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The Pipes Called: The Making of “Irish Tune”

Artistic Director Thomas Morgan shares behind-the-scenes highlights from his work on our latest globe-trotting rendition of “Irish Tune”

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was a naturalized American citizen born in Melbourne, Australia; schooled in Frankfurt, Germany; and practiced in London, England. Spanning continents and career tracks (he was simultaneously a concert pianist, composer, folksong collector, and arranger!), Percy’s professional life eventually brought him to New York, just as World War I was ramping up.

Grainger arranged Irish Tune from County Derry for chorus in 1902, noting on the manuscript that it was an “Old Irish Tune, wordless and nameless.” In 1913, English songwriter Frederic Weatherly added the now-famous text, and the tune has since become widely known as “Danny Boy.” (Can you hear it?)

I first adapted and edited Grainger’s setting for Ars Nova Singers almost 30 years ago, in 1995. The six-voice divisi (the division of a single section of instruments/parts into multiple subsections) creates a rich and flowing texture that has made it a favorite of our singers and audiences throughout the years. When we were contemplating pieces that would allow us to involve alumni singers in performance, this work came to the fore, both for its accessibility and for the sheer number of singers who have performed it with us over the years.

Our latest rendezvous with “Irish Tune” began in the early summer of 2020, tracking down the email addresses of as many former singers as we could find. I made a ‘guide’ recording for them, using an earlier recording from those 1995 sessions, then instructed the singers on the process of making a virtual choir performance:

  1. Use a camera or a cell phone to capture your own performance of your vocal part (audio and video both, and in a quiet place!).
  2. Simultaneously, listen to the ‘guide’ recording through your headphones.
  3. Submit your final video recording to Ars Nova.

In the next stage of production, I stripped the audio tracks out of each of the submitted video files and merged all of the audio together*, making sure the vocals sound as good as possible before proceeding to the next stage.

Turning my focus away from the audio, to the video component, the challenge is more one of visual imagination: besides placing all of the singer videos in a grid (which is useful for replicating the group performance dynamic in a digital space, but is also now quite common), what else can we do with these video streams?

The answer to this question was provided by looking at some wonderful local photography by University of Colorado Music Professor David Korevaar. David is known for his brilliant piano playing, as well as his extensive backcountry hiking, including in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area (in the remote, rugged, western portions of Boulder County). When I was starting to explore visual ideas for this project, David’s photography suggested a number of unique possibilities, and provided plenty of inspiration for me to assemble the video elements in a creative way that celebrates the extraordinary beauty of our county. I asked David for 12-15 of his best, favorite photos; he sent me 66!

Grainger had also arranged the “Irish Tune” for piano, and in a moment of insight I asked David to record the piano version for us to use in the end credits, and he agreed readily. Fortunately, the key structure of both versions is the same, and the choir sang very well in tune, so the connection came together easily.

It’s been a fulfilling project to work on and complete, gathering our alumni singers from Argentina, Sweden, France, and from across the U.S.—many of whom have never shared the same stage. But they all share in our history, and in the continuing song that is Ars Nova Singers. Enjoy!

*Nerdy note for all you audiophiles! I use a Digital Audio Workstation called Digital Performer, from Massachusetts-based company Mark of the Unicorn. I’ve edited most of Ars Nova’s recorded library on this platform.