My name is Mary Ann Kennedy and I am a singer, writer and musician born and brought up a Gaelic speaker in multicultural southside 70s Glasgow. I have lived in Ardgour, Lochaber for the past sixteen years, where I am co-director with my husband Nick Turner, of Watercolour Music, a residential recording studio and artistic retreat, which is a commercial recording facility as well as the base for our own creative projects. The various recordings that have taken place at Watercolour range from Grime and Thrash Metal to Opera and String Orchestra, Outlander score to advertising voiceover.
Nick has been at the engineering and production helm of many Gaelic song albums, and it was his particular approach to vocal and acoustic traditional music that led to a young Manx singer, Ruth Keggin, to contact us back in 2013, with a view to coming to Scotland to record her debut album. She brought with her Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, a Dublin-Connemara singer and musician with roots in a highly respected sean-nós family, the two having met at the Lorient festival interceltique.
The Isle of Man has seen a massive resurgence in traditional and Gaelg music over the past decade, with bands such as King Chiaullee and Barrule putting Manx music front and centre in a way not previously seen in Celtic traditional music. And while this new young tradition was forging a renaissance building on the dedication and passion of previous generations, it was only when Ruth came along that there was truly a young Gaelg voice representing the language in this revival at a commercial, as well as community, level.
It was during a classic ‘late night round the kitchen table’ conversation between the three of us during the recording of ‘Sheear’ that we realised that all three of us had very compatible approaches to song and language, each of us with a fair amount of experience of one of the other Gaelic languages, but none of us fluent in more than our own. We revelled in the rhythmic interplay between language and music; we appreciated the legacy of tradition while keen to create a contemporary Gaelic language song repertoire; we had all previously participated in inter-Gaelic cultural projects and exchanges. And we realised that there had never been a project bringing together the three Gaelic nations through song. We all fancied that, very much! And so, Aon Teanga – the three Gaelic song languages reunited as One Tongue, came to be.
Maybe Freastal should have been the name we gave the project, as Providence certainly played its part in making things happen! That and a lot of paperwork and headaches, but we all knew that we wanted to do this right first time, and that required above all an investment of time, and in each other’s direct company. For a lot of time. Each of us had participated in collaborations which were at best frustrating, as lack of time or resources often led to the simplest of ‘common ground’ crossovers – essentially the lowest common musical and linguistic denominator.
Ultimately, as professional creators, what gives you time is money. And as the academic world is nearly as familiar with applicationese as musicians have had to become, I’ll cut that story very short. A pump primer from Culture Vannin enabled us to get started and the Colm Cille fund, originally established to foster links between Gaelic Scotland and Ireland, north and south, as part of the Peace Dividend, got their heads round the concept of bringing in a third, Manx, element.
The breakthrough came however with a Hail Mary application to one of the Flagship commissioning programmes of the PRSforMusic Foundation – the Performing Rights Society being the principal rights collection agency for composers in the UK. The Beyond Borders programme at the time encouraged collaboration between UK writers and those in Ireland and other parts of the EU. Mann is not a part of the UK – it is a Crown Dependency. A phone call established that PRSF had never thought of the rules in that way, but encouraged us to apply – we had less than 48 hrs to do so
We approached Gordon Maclean from An Tobar Arts Centre in Mull as a partner organisation – a collaboration that had been long overdue for Watercolour anyway. Cha b’ e ruith ach leum – Gordon leapt at the chance. The result was a significant award that gave us time, money – and options.
What followed was a year and a half’s journey from that kitchen table to touring in the three nations, and to London and Lorient, and an album of new and traditional material backed up by trilingual texts and translations.
Eoghan, Ruth and I got together for a first weekend’s brainstorming at Watercolour. We were not looking to reinvent the wheel – rather launch the latest model of a classic marque – and so we identified a classic overarching theme of the sea - as the musical highway that would connect us in this first collaboration, in the same way that the Colm Cille map published by Iomairt Cholm Cille in 2003 showed the sea to be the main highway between Scotland, Ireland and Mann. (It also shows Manainn to be at the centre of our Gaelic universe, as Ruth was quick to point out! And this was to prove time and again to be true musically speaking also).
At the heart of our journey was a series of meetings, in Ardgour and in Dublin, where Eoghan was based at the time, and it was during the first trip to Ireland, that we were introduced to the fourth member of the team – Ultan O’ Brien, a fiddler from Clare, who was a regular collaborator of Eoghan’s, principally in the band Skippers Alley. Ultan had a good understanding of working with song, is also a fluent Irish speaker, and played both fiddle and viola, and so his contribution essentially became a fourth voice in the mix.
We also invited my regular guitarist, Finlay Wells from Oban, and Gordon Maclean from An Tobar arts centre played bass in the recording and initial performance line-up, but the creative decision-making rested entirely with the unit that was forged in the Beyond Borders sessions. I should point out here as well that the three singers brought an array of instrumental weaponry to the party – flute, keyboard instruments, harp, concertina etc.. – and an entirely new instrument called the súiteóir… or sucky thing, otherwise known to clan Cheannabháin as the vacuum cleaner!
The rehearsals followed an relaxed but intensive pattern after the initial ice-breaker, where we sat round the Watercolour kitchen table and made plasticine models of ourselves (very revealing!):
The rehearsals included:
Now is probably a good time to give you a couple of examples. I suppose the thing to remember is that most of the writing and arrangement was taking a less is more approach. But crucially, rather than grabbing on to the first available foothold for all of us, we were able to range far and wide in terms of history, repertoire, language, style, harmony, and instrumentation before distilling it all down to the final result. This experience allowed likewise for a distillation of the usual path down which creative collaborators walk, making for a gathering that was more like a family reunion than a blind date. And it allowed us to take more leftfield approaches in accompaniment and vocal arrangement.
Creggyn Scarleoid was an arrangement of a Manx song and one of the first songs that we embarked on. We spent time creating parallel texts for portions of the song so that the idea of voicing gave us both the language aspect but also made the most of the eventual contrapuntal blend of contemporary and medieval church influences that evolved in musical arrangement through extensive improvisation – and here’s a little of that end result.
Creggyn Scarleoid Sample
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The other thing this time allowed us to do was to go deeper into the language learning side of the songs.
Unless you have made the effort already to learn one of the other Gaelic languages, the orthography especially can throw a veil over immediate mutual comprehension, and time and discussion allowed us to peel back the layers to reach that vital point of understanding and therefore onward communication to an audience.
An Cheallachin Medley Sample
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In e.g. the tri-partite puirt medley, I can quite clearly remember the epiphany in performance of realising I was telling the story of Willie Taylor and the soldier maid in Manx Gaelg rather than merely recounting a bunch of words and sounds. The orthography in Manx especially continues to confound me but this process allowed us to transcend the written word to a real feeling of reunification.
Curach an t-Siridh Sample
And we were also able to throw the kitchen sink into the mix occasionally – Eoghan’s remarkable sean-nòs voice and Liam O Raghallaigh’s song of the bride made widow in the same day needed a storm of a backing for the tempest that sank poor Liam’s curach, and the Watercolour harmonium, salvaged from Patrick Burgh Hall, has never seen such a good workout!
Liam O Raghallaigh Sample
I have only once previously had an opportunity to invest in time and thinking space in an artistic residency where the process and the journey were at least as important as the end result, and that was my year in 2013 as musician-in-residence at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, across the water in Sleat. That year had no fixed product required at the end, and the result was a year of personal exploration and development that continues to bear fruit, having yielded two albums, and the Aiseag New Music Biennial commission amongst many other things.
So, I suppose if I’m going to sign off with any particular thought, it would be that in a linguistic and cultural world that is so fragile, the investment of time and space to put down deep roots rather than skimming the surface and sketching an image of productivity and perceived success to satisfy funders or making for good PR is a path that we are rarely allowed to follow, but one that we do not tread at Gaelic’s peril.
We are so very definitely the stronger for being three siblings in song, and letting the language be at the heart of the process of communication, musical expression and friendship is a holistic and satisfying state of affairs that will ultimately yield the kind of resilience that we sorely need for our languages and our dualchas. As Aonghas MacNeacail wrote: Bitheamaid gu moiteil cinnteach gu bheil duais am miannach stàth; ged nach ruig sinn cinn nam fireach, faic an dùrachd fhèin mar bhàrr: the journey, as ever, is as important as the ultimate destination.
Mary Ann Kennedy, Watercolour Music, Ardgour PH33 7AH