There is something so powerful and so original about the music on this 2012 album from Deep End of the Ford, I can’t resist saying that I am just very happy that I have it and that I am disposed to love it.
The musicians are Lorcán MacMathúna on vocals, Seán MacErlaine on bass clarinet, Martin Tourish on piano accordion, Eoghan Neff on fiddle, and Flaithrí Neff on uileann pipes, vpipes and low whistles. I think they were possibly all involved in effects and electronics of one sort or another.
The Táin story itself and the music in this telling evoke “a Celtic warrior society and an epic campaign which revolves around two of the most enigmatic and powerful characters in Irish mythology”, and so the challenge is to make the music live up to that, and to the fact that this is one of the most “iconic” works of literature in our culture.
Understandably, the music here ends up being generally quite rugged, “masculine”(for want of a better description and ironically considering the key protagonist is female), though the voice and some of the instrumental lines are also suitably gentle at times. It often pulses and drives on with the rhythm, but includes passages of almost a-rhythmic improvisation and other more sophisticated digitally enhanced sections, as well as haunting and often beautiful melodies played at times in styles that produce those microtonal effects and overtones that contribute to an almost “lived” sense of the epic and supernatural occurrences being described.
The lyrics were taken unaltered from the mediaeval Irish manuscript, The Book of Leinster, and are sung in Old-Irish. All the core music was composed by Mac Mathúna, with “the vocal line [required by the text] providing the main melodic drive”, and then improvisation being used to build up around that.
There are lyrical moments in the epic-ness but mostly it is quite dramatic, both in how the instruments are played: episodically and shifting around, as tools to lay down the drama rather than smoothly in the tune-delivering way we are more used to in traditional music; and in how Mac Mathúna’s voice is used: also as a tool to serve the story, sometimes narratively neutral while at other times he acts out emotions and parts when the particular passage requires it (especially in the second part of ‘The Sorcerous Distortions’).
There are ten tracks on the album, labelled movements, each one derived from particular passages in the original narrative.
1 ‘The Pillow Talk’ tells of how Meadhbh sets the drama going when she decides she must top her husband Ailill’s wealth at any cost, reflected in ominous and disturbed melodic fragments and thrusting rhythms
2 ‘The Prophesy of Fidelm’ foretells the coming of Cú Chullain: “He will lay low your entire army, and he will slaughter you in dense crowds,” the prophetess declares in a melancholy, at times foreboding voice underlayed by acoustic hints of nature twisting and distorting
3 ‘The slighting of Cú Chulainn’ tells, through a shimmering, echoing soundscape, of the insulting terms Meadhbh offers Cú Chulainn when she sees the devastation wrought by him
4 ‘Cú Chulainn’s sleep’, evoked in a continuous drone on the pipes, is a lyrical monologue of injury, pain, and sorrow: “A drop of blood drips from my weapon. I am sorely wounded. No friend comes to me in alliance or help …”, dreamily relieved by a sweet melody on Neff’s pipes accompanied by strummed fiddle, which however dips at the very end into dissonant chords
5 ‘The Sorcerous Distortions’ starts with a short instrumental passage (accordion and grinding fiddle) evoking the transformation of Cú Chulainn, when he hears of the death of the Ulster youths who alone came to his aid, into “the distorted one”, and proceeds into a chant-like verse-account of his indiscriminate slaughtering of all around him – Mac Mathuna building his theatrical delivery into an urgent incantation with a second vocal harmony track: very powerful stuff, but kept under control to the point of almost being too short
6 ‘Dinnseanachas’ is a rousing march tune dedicated to the lore of the places itself, played on the box and fiddle
7 ‘The manipulation of Ferdia’ is the most manipulated of the tracks soundwise. There’s a demon in the background, brilliantly created through some kind of electronic trickery, and Mac Erlaine improvises against Mac Mathúna’s relatively straight-forward telling of Meadhbh’s calculated inveigling of Ferdia, Cú Chulainn’s foster brother, into attacking her foe
8 ‘Caoineadh Fherdia’ is a grim lament delivered over Mac Erlaine’s troubled bass clarinet, a voice of regret echoing out across ages as if to be picked up in the very character of sound of the uileann pipes towards the end
9 ‘The cries of Sualtaim’s head (Scread Ceann Sualtaim)’ tells of Cú Chullain’s father’s ride to get help being turned into a hideously supernatural call to arms, as “Sualtaim’s own shield turned on Sualtaim and its rim cut off his head … [which then] spoke the same words: Men are slain, women carried off, cattle driven away, O Ulstermen …” The music here is freer and looser and roaming and quite wild at moments, and Mac Mathuna revels in the vocal syncopation possibilities offered by the crisp verbal phrases and the chopped fiddle strumming and plucking
10 ‘The Rut and Carnage’ – as the bulls meet and attack and destroy each other (though not before Donn Cúailnge “attacked the women and boys and children of the territory of Cúailnge and inflicted great slaughter on them”) – is a sad laying out in song and music of the miserable consequences of war
With so few and such young musicians involved, it is a wonder that an epic feel of this magnitude could have been created by these guys, but it has. There is a lot demanded of the vocals in the relatively sparse instrumentation but Mac Mathuna delivers practically right the way through. As do the musicians both in terms of playing and imaginatively creating the soundscape for the drama (– though it’s not always just the “set” that the instruments evoke; they sometimes provide or pick up the main drama themselves and indeed the protagonists). It is a very visual, cinematic experience to listen to the entire album, though it is only (by necessity) partially told and at times, like the original itself, heavy going. But, fair play to Mac Mathúna and the others, many of the tracks are so beautiful they can easily be played independently of the rest, and it’s a real shame, therefore, we don’t hear them on Lyric and elsewhere at all these days.
GOTTA GET IT (ONE OF A KIND)