Northern Irish song project
The first song I ever learnt was a ballad by a Northern Irish composer and I didn’t realise at the time why I loved it so much, nor why I felt such a connection with it but I have always been drawn to these songs and have collected and performed them consistently over the years.
I always thought it was a great pity that these songs were not being performed or more well known. I had often thought it would be lovely to record them and gradually this idea became a goal. As this seed germinated and grew so did my collecting of these songs and the wish to preserve and record them.
From archives to dusty old shops I have accumulated a huge collection, some of which are in unpublished manuscript form and some of which are no longer in print. I even managed to persuade Boosey and Hawkes to reprint some of these for me. Most importantly, however, I felt these songs needed to be showcased and that it was important to bring them to life by recording them.
To implement and complete the vision of my Northern Irish song project, I went about getting in touch with the best professional and talented people that could help make this happen.
I made contact with Delphian records with my idea and they were as excited as I was about this unique Northern Irish song project and I was absolutely thrilled when the world class accompanist Iain Burnside came on board.
Various universities and libraries throughout the UK and Ireland have been so helpful and allowed me access to their archives and as a result I’m slightly swamped by the amount of music I’ve subsequently collected.
I set about researching further songs, getting help from experts like David Byers and Philip Hammond, but in particular the books by Professor Jeremy Dibble were invaluable, and I found myself agreeing with his views on all the songs I researched and played through.
It has been such a privilege handling and reading these manuscripts, seeing the composers handwriting, markings and notes scribbled at the side of the page, giving me a great insight to the personality and sense of humour of each composer .
I found a lot of the songs immensely personal as they were about places familiar to me, places where I grew up, and the texts describe the landscapes and seascapes of the area beautifully. The language used in some songs was also familiar to me. A language which would today be classified as Ulster Scots, a language my Granny and Papa spoke and which evoked cherished memories.
We gave the CD the title of ‘Caleno-o’ , an anglicised Gaelic phrase which was taken from one of the Howard Ferguson folk songs. This particular song was first mentioned in the Shakespeare play, Henry V by the character Pistol.
My dear friend, soprano Dana Marbach and I went on a road trip around Northern Ireland with the idea of finding the places where some of these songs are set. Unbelievably, we had a week of glorious weather and it certainly showed N Ireland off at its best. I wanted to take photographs of these landscapes with the idea of painting them. It was wonderful to have some promotional photographs taken by Dana, who as you can see has an amazing talent for capturing beautiful light and composition.( www.danamarbach.com )
From these photographs, I managed to create a small exhibition of paintings of these scenes and portraits of the composers, both of which were displayed alongside the recital and launch of Calen-o.
I set myself a further question after spending all this time collecting older songs... how would contemporary N Irish composers tackle writing a song cycle today, 100 years after these older songs had been written? So I contacted composers with this proposal, the only stipulation from me being to use texts by N Irish poets. Composers today have access to many more genres of music than composers 100 years ago. so I was curious to know whether the songs would have an Irish soundscape and the effect on the result of using N Irish texts.
I didn’t want to proscribe which texts to use as I wanted them to choose the poetry so that it would be more personal to them.
On the evening of the CD launch in Belfast I premiered Philip Hammonds beautiful song cycle entitled ‘ Angels’. Each of the poems he chose had a theme of angels or guardians running throughout. He used poetry by the award winning Northern Irish poet Sinead Morrissey.. These songs, along with songs from the CD and a new set of songs by Gareth Williams who used texts by Northern irish born Helen Waddell, will be recorded by BBC radio 3 in June 2018 in Castle Coole, Enniskillen. I will also have a small sample of my paintings on display.
A small video of rehearsals with Iain Burnside recorded for Classic FM: