Renowned Celtic Music Star Loreena McKennitt Talks About Her New Album An Ancient Muse

Loreena McKennitt
Loreena McKennitt
Celtic composer and instrumentalist Loreena McKennitt has a new recording out. An Ancient Muse is her seventh full-length studio album.

This record is a little like equipping yourself with a Eurail card,” says Loreena McKennitt of listening to her new album, An Ancient Muse. “It’s like saying, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to go to on this trip. I’m just going to get on board the train, and allow each encounter to lead to the next.’”

On her seventh full-length studio recording, McKennitt follows her Muse across time and tide, from Homer’s Greece to Ottoman Istanbul to England in the age of the Crusades. As with earlier albums, particularly the multi-platinum The Book of Secrets, she takes her inspiration from the history and migrations of the Celtic people, fusing the melodic sensibility of Scots and Irish balladry with musical traditions from Greece, Turkey, Spain, and even Scandinavia.

The process is like coming up with a new recipe,” McKennitt explains. “You think, well, I’d really like to make a dish with these elements.” Although there are clearly some favorite new spices — the lute-like ‘ud; a Greek folk violin called the lyra; the triangular kanoun, which is similar to the zither; and the nyckelharpa, or Swedish keyed fiddle — the music itself isn’t tied to any particular style or epoch. Instead, McKennitt draws from far-flung influences, moving easily from the sinuous Silk Road groove of “Caravanserai” to the courtly quiet of “The English Ladye And The Knight,” with its boys’ choir and viola da gamba.

There are some extreme tasting-menu moments,” she laughs.

Accompanied by regular collaborators including Brian Hughes, Donald Quan, Hugh Marsh, Caroline Lavelle and Rick Lazar, McKennitt has also invited a host of other acclaimed international performers to collaborate on An Ancient Muse. Despite the differences in instrumentation, all of the performances derive from similar inspiration, or what McKennitt describes as the “landscape” of the song. “When I’m working on a piece, I try to locate it in terms of geography and time,” she explains. “I have a visual image, or a series of images, in mind for most, if not all, songs I’ve ever recorded. And when I get into the studio, I reference those images. Because if I don’t do that, I won’t have my legs, so to speak, in terms of choosing what instrument, what feel.”

That sense of landscape also helps her convey what she has in mind to her musicians. “I will tell them, ‘Here is the painting that is in my mind,’” she says. “In ‘The Gates Of Istanbul,’ it’s about approaching Istanbul in 1453 — there are camels, there are horses. It’s the end of the day, and the campaign has gone very well. Everyone is looking forward to getting through the gates and seeing their loved ones. And as you come in, there are the wonderful parks, and water… I try to paint a central picture for them, so they can say, ‘Ah, OK.’

“Very rarely is any music ever written down when I bring it to the studio,” she adds. “When one is working with musicians of that caliber, the songs develop very organically in that environment. Even though they are playing what might be regarded as folk instruments, my collaborators’ skill and sensibility really lies as much in the classical realm. So I might gesture toward a phrase, a modality, and then I just let them go to it.”

In addition to setting the scene, McKennitt’s musical landscaping helps ground the music in specific emotional terms.

At the end of the day, I’m trying to preserve a feeling that stretches out, and changes, journeys through and comes back,” she says. “The landscaping may have to do with some of the years I spent around or in the theatre, and even, on a couple of occasions, working in film. Which is why this recording opens with the track ‘Incantation’: I think of it in my mind’s eye as being in a theatre when the lights go to half, and the music might start. Then the lights go to black. ‘Incantation’ sets the scene, and then the first song per se is ‘The Gates Of Istanbul.’”

In that sense, An Ancient Muse begins with a return home, and ends with a departure, “Never-ending Road (Amhrán Duit)” Along the way, the album conjures the wonder of wanderlust in “Caravanserai,” weaves a tapestry of lost love and the dramatic tales of the Crusades in “The English Ladye And The Knight,” visits the ruins of a Celtic settlement in Anatolia, Turkey in “Beneath A Phrygian Sky,” and even conjures the loss and longing felt by those left behind in “Penelope’s Song.”

“The English Ladye And The Knight” is based on a poem by Sir Walter Scott. “I usually choose at least one poem by another author to use in every recording. I find it inspiring to explore the words of such wonderful writers via a musical treatment,” McKennitt says. Although the classically Celtic melody is supported by strings, she opted for the more ancient sound of viola da gamba instead of violins and celli. “It’s rawer and slightly less refined, and I wanted that sound,” she says. “Instead of making the setting too pretty or too sweet, I felt the viols added a wonderful texture, and contributed their own sonic imagery.”

As for the poem itself, McKennitt was drawn by the fact that “it touches on the issue of people loving across cultural lines, so to speak, and tragedy happens. What was interesting, I found, is that at the end of the story, the knight goes off to fight in Palestine.

“Well, here we are — it’s 2006, and conflict in Palestine is still in the news.”

“Penelope’s Song” also has a literary antecedent, taking as its inspiration the long-suffering wife of Odysseus, who sat at home waiting for and worrying about her husband while he had the adventures recounted in Homer’s The Odyssey.

In our contemporary Western experience, where we have access to a lot of technology, or have the affluence that allows us to travel, that whole notion of people going away for long periods of time with the prospect of not seeing them again, really doesn’t enter our experience,” she says. “So I wanted to create something that was sparked by a person waiting for someone to return, and being true to them.”

Not every song on An Ancient Muse is an epic, of course. “Sacred Shabbat,” for example, was conceived more as a snapshot. “It’s apparently a very well-known melody in the Mediterranean area,” she says of the traditional tune. “I heard a version of this on a recording that came from Spain – part of a collection of Sephardic music.” Although there are traditionally lyrics for the tune, McKennitt recorded it as an instrumental, performing with Haig Yazdjian on oud, Panos Dimitrakopoulos on kanoun, Sokratis Sinopoulos on lyra, and cellist Caroline Lavelle. “I wanted to put it in as an experience, as if you overheard these particular four musicians sitting around in a park, casually playing this piece of music.”

Yazdjian, Dimitrakopoulos and Sinopoulos appear on a number of selections, as do bouzouki player Georgios Kontogiannis and percussion ensemble Krotala. Yazdjian is Armenian but lives in Greece, as do Dimitrakopoulos, Sinopoulos, Kontogiannis and the members of Krotala, and their inclusion in the album, McKennitt says, “grew out of learning that the Celts had made their way to Greece as well. In fact, in 279 B.C. the Celts actually attempted to sack Delphi, and that was all the excuse I needed to head off in more of a Greek direction.” She laughs. “It was like a license to open up a door to Greek literature and Greek influences. So I wanted to bring that geographical territory closer through these instruments.”

Again, though, it wasn’t just the history and culture that attracted McKennitt; there was also the emotional weight of the instruments’ sound, particularly that of the lyra. “I was drawn to the Eastern sentiment,” she says. “I remember the first time I heard a kemanje, which is a Turkish instrument very similar to the lyra — a small bowed instrument with a loud, rich and very evocative voice. It was in Istanbul, at Yerebatan Sarayi, a astonishingly beautiful 6th century Roman cistern, and I just found the sound of the kemanje so appealing, because it has tonalities similar to the human voice, in the way the cello does. It is a haunting sound.”

Istanbul also figures in the album’s other instrumental, “Kecharitomene,” which was inspired in part by the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena, considered by many to be the first female historian. Kecharitomene — Greek for “full of grace,” the greeting the Angel Gabriel gave the Virgin Mary — was the name of the convent in which Comnena wrote her major work, a book that among other things presented a critical view of the Crusades from the vantage point of the Byzantine Empire, rather than that of Richard the Lionheart and his fellow Western European adventurers.

If I may be so bold as to have ambitions for this recording,” Loreena McKennitt says of An Ancient Muse, “it would be to whet people’s appetite, to broaden the scope of their awareness of our collective past by saying, ‘Back in the Crusades, well, it wasn’t just the story of Richard the Lionheart — there was Saladin as well.’ But then, I primarily see myself as being like a travel writer, because the best ones are those who serve as conduits and catalysts, rather than saying that it’s all about them.”

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