment with the appropriate gravity. It is profound but it’s light, so there seems to be a paradox and that makes for tricky water. This track was a reaction to a feeling. It felt appropriate, it came with ease, and for us it celebrated that sense of lightness and happiness. It never felt forced, which is the other danger.
I think a laugh from a baby is worth a lot of effort. That’s an important part of human nature. It’s not that frequently expressed as plainly as that in song, but those relationships; that spirit; that comfort with yourself and with others; it is an essential part of carrying tradition forward.
And yes Aoibha and Aoibheann are our two first born girls and they are gorgeous. In fact aoibhean means gorgeous.
Daire: Ditto ;-)
Interview by: Neil McFadyen
The incantation of Amergin
The year was 1730 BC and the Millesians (the followers of Mill) who had sailed from Spain in search of a homeland, sighted land at last. Their journey had brought them far into the northern seas to a land which would be known as Éireann.
According to the ‘Leabhar Gabhála’ (the book of invasions -a history of prehistoric Ireland written in early medieval Ireland), they pulled their boats up on the shore of this new land, and set about surveying the country. However the land had already been settled by an ancient people, known as the Tuatha Dé Dannan, and rather than wage war the two peoples struck a deal.
If Mill and his followers could return to shore after sailing beyond the ninth wave, they would be given half of the country.
Mill and his followers agreed to these terms. As they sailed from the shore of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Dannan summoned all of their magic to raise a thick mist which shrouded the land; and a storm which blew the ships of the Millesians far out to sea.
It was at this point the poet-sorceror, Amergin, uttered his famous spell of naming, ‘The Incantation of Amergin’. Amergin invoked the spirit of each rock and creature and element of nature. He calls on every elemental and natural thing and aligns them to his bidding, and in doing so breaks the magic of the Tuatha De Dannan.
The Millesians came back to the shore and as Amergin disembarked he uttered the final part of his spell, where he declares himself one with all of the spiritual forces of the land.
This story is brimming with powerful symbolism. In declaring the pre-eminence and power of the word, Amergin sets the place of the poet –the crafter of words- in Gaelic society. The Poet was more than an artist. He was a lawyer; a soothsayer; an interpreter; and channel of the cosmos. Power and truth resided in the word, and the poet wielded the word and manifested its power.
The poet still held this function in Irish society right up until the 17th Century when the Gaelic world was finally crushed by the English plantations.
Released via Mac Mathuna and Bracken – Out Now
Order via their website: www.preabmdr.com