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Characteristics of Sean Nós Singing

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Thomas Johnston

on 19 April 2016

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Transcript of Characteristics of Sean Nós Singing

Introduction to Sean Nós Singing
April 2016
Lecturer: Dr. Thomas Johnston
Email: thomas.johnston@dcu.ie
Some thoughts on Sean Nós...
Sean-nós literally means 'old way’ or ‘old style’.

"To the traditional singer, sean-nós is no mere matter of technique or style. It cannot be bounded by concepts of time and space - or even by the folkloristic concepts I have discussed here (function, performance context, repertoire, etc.). Such concepts imply that human behavior and creativity can be separated into discrete units and analyzed accordingly. But to the traditional singer, there can be no such tidy demarcations. To him, sean-nós cannot be detached from the process of living, for it is the stuff of life itself" (Julie Henigan, 1999).
http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/sean-nos.htm
The term almost defies definition

Seamas Mac Mathuna has written, "Sean-nós singing is at once the most loved and the most reviled, the least often heard and the least understood part of that body of music which is generally referred to as Irish Traditional Music ... It is the least understood because, technically and emotionally, it is the most complex part of that body of music, and many of those who dislike it do so because the techniques of sean-nós singing are not the techniques which they have come to regard as the ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ ones”.

Although the origins of ‘sean- nós’ are the subject of intense and fierce debate, the word sean-nós to denote traditional singing is actually of fairly recent origin.  It was apparently created in 1940 or '41 at the Gaelic League Oireachtas.
Songs are in the Irish language
Solo, unaccompanied singing
Melodic variation is a strong feature
Sean-nós singers will ornament the basic melody of the song
The singer will often vary the rhythm of the song by lengthening or shortening some notes
The singer does not usually use dynamics or dramatic effects
The meaning of the words dictates singing from the heart, with 'soul’
There is often an emphasis on the consonants l, m, n, r to facilitate the free rhythmic pulse and to create a drone effect. Occasional nasalisation.
The use of the glottal stop/dramatic pause.
The melody varies from one verse to the next, and from one performance to the next.
Some 'generally' accepted characteristics of Sean-nós
South Ulster & Donegal
Connaught / Connemara
Munster - Cuil Aodha
tradition in County Cork

Regional Styles
Donegal Sean Nós
The northern style is markedly different from the southern nós, characterised by a more open vocal tone, adheres more closely to the basic rhythmic and melodic structure of a given song. 

Melodic ornamentation, when present is sparse and is more or less incidental.








Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill and Micheál Ó Domhnaill (1952 – 2006)

Iarlaith O Broin - Úirchill a' Chreagáin (Abair Amhrán)

Gearóidín Bhreatnach - Tiocfaidh an Samhradh
Connemara Sean Nós
Sean-nós has also come to be identified – particularly in official circles - almost exclusively
with the specific performance style employed by singers of the Connemara region of Co Galway
 
One of the most important technical aspects of sean-nós is rhythmic freedom, a quality more marked in Connemara, but an important element of the northern nós

Elaborate melismatic ornamentation

The Connemara people have an altogether different style to Donegal: a lot more drawn-out

Emphasis on Melody: The Connemara style tends to alter the melodic structure of a song and to render the lyrics less intelligible

Themes: fishing tragedies
“I was talking with Johnny Mháirtín Learaí who does a great version of this song with a different melody. He says this song is about a woman whose last name was Clogherty. She was born and grew up on the island of Maoinis but later was married and moved to a different island. She always dreamed of returning and it was her final wish to be buried there. However, after she died, it rained and blew for 3 days straight and they were forced to bury her the place where she lived and died. The events are described in some versions of the song”. 
Máirtín Seoighe - Amhrán Mhaínse

Nasal quality? A drone effect? Ornamentation?

Eilis Ní Chongaile - An tAmhrán Bréagach - Abair Amhrán

Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (1919 – 1984)

Darach Ó Catháin (1922 – 1987)
Munster Sean Nós
More ornamentation than in Donegal but less than in Connemara

Many singers use vibrato

A more pronounced degree of nasility

Nioclás Tóibín (1928 – 1994) was a Sean-nós singer from the Déise tradition of County Waterford. During the 1950s and '60s, Nioclás Tóibín was one of a small group of performers who absolutely dominated the world of Gaelic singing. 

Seamus O Beaglaoich - An Cailin Ban

Iarla Ó Lionáird was born in Cul Aodha, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, Ireland.  

“the loud-soft contrast has been particularly evident in the singing of some from the Cuil Aodha tradition in County Cork, from which one of the younger and now internationally known singers, Iarla Ó Lionáird, comes, which reminds us that absolutism is a dangerous thing”.
Nell Ní Chróinín
On accompaniment… It's nice, but it doesn't suit the sean-nós at all, at all.  Because a person singing in the real sean-nós - he draws out one line, and he makes another one kind of sharper and quicker, and he goes out of tune now and again.  And if you had a good musician or a man who know his work, a little backing would certainly be nice ... but not a real accompaniment at all - no, it doesn't suit. 
http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/sean-nos.htm

Julie Henigan - 14.8.99
http://www.daltai.com/discus/messages/12465/11241.html?1033947113
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
http://www.iarla-o-lionaird.net/sean_nos.html
As I roved out one evening down by the Assembly Mall
I heard two lovers speaking as me and my love passed on
But the words that passed between them, they were but very few
It’s not the leaving of Limerick that grieves me,
But my darling leaving you!

In the morning when I’m going, I’ll take you by the lily-white hand,
And I’ll wave it over my shoulder, in adieu to the Limerick Strand
So farewell to the boys of Thomond Gate, it’s to them I bid adieu
It not the leaving of Limerick that grieves me,
But my darling leaving you!

And now that we must be parted I know you will understand
Why I must go broken hearted far away from my native land
Though, my fond love, I must leave you, you know my heart it is true
It not the leaving of Limerick that grieves me,
But my darling leaving you!
Leaving of Limerick
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