»A song, like a story, speaks from a time and a place. Times passes, and its voice diminishes. But sometimes a story speaks to the essence of human nature and its power lasts through time regardless of space; regardless of place.«
Irish singer Lorcán MacMathúna is a 21st century Sean Nós performer, who is drawing on the intensity and power of this ancient Gaelic singing style, its elaborate ornamentation, irregular timing, etc., to create a total unique body of work in the fields of rearranging traditional airs, composing electronic music, and improvising. In 2010, for example, Lorcán wrote a composition for the ancient Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, in 2015 he created the musical and theatrical performance Visionaries 1916 for the centenary of Dublin's Easter Rising.
Lorcán emphasises the melody in his music, saying: »A strong and well shaped melody has the habit of grafting onto memory. It's the melody that makes the song timeless and gives it cultural durability.« He also has observed that »Studies on the cognitive complexity of lyrics since the 1950's have shown a decline in lyrical intelligence in commercially produced music. Good lyrical writing is becoming rarer and rarer.« Lorcán foils the trend by unearthing and reworking the Sean Nós.
For his latest recording, An Bhuatais & The Meaning of Life, he was joined by musicians Martin Tourish (accordion), Éamonn Galldubh (uilleann pipes) and Daire Bracken (fiddle) and he put much thought into the representation: »Creative attempts to broaden Sean Nós from an a capella form to a collaborative form have most often dragged it to a middle ground, where the compromises necessary to make collaboration work have stripped away the eidos [a Greek philosophical term meaning essence]. In this project we decided to try and identify the eidos of Sean Nós and make that the convention of arrangement. The freedom and intuition that are idiomatic of the a capella performance are the imprimatur of the instrumental, where all are working together and surging and moving in a fluidly linked energy field, but with their own self-regulated degrees of freedom.«
An Bhuatais is a collection of 14 more or less well-known songs, getting back to the famous battle of Clontarf in 1014 (Pláit agus Domhnaill) and the medieval story of the mad king Sweeney (Leachtain Suibhne), the subsequent suppression of the Irish in general and Catholicism in particular: celebrating the illicit mass (An Raibh Tú ar an gCarraig), but also the criticism of the parish priest in the title track; an 18th century political allegory where the cow is driven away from its pastures (An Droimeann Donn Dílis); agrarian unrest and deportation to the Australian penal colonies in the early 1800s (Na Connerys).
Lorcán has also included English language verses of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and World War I writer Francis Ledwidge suiting the Sean Nós style, the former because of Hopkins's interest in medieval Welsh poetry with its system of syllabic count and internal rhythm, and the later on account of his use of the Aisling genre (vision poem) wherein the protagonist falls asleep and receives a message from a beautiful young woman usually representing Ireland, lamenting the state of affairs and predicting good fortune.
Offering a holistic experience, the silver disc comes with a splendid 105 page book with gold leaf writing on the cover, including lyrics in both Irish and English, background information about each track, and a comprehensive essay about traditional music, ancient mythology and Irish folklore. Altogether, Lorcán Mac Mathúna presents a piece of art that is timeless, not just following the zeitgeist.
Lorcán Mac Mathúna "An Bhuatais & The Meaning of Life: The mythological representation of hope, longing, and fire", Own label, 2020
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Lorcán Mac Mathúna (unknown/website).