Aisling Gheal: A Visionary Collaborative
by Siobhán Dugan
Get ready, for it’s less than a week ‘til the Aisling Gheal (Bright Vision) Concert. If you haven’t heard, this will be the Center for Irish Music's first ever gig with a classical orchestra, the East Metro Symphony Orchestra (EMSO), conducted by EMSO’s Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes. The concert features CIM’s new Young Adult Ensemble (Caillean Magee, Connor Padden, Hannah Flowers, Karen Kenison, Maia Crews-Erjavec and Martha Megarry) under artistic direction of CIM Executive Director and instructor, Norah Rendell. In another first, the event marks the USA premiere of these orchestrations of Irish traditional music, which were originally prepared for the traditional Irish band Altan and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in Dublin. Last but not least, the live concert also introduces North American audiences for the first time to Altan's orchestral arrangement of ‘The Roseville’, a composition by Altan guitarist --and CIM instructor-- Dáithí Sproule.
The concert program also includes the rarely performed orchestral works: Irish Rhapsody No.1 by Charles Villiers Stanford and Suite of Irish Airs by Frederick May presented by EMSO. A set of traditional Irish jigs, hornpipes, reels and airs will be performed by CIM’s Young Adult Ensemble. The Altan orchestral arrangements, the program’s centerpiece, will be performed by the EMSO and CIM musicians together, and include songs sung in English and Irish Gaelic.
The East Metro Symphony Orchestra is a community orchestra that has been providing a broad range of orchestral experiences to the greater Twin Cities area since 1957. Originally the 3M Club Symphony, it was among several music groups funded in service of that community, and members were primarily 3M employees, retirees, or family members. In 2009, 3M discontinued support and the orchestra rebranded as the East Metro Symphony Orchestra (EMSO) and became a non-profit community assembly, with a new physical home in East Ridge High School, Woodbury.
Dr. Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes, EMSO music director and conductor, has been with the orchestra for fourteen seasons. Possessing a Doctor of Musical Arts in conducting, she is an accomplished musician best known for her unique programming and understanding of the important role an orchestra can take in its community.
Community-building has always been a centerpiece of her work. In recent years, she has been designing and conducting orchestra programs that cross conventional boundaries of culture and musical genre. Of particular relevance, EMSO’s ‘Origins’ concert series "explores the folk music and dance of world cultures and their intersection with western classical music." This was a program that Elizabeth herself brought to the then 3M Orchestra out of her previous experience with the organization ‘Young Audiences of Minnesota’, which brought the arts into the schools through live performances.
Around the turn of the millennium, Elizabeth took a job as artistic and educational director for ‘Young Audiences of Minnesota’. There were 100+ artists on the roster at the time, coming from a wide variety of musical traditions. Elizabeth came from a background of strictly deeply-classical music having completed her doctoral degree in orchestra conducting at the University of Minnesota. “When I got to know some of the artists from Young Audiences,” she recalls, “I started to get all kinds of insights into the music that I thought I already knew, based on musical traditions some of these artists represented.”
Among the first of these she was introduced to in depth was Karen Solgård, a Norwegian Hardanger fiddler. The Hardanger is a traditional bowed string instrument from Norway. Elizabeth said, “Karen was very knowledgeable and articulate about the instrument, the folk music traditions and even the geography of Norway. She also had some classical music background so she could speak to the things that I knew about. I tell the story: ‘We’d gotten together for me to learn about her instrument, which I had never seen before. As I was leaving her house, she said, ‘Did you know, Edvard Grieg (the famous 19th-century Norwegian composer) composed the tune to Morning Mood based on the drone strings of the Hardanger fiddle?’ It has two set of strings,” Elizabeth explained, “One level that you bow on and the other level below that has sympathetic strings. They create a series sound. Karen reached in and plucked the drone strings and the notes were the foundation of the melody to Morning Mood. The opening phrase of "Morning" from Grieg's Peer Gynt music is also derived from the tuning of the sympathetic strings of the Hardanger fiddle: A, F♯, E, D.” It is interesting to note that Mairéad ní Mhaonaigh from Altan is a fan and she herself plays the Hardanger fiddle!
“It was very moving for me; it was literally a life-changing experience,” Elizabeth recalls, “Because to me, having grown up in the classical tradition of Edvard Grieg which meant ‘nice’ compositions, pretty tunes, nothing special, I suddenly had the kernel, the nugget, the insight into where this very famous and hackneyed tune came from. Suddenly my understanding of this classical composer just exploded! I could hear what a remarkable thing he was able to do to take these four notes and spin them into a huge orchestral piece.”
Thus began a long passion of collaboration with folk traditions, both for their own beauty and for the deep lessons that they could teach about classical music. Subsequent collaborations have included musicians who play music from Appalachia, Paraguay, Bulgaria and Indonesia, to name a few.
Community Based Music
Elizabeth continued, “I didn’t have any natural colleagues to do Irish music with the way I did for several of the other traditional music collaborations through the Young Audiences programs. There were several members of the orchestra saying, ‘Can we do an Irish program? Can we do an Irish program?’ So I started to keep my antenna up. It had always been important to me to have a partner who is not just a performer, but already involved in the education part, because that is what is involved here. It isn’t just a matter of showing up and showing how wonderful you are. No, you have to engage, and want to be able to articulate something to a different kind of audience and be creative and open to explore something different.”
Eventually Elizabeth found the Center for Irish Music website, and then its Facebook page and began observing the life of CIM from that fly-on-the-wall perspective, getting a feel for it. Last spring, she reached out to CIM’s executive director Norah Rendell and explained her ‘Origins’ series and her interest in collaboration. “And Norah said ‘yes’!” Elizabeth exclaimed, “From our first conversation, I could tell Norah had that kind of curious, exploratory nature that wants to engage. … and she is the one who just took it and ran!”
The first proposal involved professional musicians, but when EMSO budget constraints made it clear that wouldn’t be possible, Norah proposed creating the Young Adult Ensemble to fit the bill. “Again, this creative thinking,” Elizabeth said admiringly, “Win-win on everybody’s part, because these kids get an opportunity to become an ensemble in a way that hadn’t existed before. And there’s a purpose -- to prepare for this concert, and it gives them a way to be singled out in a remarkable way.”
Community-based music has always been central to Norah’s passion for CIM and its possibilities. This was evident in the first interview I did with her back in the salad days of her time here in Minnesota, that the chance to interface in an ongoing way with the community, learn what is going on, and build relationships both musically and personally over time is the heart beat of Irish music in its best form, and that communal creation engenders music that is good for the world. With that kind of vision at the core of what she does and where she leads CIM, a project like this did come naturally to her. But not without some caveats.
Genre Blending: a Delicate Art
Bringing together two types of music is inherently tough to do without compromises that can kill the soul of the music, the very individuality that gives character. Norah Rendell remarked, “As a recorder player, my fondest memories of performing with an orchestra were with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra in Vancouver; however, as a transplanted traditional musician, I am very leery of musical fusion projects. Usually, such ideas are so much more intriguing than the music itself. The rhythm and nuance of Irish music can so easily get trampled... I think it takes a special group of musicians to make these kinds of projects succeed on a musical level.”
EMSO’s leader Elizabeth was acutely aware of the problem. “The way we are able to do it at this point is not a perfect way. In printed music there is a lot of stuff ‘written in the style of’ [one folk genre or another] and you see it also in educational music. But it totally neglects the heartbeat and the sounds of the actual music.” To avoid these artistic pitfalls, EMSO employed a number of unique approaches. First, they would bring a basic understanding of Irish traditional music to its musicians via lecture and demonstration -- a kind of workshop introduction, before beginning to play it themselves. This introduction would be done by Norah and CIM instructor AJ Srubas. The goal was “to learn something about this music in the compressed time we have, listen to it, try to play it, acclimate yourself to the specific sounds,” recalls Elizabeth, “You try to sponge up as much of that as possible. And then we are doing the same thing when we are rehearsing together. It’s listening and watching A LOT… and trying to take that and bring it to what we are doing.”
Another key element was the awareness of EMSO musicians as to the nature of the partnering relationship between EMSO and the CIM students -- as is that of host and guest, in the sense that the Irish musicians and their tradition are physically and musically at the center, with the orchestra focused on making a setting that made them feel at home and would set them off to advantage. This is a different quality of partnership and can foster a different outcome than one in which each is equally leaning in and trying to somehow meet in the middle.
Then of course, the selection of the music to play, and its thoughtful arrangement and the specific performers was hugely critical. So Norah began considering who were the right CIM musicians and what was the right music to make this collaboration a success.
“Over the course of a few months, as I was putting the programming together for the Center for Irish Music ensembles,” Norah recalls, “I realized that there were students who played a slightly odd group of instruments that could use a project to work on. These students were too old to compete in the ‘Under-18’ competition at the Midwest Fleadh Cheoil. One of them was Hannah Flowers, a harper and lovely singer. I had the idea of using Altan's arrangements from their 2009 album in the back of my mind.” Norah mentioned the idea to Dáithí Sproule, he talked to the band about it, and they were all on board in a trice. “I could hardly believe how generous they were with their music, and Fiachra Trench, with his arrangements…it became clear to me that they were thrilled that their orchestral arrangements were going to be played by CIM students in Minnesota!,” Norah recalled, “How fortunate we are to be so closely connected with such an incredible Irish traditional band.”
Goes Around, Comes Around
Reflecting back on the original Altan 25th Anniversary collaboration with the RTE orchestra, Dáithí recalled: “The arranger, Fiachra Trench, was somebody whose work with Van Morrison (another person who blends genres effectively) we had admired. The beauty of these orchestral arrangements for Altan is that they were molded on top of the original Altan arrangements — therefore much of the harmony, rhythm and phrasing are those of a traditional band.”
But while EMSO could play directly from the score created by Fiachra Trench for the RTE Orchestra, in essence ‘reading the dots’, the Altan parts were far from drop-and-play for the Young Adult Ensemble. “The CIM students are essentially posing as Altan, but with a different instrumental combination. Instead of two fiddles, accordion, guitar and bouzouki, there would be two fiddles, piano, bodhrán, flute, whistle, harp and cello,” Norah explained, noting major differences in timbre, weight, volume and technique between these two sets of instruments. Thus, the rearranging of Altan's music to fit these young musicians and their instruments turned out to be a complex process. “I could not have done it without one of my two musical minds; trained classical musician and orally-trained tune player/singer. I have done a ton of arranging in my own performing career and this project has called on every one of those skills!”
Thus, after Norah taught the CIM student musicians the tunes early on in the fall, she then began to write out harmony parts, sometimes collaborating with Dáithí via email. She cobbled together cello parts from the orchestra bass parts along with using her own inventiveness. “The students have been patient with me as I have figured out what they should be playing when. To their credit, it has been a collaborative process and there has definitely been an element of trial and error. Hannah has come up with some of her own harp parts by ear, based on Altan's guitar and bouzouki parts on the recording.”
Word from the Benches
So how has it been going as these performers have been getting together to play and learn? Some EMSO musicians, Elizabeth notes, will get more or less out of the ‘Origins’ series depending on the curiosity and engagement they bring to it.
Delightful flute player Megan Gangl has that spirit of adventure that thrives on stretching her musical horizons. Like many EMSO members, she has a lifelong commitment to music even though her career is in another field. She has been playing since her school days; in a band, then in a quintet for a couple decades and then in EMSO as a way of pursuing a new musical adventure. That spirit leads her to particularly enjoy the ‘Origins’ series, including the Aisling Gheal concert.
“This is my favorite concert of the whole season, every time,” Megan shared, “because I feel I learn a lot about another culture and their music and the complexity of that music. Seeing the blending of folk music traditions and classical music tradition, seeing how composers pull from both traditions, I feel invigorated because we’re learning from each other.” While the musical reach when working with, say, Bulgarian musicians (with 5/8, 8/8, 9/8, 11/8 metrical patterns changing from measure to measure) is wider than with Irish music, there are still significant differences in approach for the classically trained.
“Even in articulation,” Megan recalled laughingly, “Norah would say ‘Well, you can slur there. Or not.’ And we were taken aback by it! Of course, amongst the flutists we started conferring: Are you going to slur? Am I going to slur? Cause here we were trying to do it the same way again.” It certainly created a little comic angst among the classically trained players as they are trained to follow the rules and play what is written. “Sometimes we get so stuck on what is on the page, it’s hard to think about the overall sound,” Megan reflected, “I think folk traditions are focused on the other end of it, how does it sound as a whole, what feeling are they creating.”
For EMSO French horn player John Sassaman, the difference in musical hardware caught his interest. Before the advent of modern silver concert, the tapered wooden flute with its distinct warm tone and voice that varies in timbre over its range would have been found in orchestras anywhere, but while common in Irish tradition still today, they are a bit of a curiosity for classical musicians.
From the Irish traditional side, Norah likes what she’s hearing in rehearsals: “EMSO is an excellent orchestra and they are doing a great job of keeping the accompaniment light, and the rhythm driving.” From an educator's perspective, she is thrilled with this experience for the Young Adult Ensemble members. “CIM students in this ensemble are learning so much about themselves as musicians - how to play their instruments better, how to bring the music out of a tune, and how to practice efficiently. They are going through a very rigorous process of learning a high volume of music for one single performance. They are learning how to work hard, how to focus, how to play together, to arrange and work in a collaborative context, how to write bio's and show up at rehearsals (in strange places) on time!”
As well, Norah notices how an event can bring focus to a young player’s practicing. “The fact that it is a performance seems to work well for American students” in that regard, she notes, “I prefer that pressure for them to the pressure of a competition, particularly for young adults. A performance is something that can be shared, and maybe even repeated!” And of course, broadening audiences by sharing them is a natural move for two such community based groups as EMSO and CIM.
CIM student, mandolin and fiddle player Connor Padden, strongly echoed this view. After some time in Suzuki and Old-Time style fiddle, Connor felt himself gravitating to the music he heard his paternal relatives playing at home, and sought out CIM for lessons. An avocational musician, Connor plans to keep playing Irish music into his adult life; he is headed to Montana next fall to pursue a degree in Engineering and has already begun organizing an Irish seisiún there. At CIM, Connor had joined the Advanced Youth Ensemble, but did not see himself competing in a Fleadh (Irish traditional musical competition), which had become a focus of that group; it just not his thing. “I get the point of it. But I just like playing. Playing and performing for the fun of it, and having people enjoy it.” So getting together with the newly formed Young Adult Ensemble to practice for the Aisling Gheal performance suited him down to the ground, and he found a kind of fellow-feeling in the obvious joy the classical musicians have for their music.
For harper and singer Hannah Flowers, the collaboration has been really exciting. Hannah, who plans a career in music, began her musical education in classical music at very young age. Traditional music came along a decade or so later in high school, and she currently plays both classical and traditional in different settings. “It has been really interesting to see these two radically different traditions collide,” she says, “My classical musician friends really don’t understand traditional and I think this is a really good opening to show them what this whole Irish music thing is all about!” To Hannah, playing traditional music with a full orchestra both enhances and detracts from the music in different ways. For example, the musicians will be performing the beautiful lullaby “Dún do shúil” (Close Your Eyes). In its original form, it is a tender song with sparse guitar accompaniment. In the current arrangement a sweeping orchestra backing has been added, which adds beautiful layers of harmony and depth. At the same time, this locks the melody into a fixed rhythm instead of an open and free flowing phrasing and might also diminish the sense of intimacy of the original.
From her classical background, Hannah can understand what a stretch traditional music might be for the EMSO musicians: “Classical musicians have a difficult time playing fast and they don’t quite understand the whole learning-by-ear thing,” she says, “But it’s been great to see the orchestra willing and eager to learn in new and different ways. The orchestra members are stepping out of their comfort zone, and so are we traditional musicians. I don’t know if any of us will ever have this kind of opportunity again. This is really going to be a fantastic concert that shouldn’t be missed!”
Irish musician and composer Dáithí Sproule, a 2009 Bush Artist Fellow, has lived in Minnesota for over 30 years. He appreciates the intersections that made the concert possible, enjoying the developments that pull together threads of his career from far disparate times and places. The journey of the tune ‘The Roseville’ embodies this. Dáithí wrote it many years ago in the home of dear friends David Aronow and Laurie Pouchak in Roseville, Minnesota, during a difficult period of his life. “I made the tune up on the guitar, mostly flat-picking single notes. I got a kick out of it because it is in a peculiar time, with six beats, and wherever it came from in my head, it was kind of jolly, whereas most of the things I compose are on the sad side (Irish blues!).”
Altan liked the tune, so it became part of their repertory and was recorded on the CD ‘Local Ground’. “Then it made another jump in status when it was picked to be one of the tunes to be arranged for orchestra by Fiachra Trench. The first time I heard it, it had become so big it reminded me of the 1812 overture or something …and I was really glad that this little tune which was in honour of these very special friends was out in the world in this way. For it now to be part of a Center for Irish Music project — and of course I am devoted to the Center and its people —and for our students to be playing in it is a wonderful thing for me.
Dáithí continued, “We have vibrant musical communities in Minnesota, with active and committed learners, great audiences, and a cadre of hardworking volunteers. It’s wonderful to see all these elements coming together to share music across boundaries. I was at one of the rehearsals recently and the students are doing a great job. I am looking forward to taking some pride and credit in their performance with the orchestra, even though I deserve none, since it is all their own great talent and hard work, and Norah Rendell’s coaching of the group! But then that’s the beauty of being a teacher!”
Vision for the Future
EMSO will most certainly go on to collaborate with others on more genre-bending musical journeys. What about CIM? “The students in the ensemble have been working for years to develop the technical skill and aesthetic understanding of traditional Irish music. They represent the success of our mission – passing the music down to the next generation,” says Norah. So does the future hold more such collaborations? It might. In spite of the level of work involved in creating them, Norah finds great value in them for some of the most advanced students: “I would love to find more opportunities like this for young adult musicians at the CIM who are growing wings and taking off as musicians in their own right.”
Photo of the Hardanger fiddle used courtesy of wikipedia. The image is in the publice domain http://commons.wikimedia.org/
Photos of EMSO courtesy of the East Metro Symphony Orchestra's website.
Photo of Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes ©Aleutian Calabay 2011
The image of the harp is courtesy of Siobhán Dugan.
Images of the CIM students were taken by Lisa Richardson.