Irish Echo: Three voices bring celestial seasonings

February 06th 2008

Nóirín Ní Riain and sons sing the ‘hear and now’

Even the most rabid atheists among my fellow music critics enjoy Gregorian chant and gospel singing.

No matter how much they scoffed at the enormous popularity (more than five million copies sold worldwide) of “Chant,” a 1994 CD by the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, and the inevitable cash-in clones to follow, these deeply sceptical scribes were still captivated by the sonorous beauty of the Silos monks’ singing.

I’ve also seen rock-hearted rock critics melt under the gospel heat of the Dixie Hummingbirds, Blind Boys of Alabama, and Soul Stirrers, the last of whom featured Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Johnnie Taylor at one time or another. How can you deny their artistry or their influence on rhythm-and-blues, soul, and other popular music?

You don’t have to be a believer to believe in the beauty of that music, and you don’t have to be a believer to believe in the beauty of “A.M.E.N.”

Released near the end of last November, this recording of sacred songs by Limerick-born vocalist Nóirín Ní Riain and her sons Eoin and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin finished fifth in my top 10 albums list for 2007. But it deserves the longer, more substantive review I’m giving it here. Something this moving must be accorded its full due.

Only Nóirín Ní Riain and the Monks of Glenstal Abbey’s “Caoineadh na Maighdine” in 1979, perhaps the finest recording of traditional Irish religious singing ever made, surpasses the quality of “A.M.E.N.”. Between the two is a maternal connection: Nóirín was carrying her first child, Eoin, at the time she recorded “Caoineadh na Maighdine.” Her liner note on “A.M.E.N.” affirms the link by asking, “What is the sound of the womb? A mother singing with her two children.”

For many years Nóirín Ní Riain has been exploring how sounds, especially vocal, represent a vibrational conduit to the divine. Theosony is her own term for “the sound of God,” a subject she examined in depth in the dissertation earning her, in 2003, the first Ph.D. in theology ever granted by Mary Immaculate College–University of Limerick.

The day she finished her dissertation, Sept. 19, 2003, was also the day she produced, provided musical direction for, and sang on the album “Biscantorat.” That title is a conflation of the Latin proverb “qui cantat bis orat,” loosely translating as “to sing is to pray twice,” which reflects this concept of theosony.

Recorded in Limerick’s Glenstal Abbey, the CD features such contributors as Marie-Bernadette O’Connor, better known as Sinéad O’Connor, who sings with Ní Riain on four tracks, including a vocal duet on “Regina Caeli.” Not long afterward, Sinead O’Connor referred to Nóirín Ní Riain as “my biggest influence and heroine in music.”

Another contributor to the recording was A.M.E.N., an acronym for a. Audience/Almighty/Absolute/Anybody, m. Mícheal P. Ó Súilleabháin (Nóirín’s younger son), e. Eoin B. Ó Súilleabháin (her older son), and n. Nóirín herself.

To the actual “A.M.E.N.” album issued in late 2007, Eoin and Mícheal (also called Moley) bring audibly greater musical seasoning and confidence. About four years ago the brothers formed a musical duo called size2shoes, and their blended vocals in that duo are at the center of a sound described as “New Wave Acoustic Irish Pop” that will soon be heard on their début album.

“A.M.E.N.” opens with bell-like gongs, each selected for their pitch and struck delicately, that attune the listener to the reverberative atmosphere of the stone chapel of St. Mary’s Abbey in Glencairn, Waterford, where the album was recorded. It is a subtle reminder that these three voices are not joined within a sterile setting, and slipping right behind the sound of the gongs is the American shape-note hymn “Jesus My All to Heaven Has Gone” sung by Nóirín, Eoin, and Mícheal with compelling a cappella sweep.

The 19th-century “Coventry Carol” extends the expertly woven vocal impression left by the first track, and a deftly executed descending swoop between syllables of the end-line “lullay” ushers the listener into the final chorus. This is harmony singing of the highest order: well-thought-out yet instinctive.

The father of Eoin and Mícheal is the Irish Echo’s Traditionalist of the Year for 2007, Mícheal Ó Súilleabháin, and he plays organ on the next track, “God That Madest Earth and Heaven.” It is a Welsh hymn sung in English by Nóirín and her sons, whose voices cohere impressively again.

“Criost Liom” is a prayer in Irish that the late Sean Ó Riada set to music, and behind the three voices is a drone that, after a call-and-response passage, disappears when all three come together. It is addition by subtraction, allowing the melded vocals to stand out, and it is magnificent.

The traditional Irish religious song “Caoineadh na dTri Mhuire” also features a drone behind the three voices, which alternate in solos and then clasp together.

“Lead Kindly Light” reveals the soul’s cry for guidance, based on text from theologian John Henry Newman (1801-1890), and the unaccompanied three-part harmony lays bare both anguish and hope.

The entire album treats spirituality not as a given but as a goal, something as much aspirational as inspirational, an honest, frustrating, fulfilling quest outside the self. This isn’t New Age posturing or evangelical swagger. It is devotion without the din and dimwittedness of sanctimony, and even to a tough-minded, questioning critic like myself, it is downright refreshing.

With Mícheal Ó Súilleabháin on organ, Nóirín and her two sons sing seamless harmony on “Ave Verum,” a track she describes as “Mozart meets sean-nos.” Classical repertoire isn’t beyond the purview of the three vocalists, who here embrace the challenge and, better still, meet it successfully.

In an album of nothing but highlights, other standout tracks include “The Beatitudes,” “Kyrie Eleison,” “Salve Regina,” and “Sanctus/Agnus Dei,” which features the additional voices of the Cistercian nuns at St. Mary’s Abbey.

“A.M.E.N.” concludes fittingly with a song from America’s shape-note tradition, “Farewell My Friends.” As with the opening track, it begins with lightly struck gongs, creating a kind of padded percussion. Eoin and Mícheal sing the lyrics once through, then hum to form a drone for their mother’s own singing of the lyrics. All three combine for one last pass at the lyrics, and punctuating their singing are periodic handclaps, another reminder of the stone chapel’s sonic resonance.

This CD distills a corollary musical concept of Nóirín Ní Riain: “qui audit bis orat,” that is, “to listen keenly is to pray twice.” As she told me in a recent e-mail, “The extraordinary, sophisticated, sensitive biology of the ear is enough to shout at us that God wants us to be all ears.”

As a stubborn close-text critic, I flinch at recordings of blind religious veneration compounded by artless expression. “A.M.E.N.” is most emphatically not one of those recordings.

Even the most unbudging of doubters can’t doubt the aesthetic achievement of this 17-song album by Nóirín Ní Riain with sons Eoin B. Ó Súilleabháin and Mícheal P. Ó Súilleabháin. It’s not hard to be all ears when listening keenly to something this sublime and rare.

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