Deep End of the Ford
This is my first music review for the Newsletter/Blog. I’ve avoided this for a long time. I feel awkward passing comment on the work of my peers and would rather believe that I long ago left the world of job reviews behind. But I think it’s only fair that when I find a new work that is truly exciting to me I share that, and help spread the word.
A few years ago I was learning the sean nós song ‘Bean Dubh an Ghleanna’ and there was a section of it that was giving me trouble - the words and music were battling each other and I was getting baffled — most songs will start easing into their shape in time … Anyway, I thought to give a listen to a few versions to see what others had done with the song, so I had a listen to some iTunes selections and discovered a version by Lorcán MacMathúna. I don’t recall if I got the answer that I was looking for, but I do recall that I was quite stunned by his version of the song. The voice was strong, clear, and wrapped around the song perfectly, allowing it to come out in a way that I’d rarely heard. A Google search a few weeks later to find out more information on him and his work revealed a promotional video for the new large scale piece An Táin, performed by MacMathúna’s ensemble Deep End of the Ford, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTDBXv1-C-8
The Táin (or, more precisely, An Táin Bó Cuailgne) is an ancient Irish epic poem dating from pre-Christian times that depicts a war that ensues when Maedhbh (pronounced Maeve), the queen of Connaught attempts to steal the Donn Cuailgne, a famous bull of Ulster. The armies of Ulster fall under a sickness that leaves the defense of the province to the hero Cú Chulainn — still just in his teens. The story, originally from the oral tradition, exists in three different recensions. This reading of the story is from the second recension in the Book of Leinster from the 12th Century. If you’d like to read a modern translation of the story you have the choice of a pair of excellent translations — one by Thomas Kinsella (1969 Oxford University Press) and one by Ciarán Carson (2007 Penguin Classics). I like both — the Carson is a bit more animated in its language and perhaps an easier read. But don’t assume that this is going to be a slog — both books and The Táin itself are magical works, full of humor and adventure.
This recording is a magical work, too. The instrumentation is accordion, piano, bass clarinet, fiddle, uileann pipes, vpipes, low whistles and vocals. The sound is at once thoroughly modern and somehow ancient. I’m reminded of a lecture I once heard where a description was given of ‘dord’ — a type of singing/chanting/whispering that was practiced by ancient Irish warriors. I imagine this singing as being akin to that. And while the singing has the feel, at times, of being improvised, at others it feels as ordered and structured as an old syllabic poem with MacMathúna as a latter-day reacaire. But there’s nothing self-indulgent here — no artistic posturing and everything is in service to moving the story along. The whole thing is sung in Old Irish, by the way, but there are translations of the words here (http://lorcanmacmathuna.com/antain/translations/)
There are some great melodies and truly exciting and moving passages. This is an extraordinary work.
Movement 1 - The Pillow Talk
Movement 2 - The Prophesy of Fidelm
Movement 3 - The slighting of Cú Chulainn
Movement 4 - Cú Chulainn's Sleep
Movement 5 - The Sorcerous Distortions
Movement 6 - Dinnseancahas (Instrumental)
Movement 7 - The Manipulation of Ferdia
Movement 8 - Caoineadh Fherdia
Movement 9 - Scread Ceann Sualtaim (The cries of Sualtaim's Head)
Movement 10 - The Rut and Carnage
Lorcán Mac Mathúna - voice; Martin Tourish - accordion, piano; Seán Mac Erlaine - bass clarinet; Eoghan Neff - fiddle; Flaithrí Neff - uileann pipes, vpipes, low whistle