A Mystic Named Eithne Ni Bhraonain
Chris Van Ness
CD Review (USA) August 1989
In any kind of rational definition, new age music should reflect an artistic heritage (folk/pop, classical, or both), it should have enough thematic touchstones to make it accessible to a mass audience, and it should in some way advance the literature of composition. These traits, however, don't always appear on new age recordings. Many of the releases classified in this catchall category are little more than electronic (for the most part) experimentation excused as minimalist work or meditative sound clusters.
One new age composer who manages to transcend the generic, self-aggrandizing spectre of experimentation is a 27-year-old woman from Gweedore in northwestern Ireland. Eithne Ni Bhraonain, better known by the Anglicization of her Gaelic first name - Enya - is a true composer/artist for a new age. Enya is advancing the canon of composition with a unique sound steeped in ancient folk music and classical tradition. At the same time, she's achieving important recognition with a contemporary audience.
After scoring a soundtrack for a BBC-TV documentary, The Celts (excerpts of which appeared on a self-titled CD in the U.S.), Enya went to work on Watermark. The recording has emerged as the biggest crossover album of the year, having achieved platinum status (one million units sold) in both the U.S. and Europe. Watermark's initial single, 'Orinoco Flow', topped British charts for 10 weeks and reached No. 24 in the U.S.
Enya began her musical odyssey in 1980, when she joined her brothers and sister in Clannad, a folk/rock group. Two years later, she and the group's manager, Nicky Ryan, decided to go off on their own. "Nicky had musical ideas that he couldn't really voice within the group," she says.
Even though Enya is now on her own, three people are involved in her music-making. "Besides myself," she explains, "there's Nicky and his wife, Roma, who writes the lyrics with me. At the beginning, I write the melody. The melody then dictates the mood, the lyrics, and the arrangement. We get very personal, the three of us. We isolate ourselves completely, so there's very much three people involved in the creation."
Although she composes initially on piano, the genius of Enya's music lies in the multilayered electronic sounds that provide texture and atmosphere. She began using electronics simply as a financially expedient way to create demos for her soundtrack work, but soon discovered what the machines could do for her creative vision. "We found in using synthesizers and digital sampler machines that the music tends to get a bit linear and straight. That's why the vocals - the multitrack vocals - are so important. They really give the human element and the mood and the feel to the music."
While multitracking vocals is certainly nothing new, Enya's approach to the process is. She often spends weeks recording and overdubbing as many as 400 vocal lines.
"I like to use the voice as an instrument," she says. "Nicky and I have worked six years with this multivocal idea, and there's still a lot more development we want to do."
While Enya is open to discussing the technical aspects of recording, she's deliberately vague about her sources of inspiration. A note on the CD insert does indicate that 'Cursum Perficio' was "inspired by the inscription on the portico of Marilyn Monroe's last home - my journey ends here." And she does admit that "one of the songs - 'On Your Shore' - was a very emotional song for me, because it's about an actual beach at home in Gweedore where I spent some of my childhood." Beyond those clues, however, Enya will say only that her music is "extremely personal."
The mystery surrounding her creative inspiration is further compounded by the fact that three of Watermark's pieces were written in Gaelic and one in Latin. "It's really dictated from the melody," she says. "In reference to 'Na Laetha Geal M'Oige', for example, it would be difficult to sing that in any other language, because of the particular Gaelic phrasing it has. And when we came to 'Cursum Perficio', we wanted to leave the voices bold and up-front, as in a choral piece. We knew we couldn't really adapt the Gaelic or the English, and we knew it would work well with the Latin. Actually, we really don't mind what language it's in, as long as it complements the music."
Fortunately for untutored ears, Watermark also offers several beautiful ballads in English (Enya calls it "poetry singing"), including 'On Your Shore' and 'Exile'. And 'Orinoco Flow', written about a journey down the South American river, stands as an incredibly moving piece.
"Music is my first and only love," she says. "To be able to express feelings through music and to be able to share it with the public is a wonderful feeling for me. The fact that's it's been accepted the way it has makes me very happy."
If inspirations and definitions remain a bit vague for the listener, so be it. What's important is that Enya plans to continue her odyssey and chart new rivers of sound. "We don't want to repeat anything that we've done before," she says, "but there are ideas that we sill continue to work with. And that, for me, is exciting. It's such a wonderful feeling that it really eliminates all those hours you spend composing."
And what if she were asked straight-out to define her own music? Enya's eyes sparkle, she giggles shyly, and pauses to think. "The only way I can describe my music ," she says slowly, "is that it's very much Enya - and always will be."
Note: Originally transcribed by Dave Allum.