Sunday Tribune Article, 27th of June
Harry McGee talks to Michael
McGlynn about life beyond ‘Riverdance’
and the musical road ahead for Anúna
Take One: Michael McGlynn stares, moodily,
at me. He is standing on a promontory above a silvery lake (from which
the mist is beginning to rise). Behind him, the dark Irish landscape complements
November's brooding skies. He is dressed in a severe buttoned-up shirt
and black waistcoat, his hair slicked back from his forehead. The other
males in the picture are dressed in the same way, a la Harrison Ford in
Witness. The women look windswept and mysterious. They are all wearing
capes. Nobody is smiling. They are all staring moodily, cryptically at
Take Two: A watery sun peeps through June's
cotton clouds as Michael McGlynn emerges, almost as reluctantly as a vampire
in a Hammer Horror movie, into the raw light of day. He is staring, warily,
at me with his pale blue eyes. "My eyes," he explains, "they are really
sensitive." He gives a reprise of their history and we talk about the incipient
dangers of swimming in chlorine-infested waters. He produces a pair of
dark visors, which he places over his glasses. "That should do the trick.
It should be okay now," he says but you can still sense a little wariness
in his voice.
The visors emphasize an impression of McGlynn
of which he has already forewarned you. Going through the usual pre interview
rituals on the telephone such as asking: "How will I know you?" he says:
"Don't go by the photograph on the cover of the CD. I look nothing like
And sure enough he doesn't. Sitting in
the court yard café of the National Museum at Collins Barracks,
McGlynn cuts a somewhat different figure from the moody CD cover-: a little
chubbier, his hair tinged with grey, the spectacles and their dark visors.
McGlynn is in his late 30s now and the tag of 'young' composer, which is
regularly used, no longer seems to apply.
There are a lot of Take One/Take Two aspects
to McGlynn and also to Anúna, the choral group which he founded
to explore the forgotten music of our ancient fore bearers and to act as
a vehicle for the music that he has written.
A telling clue to this dichotomy comes
from McGlynn's title with Anúna: Director/Manager. When talking
about himself and the group, he traverses two territories which are as
distinct from each other as the Antarctic is from the Sahara.
Thinking about his work afterwards, you
have to unravel several contradictions. When describing his music and composition,
he describes them in terms of purity ...of language, of landscape, of antiquity,
of an ethereal melancholy that must fly around in tiny pores in the Celtic
air. But on the other hand Riverdance has taught us that culture is nothing
in the 1990s unless it is packaged and marketed and image-manipulated.
So, you have the phenomenon of McGlynn
talking one minute about pitch in terms of tone and musicality and then
the next minute talking about pitch in terms of hard-sell. It makes for
an interesting and entertaining hour. McGlynn is loquacious and hugely
enthusiastic about the project and group that, in many ways, is his life.
His voice is one you do not really expect from a singer: slightly high-pitched
and slightly hoarse at the same time.
His own absorption with choral music began
after he flirted with the idea of becoming a professional pianist. "I realised
when I went to university that there were so many pianists who were so
much better than I could ever be. So I abandoned the idea of becoming a
professional pianist." He turned, instead to composition and,
according to himself, "won every imaginable competition that a composer
could win in Ireland. Some I won a few times."
Having qualified as a secondary school
teacher, he nevertheless continued with composing, becoming increasingly
interested in Irish music. "I have always loved choral music. I noticed
that in England there were traditional songs still in existence that dated
back to the mediaeval era and beyond (he instances the 13th century Coventry
Carol which is on their next CD as an example)
"But when we talked about traditional
vocal music in Ireland, many are scarcely more than 100 or 200 years old.
I started to study and research to see which of these ancient texts I could
find. They were there but many had not been sung in centuries. And most
existed only as fragments.
As a composer, I took them and transformed
them, making them the basis for my own work."
A synthesis of old and new?
"Yes. That's a good word for it. It's
a synthesis of the ancient and something that is modern and new, and has
relevance in Ireland and in Europe in the 1990s."
It seemed an admirable endeavour at the
time, but hardly something that would have mainstream appeal. The unexpected
success of Clannad with the "Theme from Harry's Game" changed
all that. McGlynn goes into 'it's-hard-to- believe' showbiz mode for the
first of several times in the interview.
"Can you believe it? Here you had an Irish
group singing, using voice alone, in the Irish language and they went to
No 1 in the British charts. That really gave me an awful lot of inspiration."
Anúna was born in 1987 with the
aim of reviving ancient Celtic forms of vocal music as well as providing
a vehicle for McGlynn's own repertoire of work. Originally, the group was
known by the beautiful Irish form of the word 'An Uaithne', which is the
collective term for all three forms of ancient Irish music; suantraí
(lullaby) geantraí (happy song) and goltraí (lament).
The second stage of Anúna's development
came in 1991 when the group introduced a kind of stage show, riverdancing
before the idea was invented. They started wearing trendy outfits and gave
the group a hip image: youth with a slight Celtic Dawn mystique. They also
widened the repertoire to include more mainstream ballads and sean nós
songs along with the core stuff which was McGlynn's reworking of the ancient
McGlynn had a modest success story on his
hands, both critically and popularly. It wasn't the biggest niche in the
world, but in their own way, they were doing for ancient Irish music what
Nigel Kennedy had done for Vivaldi. And then one night, future Riverdance
producer Moya Doherty saw them perform.
In the initial Riverdance -a seven
minute Eurovision interval act - Anúna were one of three central
hubs, the others being the music of Bill Whelan and the dancing of Michael
Flatley, Jean Butler and the Riverdance troupe. When the time came to expand
it into an hour-long show, it was a natural progression for Anúna
to take part in it.
For McGlynn, he realised that suddenly
they had hit the big time. It's clear that he loved it, loved the showbizzy
buzz of it all, loved the adulation and success. Again in showbiz mode,
he says: "When you are looking through the charts seeing, you know, how
may number ones David Bowie had, you come across Riverdance and us, up
there with them, in the UK Top Ten and in the Billboard Top 40.
"I would never have dreamt that I would
ever be in the charts, up there alongside stars like Bowie and U2. I know
it was part of Riverdance but we were still a part of it. We had four songs
on the album. And the video sold, I don't know how many million - six million
But inherent in the success was also a
gathering problem for McGlynn himself. Anúna had now become subsumed
to become part of the bigger whole that was Riverdance. The role of the
group could not be expanded while remaining with the show - there was no
dynamism, no new music, a certain loss of identity and individuality. McGlynn
tried to maintain Anúna in a double-deckered kind of existence,
part of the show but also functioning independently. The choir was split
into two, one part performing in Riverdance the other recording new material
and performing in its own right. In late 1996 Anúna reached a crossroads
and took a road into the future that did not have Riverdance as a travel
Anúna is Michael McGlynn...a showcase for his vision
for his interpretation of the canon.
The split was amicable. "It was very simple.
Those from Anúna who wanted to stay with Riverdance stayed.
Those who wanted to be with Anúna left. It meant re-organisation
and starting afresh but everybody was happy with it," he says.
To this day, he refuses to have a bad word
to say about Riverdance. "At the end of the day, Riverdance (and later,
Lord of the Dance) gave an opportunity to singers, dancers and musicians
who would never ever have had that outlet otherwise. Anúna
has had over 100 singers all told and I am very proud of them. They have
all been tremendously gifted." But, though he talks about the post-Riverdance
phase in terms of a challenge and not looking back, you glean that there
were some lean times and a difficult period of transition. When talking
about Anúna's web site incidentally earlier on, he says how important
it was as a marketing tool and a contact point when they had no recording
deal and no outside financial support.
The group seem to have got over that hump
and have straddled the divide between purist and populist with several
impressive CDs that mix old and new, chant and ballad. They have
also done a number of fruitful collaborations, with Elvis Costello (whom
McGlynn taught how to read music) and Joni Mitchell and the Chieftans amongst
Where Anúna can be placed is hard
to pinpoint. Like Riverdance, they are a hybrid with a big emphasis
on presentation (McGlynn's younger brother, John, is assistant director
and devises all the stage shows).
"We are unique in a way. We could not be
categorised as a traditional Irish group like the Bothy Band or Planxty,
because we also have a classical and choral tradition. "Later, he
gives a more technical term for their music: classical crossover.
Unwieldy as it is, it's an apt phrase all the same. Anúna have an
appeal with audiences more used to classical music. After their July appearance
in the National Concert Hall they will be appearing - alongside Liam Óg
Ó Floinn - as the first ever Irish orchestral or choral group to
have played at the BBC Proms - the embodiment of popular classical
In a way, crossover also goes some way
to describing McGlynn's own make-up and the make-up of the group. "Don't
be too hard on me," he asks in 'Take Two' mode. He takes off the dark visors
and retreats from the courtyard, returning to the 'Take One' world of Celtic
mists and moodiness.