We went to see Clannad — an Irish folk, rock and jazz group in the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Friday.
The group is made up of siblings Moya, Ciarán and Pól Brennan, and their twin uncles Noel and Pádraig Duggan. The uncles are a couple of months my junior, born in January 1949. They look a bit older and play far younger. The siblings, born in the 1950s, are not much younger than their uncles and in their music you hear the rich tapestry of sound that can grow only out of decades of making music together — really together, sitting in pubs, and church basements, and in the kitchen or around the fire. Family making music together for the sheer love of it.
So this was old school pre-Internet, pre-synthesizer, Irish music. It traveled well to the Carolina Theater. That sort of makes sense since the acoustics in the venerable old structure do have a distinct pub/kitchen ring to them. And a couple of numbers into the evening, we ditched the seats we had been sold directly behind the speaker tower in the front corner of the theater and made our way to some unoccupied seats from which we could both see and hear the performers. Things were much better from that point on. Every member of the family moved smoothly from instrument to instrument on a pleasantly underproduced stage that allowed us — in the comparatively intimate venue — to see real smiles flashing between real people who loved making music together and who had swapped songs and instruments all their lives.
My Gaeilge being nonexistent, the first half of the concert was a pure, text-independent, musical experience; traditional music we shared with them without synthesized tracks, Jumbotrons, flashing lights, Twitter streams, or any other overt digital augmentation. Though I must admit, the keyboard guy hired for the tour was great, and Ciarán's electric, body-less, stand-up bass did allow him to grab older acoustic and wind instruments far more easily than would the traditional version. The second set was even better when they shifted to both songs and a language I understood. Come the end of the concert, exhausted from clapping and singing along, we managed to drag these folks — our age and no doubt far more tired — back out for a couple of encores, before we tromped, nicely spent, through a cool fall evening back to our car and home.
OK, so? Well, you see I am an unabashed Enya fan. And again, so? Ah, OK, Enya is the Brennan's baby sister — not the "baby-ist," but the sixth of the nine Brennan children. And Enya is about as teched-up as a performer gets. She uses as many as 80 different layers of her own voice to create a final version of a song. And then messes with the purely synthesized tracks that provide the instrumental bed for the vocals. An inclination that may explain her only brief affiliation with family Clannad. You can see how her approach to "making music" would not work in the Carolina Theatre — her electronics would probably blow out the entire circuitry of the aging building. And would we really be willing to wait for her to lay down 80 tracks? So, how did Enya Brennan come to this seemingly anti-Brennan type of music making?
Finding "truth" about any celebrity these days is probably a futile undertaking. Even if one can discern a "fact" or series of "facts" about someone in the public eye, those swiftly become data points to be woven into a tapestry for public consumption that may or may not bear at all upon the inner life of the individual. There are rumors that Enya suffers from extreme stage fright, and that drove her to her studio-bound oeuvre. It is a charge that she denies and is largely unsupported by her early touring work. More likely is the idea that she simply discovered a way of best manifesting her "voice" that largely precludes "concerts" or "performances."
From our side of the speakers the issue is also selective, but need not be exclusive. I do not find Clannad all that interesting as recorded music. It is not something I would just sit and listen to as part of the constructed sound track of my life, the soundtrack that resides in my various digital devices, and that I call up to meet my almost continual need for music. It, like Cajun music, is magic in live performance, almost demanding that you get up and participate. There were very few "still bodies" in the theater last night. But the same genres are somehow flattened and repetitive when it is just me and the speakers. With Enya, performance never even enters consideration. Her work lives completely within the head, as though instead of the body trying to physically engage the music, the music penetrates the body — the experience is completely internalized, holding the body in a dream-trance. Our body freezes during dreaming so we do not injure ourselves as we take flight in the course of our dreams. For me Enya's music lives in that space — demanding frozen attention. I cannot play it as "background" music.
So where does this ramble take us? Just as a walk through any rose garden worth its name puts the lie to the old adage that "a rose, is a rose, is a rose," the Clannad concert, considered in the context of their younger sister's music, reveals the truth in the assertion that music is perhaps the most varied of art forms. And as with all modes of human expression that contain a message — carved stone, paint on a surface, text on a page, or a screen, movement and music on a stage, music through standing speakers or headphones — each container shapes and influences that which it contains. The same musical inclination, tradition, even the same musical family may enter the container, but it comes out the other side into our ears transformed by its journey through the medium. And we, if we listen closely, are similarly transformed.