I joined Anúna in the early '90's, coming direct from Architecture. When my brother Michael formed the group [An Úaithne] in 1988 it consisted of trained singers. That is his background as it is with all of the classical choirs in the country and in most of the world. I had no interest in being in a choir. I had drawn up my thesis and many of my architectural projects with the two original tapes that Michael had made with his music on it. It was wonderful. Whatever the band was that made this sound, that was the one I wanted to be in!
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. Trumpety, nasal, unmusical and plain ugly, would describe many of those early voices. I was simply struggling to stay in tune all of the time.
So I sang on the eponymous first Anúna album. It was wonderful. Honest with great integrity, using speculative singing techniques and basically incredibly original. When I arrived in the group I had never envisioned further than merely singing in the back line, not too loudly in case I would make a mistake. In reality what happened was entirely different.
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 intensely interested in the implications of movement and visuals. So I have decided to put some of my ideas down here. Feel free to comment.
All of the early work I did with Anúna was meticulously drawn out and intentional. 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 the sense of modern ritual.
I attended a church service in the village of Tanworth last year and was stunned to see the choristers and Paul Cudby the vicar involved in moving, fluid, ritualistic vignettes. It was like watching Anúna in Trinity in 2003. They were calm and full of integrity. At the end everyone assembled in a semi-circle at the back of the church and discussed the service. There were only four people in the congregation.
It reminded me of those early days when I would try to see how the space could be utilized to give the music it’s deserved gravitas.
Most of the early performances were in small churches. I had these wonderful songs, very old ecclesiastical spaces and carte blanche to do something innovative.
I can’t say that there wasn’t resistance. At the beginning the singers simply said “no we can’t move”. Then we went into the phase of “wow this works! Let’s try this and this no matter how meaningless it is”. We did a couple of gigs 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.
Then I created a philosophy behind the reason why Anúna moved.
Primarily we had the pilgrimage template. 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. 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 I suggested it. We did it and it worked.
Drama was also a reason for movement. An architectural friend of mine mentioned after one of the performances that he could smell the singers as they walked past him. That blew me away! 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. 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 nave. I thought it was amazing. The singers didn’t. The ones outside the door felt that they had been an afterthought. What had been clearly a dramatic gesture had passed over everyone’s head. It was the first time I genuinely had to deal with egos. They didn’t care that they were involved in something important. All they cared about was that their parents didn’t see them until the 6th song.
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.
There are countless stories of incredible scenarios that I have been faced with over the years. 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 you get something special. Unfortunately many singers have to struggle past their own egos. That’s great if you’re an incredibly gifted singer. 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 then think again.
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 in watching the singers and the audience facilitate each other in realising my ideas. They were created at a time when there was no Celtic music and before the global Irish cultural renaissance. They were derived from much study and reflection and born as a reaction to my brother’s music. They are relevant.