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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

A reflective journey in times of menace and hope - Anselm McDonnell

Light of Shore is a snapshot of Anselm McDonnell’s recent music for solo instruments, including suites for piano, guitar, and cello with live electronics.

The debut album from composer Anselm McDonnell features a selection of pieces for solo instruments from his most recent work. Releases October 8, 2021.

 Piano - Cahal Masterson
 Double Bass - William Cole
 Guitar - Chris Roberts
 Piano - Isabelle O'Connell
 Cello - Martin Johnson
 Electronics - Anselm McDonnell

 Mixing - Cormac O'Kane
 Mastering - Christoph Stickel
 Artwork & Photography - Vincent McDonnell
 Production & Design - Anselm McDonnell

Via the internet, plight, and praise, I came across the work and descriptive reflections of guitarist and new music composer Anselm McDonnell. It was the great sensitivity with which his music evokes emotional territories indicative of our time’s unsettled state of menace, balanced with personal moments of fragile hope and stability, that I found attractive and fascinating.

With his debut album release Light of Shore, which is coming out this October, the Northern Irish composer who writes for orchestra, chamber ensembles, soloists, and electronics, with a particular focus on vocal and choral works, draws on stories of differing influences that have formed Northern Ireland as a country and culture. Listen to some free tracks here. 

He describes it as a reflective journey through a troubled past of conflict and warring factions fueled by a potent mix of culture, religion, and politics, depicting “the diverse communities of Northern Ireland that have been shaped by the legacies of the British empire and Irish heritage, the rich stories of both Christianity and Paganism, and also more recent shifts in the political landscape including Brexit, that have prompted deep questions about the future and identity of Northern Ireland. Each piece on Light of Shore, was written specifically for the performers who recorded this album, and I was delighted to be able to collaborate closely with them over the past five years in bringing this project together.

“Musically, several of the pieces on the album draw on resources that I associate with my Irish/Welsh heritage,” McDonnell says. “The ‘Lorica’ movement from the piano suite is a reworking of a traditional Irish melody known as ‘St. Patrick's Breastplate,’ a tune I've often heard sung in cathedrals throughout Ireland, especially around St. Patrick's Day. The first movement of the suite, ‘Red Branches,’ references the name of a paramilitary group active in the area outside Belfast where I grew up, and its harsh, violent contours were inspired by their actions. In contrast, the final movement, ‘Alban Hefin,’ reflects on the Welsh summer solstice, the time of year when the Celtic countries enjoy the fullest moments of light. The guitar suite ‘Eyewitnesses of His Majesty’ takes a slightly different approach to heritage, exploring the influences that have shaped me as a performer.”

With guitar, his primary instrument and his route into composing, this suite draws on techniques and textures from the guitar repertoire that he has studied, weaving them into his own musical language: Bach, Brouwer, Caffrey, Domeniconi, and Villa-Lobos. 

“For this suite, I also drew on some influences in my Christian faith and interest in visual art. The suite is a musical portrait of seven of Christ's apostles, inspired by the Apostolate paintings by El Greco. The final work on the album, ‘Three Words for Light,’ uses live electronics to enhance the sound of the cello. The titles are taken from Irish journalist Manchán Magan’s fascinating book Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape, and reference Irish phrases for various manifestations of light: ‘will-o’-wisps,’ ‘forked lightning,’ and ‘the white light of dawn on the cusp of sunrise.’ Like the piano suite that opens the album, the music moves from moments of darkness and violence to a hopeful glimpse of dazzling light in its final movement. I was drawn to Manchán's work as he seeks to examine the Irish language apart from its political connotations in Ireland (it is a controversial topic in Northern Ireland) and give insights to what it tells us about where we have come from as a people and the influences that have shaped us, which is what Light of Shore aims to reflect on,” he describes.

Particularly the first piano suite, “Ceaselessly into the Past,” recorded with pianist Cahal Masterson, grapples with and examines McDonnell’s deeply personal formation of cultural identity, influenced by his Irish heritage. Masterson will premiere the pieces at a launch event in Belfast on the 8th of October. This will be followed by a private Dublin launch at the Contemporary Music Centre, with a performance of “Three Words for Light" by the RTÉ NSO‘s lead cellist, Martin Johnson. This album was made possible by generous support from Moving On Music, ACNI, and Queen’s University Belfast. 

Anselm McDonnell is a composer of Irish/Welsh heritage based in Belfast, who has composed over seventy pieces for orchestra, chamber groups, choirs, soloists, and electronics. A diverse range of interests have led to the creation of work in collaboration with lighting designers, theologians, poets, filmmakers, improvising musicians, fashion designers, dancers, and actors. No stranger to the New York new music scene, he has worked with the New York Choral Composer/Conductor Collective and across the pond with the BBC Singers, Chamber Choir Ireland, C4 Conductors , and St. Salvator’s Chapel Choir.

Digital      Album 
Streaming + Download
Pre-order of Light of Shore. The moment the album is released you’ll get unlimited streaming via the free Bandcamp app, plus a high-quality download in MP3, FLAC and more.
releases October 8, 2021
Pre-order Digital Album
6-panel      double disc Digipack w/ 4-page booklet
Compact Disc (CD)
Shrink-wrapped 6-panel card digipack withe two CDs and 4-page booklet. Artwork and photography by Vincent McDonnell, design by Anselm McDonnell.

 Includes digital pre-order of Light of Shore. The moment the album is released you’ll get unlimited streaming via the free Bandcamp app, plus a high-quality download in MP3, FLAC and more. The album will ship on or around October 8, 2021

Other recent projects and ongoing collaborations by the composer include: Laniakea for large orchestra and choir, his project The Union is our God, with the London Symphony Orchestra for their Soundhub Scheme, and a suite of pieces for solo clarinet titled When Aslan shakes his mane (for Francesco Paolo Scola of the Ulster Orchestra, who requested a set of short pieces after the two worked together on Scamper). Cross-Purposes and Refractions are two chamber works that were finished in 2020; commissioned by the CRASH Ensemble and the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble, they continue the flow of new pieces for musicians with whom McDonnell has collaborated with before on several occasions. Cross-Purposes was recently released on CRASH Records, and Refractions will feature in HRSE’s next season.

“It’s always an inspiring experience for me to work with the text of Scottish poet Euan Tait, and I had the opportunity to use a poem he wrote for me, ‘Babelsong, when I collaborated with NY-based pianist Adam Marks over lockdown. The score was an experiment in writing a one-page graphic score, and I greatly enjoyed the challenge (head over to the work’s page if you want to see it). Adam interprets the piece creatively and with nuance. I’m currently exploring a larger project with Euan, which could keep me writing for quite some time, so keep an eye out for any updates on that…”

McDonnell notes that the LSO gave his piece for solo cello, The Anguish of John Paton, “a second, virtual outing during a streamed YouTube concert.” You can watch Orlando Jopling of the LSO play it here.

Courage, dear heart for the National Concert Hall, Dublin, is part of a concert McDonnell has been curating for their Beethoven anniversary celebrations. The concert (which is scheduled for Spring of 22, depending on the changing situation with live performances) reflects on the interaction between composers and texts by Irish authors expressed through piano trio and soprano, and will feature works by American composer Jessica Meyer, and Irish composers Piers Hellawell, Grainne Mulvey, Ryan Molloy, and Elaine Agnew. The performers will be the Degani Trio and soprano Elizabeth Hilliard.

McDonnell’s work has been partly supported by ACNI during the pandemic lockdown, through funds awarded by their Emergency Resilience Program to support his creative practice and development.



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