Focusing on the Fundamentals




WHEN I TOLD a friend I was writing a piece on Loreena McKennitt, he said, “Oh, yeah, that New Age, romantic, Celtic singer,” and emitted a series of meh noises. At first, that didn’t sit with me so well. But then I realized he was only echoing a misperception out there that McKennitt’s music, though it draws on instrumentation from a variety of cultures and traditions, is homogenous, watered-down, and merely pretty — i.e., New Age. Ben Ratliff, at The New York Times, once showed her the back of his hand, writing that “her game is conjuring pleasant pop from popular thoughts about ancient cultures.”

It’s true that McKennitt’s music can be easy on the ears, soothing and exceedingly lovely, but it’s not “pleasant pop”; it’s open-hearted, intelligent, and unafraid when dealing with matters of the spirit. “New Age” is something to which I give a wide berth for the same reasons you probably do: because it’s lightweight, because it’s a genre where wimpy musician/composers write “wisdom” music for super-stressed people who like ice-cream-sprinkles of “spirituality” in their music but aren’t rigorous enough to see that behind the misty mysticism is nothing but more, and mere, mist. Enya is New Age; George Winston and Vangelis and Yanni are New Age; sound-beds of soporific synthesizer playing on yoga meditation DVDs is New Age. Loreena McKennitt is not New Age. She is a singer of Celtic music, no doubt — of searing, stirring, and often tragic songs about the elations and sufferings of the Celtic diaspora, especially the Irish. And it’s “romantic,” too, but only if that means she writes in a tradition that runs through Keats, Tennyson, the pre-Raphaelites, and early Yeats, not Celine Dion and Adele. She’s a woman of impressive (and autodidactic) intellectual range: spend any time around her and you’ll hear her speak articulately about recent findings in anthropology, about the influence of the Renaissance-era church on early scientific research, or about the threats social media pose to the brain physiology of children, and she’ll be quoting from papers emanating from Cambridge University’s Center for the Study of Existential Risk. She’s also a hard-headed business woman who runs her own record company, and in her spare time is the Honorary Colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force, a job much more than honorary and hinging on her efforts to study the effects of military life on the family. What McKennitt is doing with her music isn’t a “game”; she’s trying to recapture, or unearth, lyrically and musically, the remnants of a nearly-lost spirituality found in pre-modern, sometimes ancient culture, and seeing if those remnants of religion, myth, and legend, represented in modern dress and sans New Agey sentimentality, have any resonance for us these days. She’s on tour right now, and from March 10th through the 15th will be playing local shows in San Diego, LA, Beverly Hills, Costa Mesa, and Santa Barbara before running up the West coast and finishing in Seattle. I’ve seen shows on earlier legs of this tour — in New York and Austin — and for me, she’s resonating plenty.

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McKennitt’s current tour is a stripped-down version of her usual concert presentation; rather than the nearly dozen players who normally crowd her stage playing hurdy gurdys, ouds, uilleann pipes, balalaikas, fiddles, keyboards, and a panoply of percussion, this time around she’s narrowed her band to three: the versatile Brian Hughes on guitars and bouzouki, the British Caroline Lavelle on very passionate cello and wood flute, and Loreena herself on Celtic harp and piano. When she and I sat down to talk in the lobby of Austin’s Paramount Theater in early March, she spoke about the impetus for the trio tour: “A number of people were writing in to tell us they missed the traditional vernacular of the simple, Irish-influenced music,” plus the “ongoing collapse of the music industry” made her wary of putting on an elaborate show. After being absent from the US since 2007, she “wasn’t sure how many people were still on board.” She needn’t have troubled herself about that though: the Austin show was standing room only.

A trio tour obviously changes the way songs are presented. Hughes told me “it forces us to fill in the spaces in the music. You can’t take five seconds off while you’re on stage and know someone can cover for you.” And though it’s not exactly an “unplugged” show (Hughes uncorks some beautifully drony electric guitar solos on “Between the Shadows” and “Bonny Swans”), it does offer the intimacy McKennitt is looking for on this tour. The trio set-up “allows us to explore songs that have been left behind over the years,” she says, “and it also allows me to speak a bit more and share some of the research and travel behind the songs.” In fact, she’s speaking a lot more: the show is organized around her career-long fascination with Celtic music and history (she herself is Canadian, of Irish descent), and she introduces almost all of the songs with stories (and carefully told jokes) about the provenance of the songs.

McKennitt discovered Celtic music around 1978, in her early 20s, in Winnipeg, Canada, where she’d gone to connect with other Canadian folkies like Alan Stivell (who is a sort of grandfather of what we now call the Celtic revival) and groups like Steeleye Span. The music struck her in a way nothing else did, and her first album, Elemental, is pure Irish revivalism, traditional music arranged for harp and McKennitt’s warm, pellucid soprano. (It includes her gorgeous adaptation of Yeats’s early fairy-poem, “Stolen Child,” about which more in a little bit.) A second album, Parallel Dreams, added the first of McKennitt’s original compositions to the traditional Irish brew, which includes the amazing eight minutes of the tragic folk tale “Annachie Gordon,” another staple of this tour. But it was in 1991, when she attended a huge art exhibition exploring the 2500-year history of the Celtic peoples entitled “The Celts: The Original Europeans” at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, that her life’s work really came into focus. “When I saw this exhibition, I thought my goodness, there’s an unbelievable wealth of history to draw upon here,” she says, and “I thought why don’t I use this pan-Celtic history as a kind of creative springboard.” That exhibition sprung her into a 25-year obsession, and her subsequent career — which includes the studio albums The Visit, The Mask and Mirror, The Book of Secrets, and An Ancient Muse — became a sort of musician’s version of a travel writer’s career. “Many travel writers take off on these expeditions and render their thoughts in the form of a book. I was doing the same thing, but rendering it in the form of an album. Because I don’t have a formal education, this has allowed me to travel the world, study history, study culture.” Her travels exploring Celtic history have taken her far beyond Ireland to other places where the Celts left their mark — the Iberian peninsula (“Santiago”), the northwest coast of Africa (“Marrakesh Street Market”), all over the Mediterranean (“The Gates of Istanbul,” “Beneath the Phrygian Sky”), and along the Silk Road leading through Russia and China (“Caravansarai,” “Marco Polo”), where scholars have traced the origins of Celtic tribes, and most recently to India. It gradually came to her that “the whole sound of Celtic music [became] a vehicle to pursue history in a way that I could not have imagined.” Her career, in some ways, has been one long elaboration of how the Celtic gene is wound into the DNA of European and Asian music and culture, and as she absorbed all these other influences, her music has become more properly categorized as World Music.

At the Venice Exhibition, McKennitt learned that the Celts had a highly sophisticated culture (their metalwork “is one of the most advanced that ever existed in non-Classical Europe,” sayeth the exhibition catalogue) as well as a pagan religious outlook that she has found fecund and relevant to our own times.

Celtic culture,” she says, “is rooted in the seasons […] integrated to the earth […] and a lot of the songs reflect that. As a species, we’ve removed ourselves and set up an unnatural position in relationship to the earth. The Celts felt that the souls of their ancestors […] resided in the trees, so they held trees in great reverence […] It sounds, I don’t know, pie in the sky, I suppose […] but again, I think that we as a species on the earth have got to re-acquaint ourselves with the fundamentals.

If “re-acquainting ourselves with the fundamentals” sounds pie in the sky to you, understand that it does to her too; also consider that, given the reality of climate change, it’s clear we do need a new relationship to the earth, and McKennitt is trying to recover traditions — pagan, animist — that might help us do that. She’d rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn than go down the destructive, materialist path we’re currently on.

Here’s how this works in concert. One of the songs she sings is the Irish folk tune, “Bonnie Portmore.” The title refers to the “Oak of Portmore,” a tree in Ireland that was felled in a windstorm in 1760 and whose wood was sold to the English, who were supposed to have used it to help build military warships. The song laments the loss of a beloved tree (one that Celts, remember, believed could harbor human souls), but it also came to symbolize the loss of Ireland’s old-growth forests, which were systematically cut down by the English for mercantilist purposes. So the song’s about an imperial power stripping a colony of its natural and spiritual resources. In her introduction, Ms. McKennitt tamps down the old imperialist theme to highlight the song’s relevance, given the wanton destruction of natural environments by the omnivorous demands of modern capital. And then she sings the song. It has one of the tenderest, most yearning melodies you will ever hear, replete with the kind of melancholy only the Irish can muster. And then there is McKennitt’s crystalline voice, which combines power, lucidity, and intelligence with a sort of dignified restraint that is, to me, almost unbearably beautiful. Listening to “Bonnie Portmore” feels like being reacquainted with the fundamentals.

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Here’s how else it works in concert. On her first album, Elemental, McKennitt wrote a melody and background music to W.B. Yeats’s poem, “Stolen Child.” The poem is about a fairy who offers to take a “human child” away from a “world full of troubles / and anxious in its sleep” to a world characterized by the beauty and rhythms of untrammeled nature. It’s early Yeats channeling his Celtic forbears, and plays on the word “stolen,” prompting the reader to ask who’s really stealing the child, the fairy as it urges the child to come away with him, or the “world full of troubles” that has stolen the child’s soulful innocence? It’s clear where McKennitt stands on this. “To be absolutely honest,” she tells me, more enthused than at any other point in the interview, “I could park everything right now on this spot […] I see childhood being stolen from children. I think it’s a travesty. I think that this unfettered connection technology that we’ve seen in the last 20 years has really been a [dangerous] digital experiment […]”

She insists, “You can’t have such huge changes in society and the raising of children […] without a certain amount of time to study its effects,” yet we don’t study them in controlled environments, but only in real time, while we — and our children — are being saturated by them, and the long-term effects are entirely unknown. She compares the digital revolution to the Industrial Revolution, when “with the advent of fossil fuels,” which changed life utterly, factories polluted the skies and centered “urban design around the car, which of course had all sort of unanticipated implications for health and climate change […] I feel exactly the same way when it comes to connection technologies, because we’re dealing with compromising the physiology of the human brain, which is the very organ that we need to navigate all the challenges of the present.” In her introduction to the song in concert, she condenses all this into more audience-friendly terms, and to show that this isn’t just theory to her, she throws in a plug for Waldorf schools, whose curriculum, contra the public schools avid to introduce computers to students as early as possible, keeps children away from all electronic media through the eighth grade. 

The whole trio show works like this — it’s part history lesson, part comic travelogue, part philosophical reflection on The Way We Live Now — but it’s never didactic or pushy, and so funny in its storytelling and so sheerly beautiful in the music, that in the end it feels soul-restorative, a warmly human evening pitched to the better angels of our natures.

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There’s an old Adrienne Rich poem — it’s from her formalist, pre-feminist period — called “At A Bach Concert” that captures the effect of Loreena McKennitt’s music. In the poem, the speaker goes to a Bach concert, and when she hears the formal stateliness of the music is struck by “the antique discipline, tenderly severe,” which “Renews belief in love but masters feeling / Asking us a grace in what we bear.” McKennitt’s music, too, is pretty formal: she uses lots of simple pop configurations — three or four chord progressions in major keys, verse-chorus structures, repetitive melody lines — which may explain the charge that she’s same-old, but these formal constraints sturdily contain lyrical ideas that are vital, powerful, and even violent. The music is dynamic and can tighten and heighten the tension to hypnotic “Bolero”-like levels. (Good examples of this last include pieces like “All Souls Night,” or her sole hit single — played on KROQ, of all places, in the ‘90s — “The Mummers’ Dance,” which are pagan nature celebrations, and conjure up images of ecstatic dancers’ bodies licked by reflections of a bonfire.) Her music is Apollonian — clear-headed, disciplined, and ordered, its ardency held in by formal rigor — but what her music is about — wanderlust, the yearning for personal and spiritual connection, and, as she puts it, “the universal themes: the need to be loved, the need to be part of a community, and the interconnectedness of all that’s on the earth” — is crazy-passionate. To me, the enacted tension between form and subject is exactly the kind of thing that “renews belief in love but masters feeling / asking us a grace in what we bear.” The woozy airheadedness of New Age then is as far from Loreena McKennitt’s music as can be. She’s a traditional humanist, borne back ceaselessly into the past, but it’s all in the service of re-acquainting us with the fundamentals.

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Cornel Bonca is Professor of English at California State University, Fullerton.


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