The haunting melodies and stark harmonies of ancient Irish vocal music will be heard in Princeton thanks to the musical curiosity of Dan Trueman, professor of music at Princeton University, director of the Princeton Sound Kitchen (PSK), and founder of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk).
Princeton University Orchestra’s concerts on Thursday, and Friday, December 4 and 5, both open with the premiere of “Four Sean-nos Songs” by Princeton composition faculty Trueman and Donnacha Dennehy, and showcasing Irish singer Iarla O Lionaird. These concerts are a preview of the orchestra’s January tour of Ireland, to include performances in Limerick, Dublin, and Belfast.
Led by conductor Michael Pratt, the orchestra will also perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, featuring alumna Katherine Buzard, a 2014 Princeton graduate, as soprano soloist, continuing the group’s longstanding engagement with the music of Mahler.
A poem from the famous collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (The Youth’s Magic Horn) provides the text for the vocal part of the symphony’s final movement, a song that expresses a child’s vision of life in heaven.
“Having performed Mahler’s monumental third symphony last April, Mahler 4 will be another step for our students on our exploration of this towering figure — and we invite listeners from those concerts to take the journey with us,” says Pratt. “We are thrilled to be performing with the distinguished Irish artist Iarla O Lionaird, both in Princeton and in his homeland.”
The concerts will take place in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University.
O Lionaird has earned international acclaim for his innovative approach to this repertoire of traditional Irish vocal music known as sean-nos, or “old style.” A recording artist since childhood, he is the lead singer in Ireland’s the Gloaming, which Trueman describes as a super-star band in the world music genre. Signed to Peter Gabriel’s Realworld label in the 1990s, O Lionaird recorded several albums with Afro Celt Sound System, and he also sang on Gabriel’s 2000 release “OVO.” He has also collaborated with musical luminaries such as Robert Plant, Nick Cave, and Sinead O’Connor.
Lionaird has sung for audiences in Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Opera House in London; you may have also heard O Lionaird’s voice in the evocative soundtracks to the films “Gangs of New York” and “Hotel Rwanda.”
Trueman met O Lionaird through his friend and fellow fiddler/composer Caoimhmin O Raghallaigh while the Princeton resident was studying at Trinity College in Dublin. (Trueman and O Raghallaigh have just released their duo fiddle project “Laghdu,” and they will tour to support the album this winter, including a February 3 performance in Princeton.)
“I went to Ireland on a Fulbright and lived there with my family from 2010 to 2011,” Trueman says. “Caoimhmin introduced me to Iarla, and also Donnacha Dennehy, who we ‘stole’ from Trinity — he’s now a colleague here in Princeton. I was originally commissioned to arrange the sean-nos for Iarla and orchestra by the Irish Arts Council for the RTE — Ireland’s equivalent to our National Public Radio. After their premiere, I spoke to Michael Pratt and he fell in love with them, and decided to program them this year with the Princeton University Orchestra.”
He goes on to explain that “arrangement” isn’t quite the right word to describe the sean-nos.
“They’re pieces that have songs within them,” Trueman says. “They are very much old songs that Iarla learned from his great aunt, a great singer of sean-nos, which go way back into the mists of time. There is nothing about them that I changed; Iarla sings them the way he usually sings them, with all the rich ornamentations.”
Before his studies in Dublin he had very little exposure to sean-nos, he says. “I knew the American-Irish music that we hear, and I knew Caoimhin’s playing, but it wasn’t until I spent time in Dublin with all those people that I really started to learn about it, and even more so when I started to make arrangements of these pieces. It was extra fortunate that Iarla included me in the commission, and that’s when I really got into it, really got my head inside the music, transcribed, and wrote down every little detail.”
Sean-nos are usually sung a cappella, in Gaelic, with complex runs or sequences of notes. Lovers of traditional Irish music might hear similarities between the vocalizations of the sean-nos and the improvisations a musician might make on the uilleann pipes. Sean-nos are also not written down, but are passed along from teacher to student or from older family members to young ones. The fact that they are not written down in musical manuscripts was challenging to Trueman.
“Sean-nos are taught by ear, and Iarla doesn’t really read music,” Trueman says. “In some of my transcriptions, his ornamental singing makes it into the orchestra — the winds sound a little like keening — but it’s all derived from Iarla’s singing.”
“Because the sean-nos are not subject to the same rules and ideas about music, I had to figure out how to communicate (them) through music, how to write them down and fit them into a beat, for example,” Trueman adds. “I could have written them down in the traditional way and had Iarla squeeze his singing into it, or Iarla could lead the orchestra.”
“As it worked out, Iarla can sing the songs the way he knows, but they were transformed into something new,” Trueman continues. “I was actually terrified at the outset of the project, because I had recordings of Iarla singing these songs, and they are so beautiful. I thought, ‘I’m going to make these worse.’ So, I am very pleased by the fact that they’re different but they work so well.”
Born and raised in Long Island, composer, fiddler, electronic musician, and instrument inventor Trueman began studying violin at the age of 4. His father is a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, Long Island, and his mother is an artist.
He began his academic career studying physics at Carleton College in Minnesota, then studied composition and theory at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, as well as at Princeton. Trueman has taught composition at Columbia University and Colgate University. He’s been at Princeton since 2002, where he teaches composition, counterpoint, and electronic music.
In the late 1990s, with Norwegian heritage on his mother’s side — and decades after classical violin lessons — Trueman fell in love with the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.
“It was one of those mind-blowing moments every musician has, when you hear something and you can’t believe it — you have to figure out how to play it,” Trueman says. “It’s turned out to be my lifelong obsession.”
The Hardanger fiddle is quite different from its American cousin, elaborately decorated and with an extra set of strings, which gives it a distinctive sound. The fiddle is also used in an unusual way: at summer music festivals in Norway, when the sun never really sets and music lovers come out to dance all night, the Hardanger fiddle can be tuned to arouse and energize the sleepy dancers. Norwegians call it “trollstilt,” which translates to “the devil’s tuning.” That word inspired Trueman to create a duo of the same name with his wife, guitarist Monica Mugan.
The Hardanger fiddle has deeply affected all of his work, whether as a fiddler, a composer, or musical explorer. In addition to Trollstilt, Trueman has worked with numerous musicians and ensembles, including QQQ (pronounced “triple q”), the American Composers Orchestra, So Percussion (now in residence at Princeton University), the RTE Concert Orchestra, the Brentano and Daedelus string quartets, and the Crash Ensemble.
Princeton residents Trueman and Mugan have two children, nine-year-old Otto, who is mostly interested in soccer, and 13-year-old daughter Molly, who is already a talented singer, and also plays guitar and piano.
“She has no idea how much talent she has,” Trueman says, “She’s always had good ears, but I’ve watched her develop perfect pitch in the last year.”
In addition to Trueman’s teaching, involvement with PLOrk, directing the PSK, and touring “Laghdu” with O Raghallaigh, he has a major project lined up with O Lionaird, poet Paul Muldoon, and the ensemble eighth blackbird.
“We’re planning a new record and evening-length piece set to premiere a while from now — in the autumn of 2017 — but we’re already at work on it,” Trueman says. “We are also planning on an extension of the orchestral sean-nos project over the next few years, with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.”
“Iarla is the driving force behind this — Iarla will sing, and I’ll play the fiddle,” he continues. “Paul has been writing absolutely stunning text, in Irish and English, very much influenced by the sean-nos. We’re just beginning workshops in Philadelphia with eighth blackbird, figuring out how to make this piece. I’m a little overwhelmed by the opportunity and challenged as to how to put this into a musical realm. Fortunately, it’s a true collaboration and these should be some interesting sessions.”
Four sean-nos Songs and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, Princeton University Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton. Thursday and Friday, December 4 and 5. 7:30 p.m. $15 general admission, $5 students. 609-258-9220. www.princeton.edu/utickets. For more on Dan Trueman, visit www.manyarrowsmusic.com.