Celtic Crossover

Sunday Tribune Article, 27th of June 1999

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 me.


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 it."


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 chants.


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 or more."

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 companion.  


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 others.


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 music.


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.