As well-known Irish choral group, Anúna, hit American TV screens this summer and fall with a PBS special entitled “Celtic Origins” with a follow-up nationwide fall tour, group member Patrick Hughes reflects for Celtic Café on how the group came to this place, and what it is about their music that appeals across age groups and continents.
Early in 2007, our choral group, Anúna, took part in the filming of a special television presentation for PBS called ‘Celtic Origins’. I have been a baritone with Anúna since 2002 and – with my colleagues – was thrilled to experience this opportunity to bring our music and sound to an American audience. The experience was particularly important to us since it brought together experienced organisations such as Elevation Group, Maryland Public Television and American Public Television, as well as numerous well-known lighting, directing and production talents.
From late July to mid-August, we supported the show launch by performing in Borders stores all over the US, before beginning a nationwide tour.
So where did Anúna come from, and what is it about our group that has such broad appeal? When new faces launch in the pop or classical worlds, it seems as if they have stepped, ready-styled and formed, from a chrysalis of stardom that none of us can touch. But you can guarantee that, behind the scenes those performers have worked for years on their voices and movement, their look and their style. And not everyone who works this hard, who is so talented, makes it. TV shows like American Idol give everyone hope that they too can bring their music to the nation. However, if we pull back from that incredibly successful format and think about it a little – there are few of the final contestants who have not performed or sung or trained in some manner before.
Our Irish choral group, Anúna, celebrates 20 years in music in 2007, and the PBS television special entitled “Celtic Origins”, as well as the follow up tour, has offered us all the opportunity to share our special sound – honed over those two decades – with a wide audience. The group was formed in 1997 by composer, performer and Anúna director, Michael McGlynn. The group has been organic, with many participants over the years. Notably, Michael’s twin brother, John, and early members Miriam Blennerhassett, Monica Donlon and Garrath Patterson remain part of the essential sound of the group, and participated in the television show.
Uniquely, Anúna did away with the notion of a static conductor at the front of the group, challenged the notion that choirs must hold music, and created the idea that many voices together could be one, if only they take responsibility for their own sound, rhythms and tone. Over the years, I’ve been part of many big choirs and chamber choirs – when I joined Anúna I was no longer in a choir; I was in a band.
The performance skills that marry with Anúna’s sound has had positive results for many participants over the years. The choral sound in Riverdance was created for Anúna, in which the group participated for a year and a half; Anúna is credited with creating the Irish soprano genre, and we have performed to international acclaim with many notable international performers like Sting, Barry Manilow, Elvis Costello, Michael Crawford, The Chieftains and Sinead O’Connor.
Over the past two decades, we have had the opportunity to perform all over the world: in the US and Canada, throughout Europe and in Africa and Japan. What is it about Anúna’s sound that appeals across age groups and cultures, that seems to have few boundaries?
There are those who see the group’s work as classical, as Celtic traditional, as spiritual, as popular music. As a group, we happily perform texts that are over a thousand years old, and then move to a contemporary arrangement by our director, Michael McGlynn. So there is something about perception here – everyone interprets Anúna in their own way, according to their own experiences. At a push, I believe that Anúna exists in that crossover space between classical and pop music.
More than anything else, Anúna is about the people who make it up. Perhaps surprisingly, the group consists of a blend of trained and untrained voices. Group members come from a wide variety of backgrounds, we have two doctors, a number of management consultants, professional singers, students, engineers… the list goes on. What is very special about this group is that the collective experience of the members is a very human one; we recognise our own fragility, our differences, and our different histories. We come together in the one way that combines us: through music. And in the sound that Anúna creates, there is tangible evidence of our humanity.
In recent history, we are – as a society – faced with seemingly new challenges: terrorism and war, religion becoming disengaged from secular society, being more connected by the Internet, yet more lonely, working harder to pay higher prices for everyday goods. These challenges combine to isolate the individual. And so we struggle to fit in volunteering in our schedules, to make time for family and friends, to feel secure, to find time to think about something other than the daily grind.
That may sound like a diatribe encouraging religious activity. It isn’t. Whether you are religious or not, the secularisation of society has thrown the spiritual, the ‘other’ out with the bathwater. Around the time that Anúna began promotional work in the US, the final Harry Potter novel was released. One aspect of why the Potter series has been so successful, I would suggest, is that it has created a world outside of our own – certainly one that has its own challenges and that can be deconstructed – but for a while, we can forget about our daily problems, and immerse ourselves in the ‘other’.
But we do not have to delve into fiction to find the spiritual, another world of which we are part. I believe that music allows us all, whether performers or audience, to participate every day in something beyond our everyday challenges. There is something universally appealing about the beauty of numerous voices being one voice, that speaks to us on a basic level. Anúna’s music expresses the sorrow and joy of everyday emotions, the spiritual connection and disconnection that we feel, the humanity of ourselves, and – like music itself – our sound has no boundaries of age, race, class, gender, ability or sexuality by which we define ourselves and are defined. We invite you to be part of our sound, and in doing that we are doing something very personal: to experience our own humanity.
Author: Patrick Hughes