Review: Bard and Ceilidh

My first opportunity to listen to Mary Vanhoozer’s Bard and Ceilidh in full came during an early morning drive from the Loch Lomond region (north of Glasgow) back to St Andrews on Scotland’s East coast. The landscape of rolling hills on a misty morning, interrupted occasionally by a typically quaint Scottish town, served as an excellent backdrop as I absorbed Vanhoozer’s offering of folk-inspired music. Indeed, the influence of Scotland (Vanhoozer’s childhood home [1]) looms large on the album from its very title. The word ‘ceilidh’ (pronounced kay-lee) is a Gaelic term for a social gathering involving dancing and folk tunes. In my experience, these gatherings evoke a sense of festivity and comradery that we perhaps have fewer social forms for expressing across the Atlantic (and one that, as I write during the COVID-19 pandemic, is sorely missed by people all over the world).

Bard and Ceilidh certainly captures something of this festive spirit. The album consists of four instrumental tracks that are heavily inspired by Gaelic folk music and four settings of classic poems. A common thread running across the album is a certain playfulness, with different melodies, instruments, and voices combining and parting in a pattern that itself evokes the movements of dancers at a ceilidh. Vanhoozer’s love for folk music combines with her extensive musical expertise to create songs that are at once free-spirited and technically precise. Robert Nicholson and Laudon Schuett contribute performances on the cello and lute, respectively, to Vanhoozer’s vocals, hammered dulcimer, fiddle, and hurdy gurdy, making the album full of impressive performances and memorable arrangements.

The first two tracks, ‘Riverside Ceilidh’ and ‘Faerie Caper’, are both instrumentals and set a jubilant, celebratory tone for the album. ‘Riverside Ceilidh’ evokes the festivity of a ceilidh dance while simultaneously foregrounding a gentle and reflective tone in the fiddle’s rolling melody. ‘Faerie Caper’ continues in this same spirit, with Vanhoozer’s various instruments being highlighted in turn over the hypnotic drone of the hurdy gurdy. Both tracks testify to Vanhoozer’s skill in ‘messing about with notes’, [2] with melodies and arrangements that are balanced between moments of musical complexity and bare simplicity.

The third track is a setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s tragic poem ‘Excelsior’. The introduction of Vanhoozer’s vocals provides a nice variation at this point in the album. Her lone melody line offers a delicate and precise rendition of the poem, tracing the shifting tone of Longfellow’s narrative from the bold daring of the protagonist to his tragic end. ‘Mother of Mine’ sets Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the same name. Vanhoozer’s arrangement mirrors the ambivalence of Kipling’s work, alternating between a note of fearful speculation and one of comfort in the power of maternal care. ‘Lullabying the Sun’ is a much softer instrumental track highlighting Vanhoozer’s performance on the hammered dulcimer.

‘Whose Woods Are These’ and ‘Little One, Sleep’ are, in my opinion, the strongest tracks on the album (though I will freely admit to a partiality for the Robert Frost poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ which inspires the first of these). The understated arrangement of this track mirrors Frost’s moment of reflective pause, and Vanhoozer’s simple melody line and subtle harmonies are exquisite while not distracting from the beauty of Frost’s poetry. ‘Little One, Sleep’ sets Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Sweet and Low’ as a gentle lullaby. The melody seems drawn from the best of folk music: plain, unadorned, and capable of being endlessly repeated without becoming tiresome. The harmonies between fiddle and cello and between vocal tracks are beautiful and poignant. The final track, ‘Daisy Chains’, brings the album full circle back to the jubilant instrumental Gaelic music with which it began.

Vanhoozer states that one goal of her music is to ‘help listeners acknowledge and celebrate beauty in every day things’. [3] Bard and Ceilidh seems to be a coming together of resources that are designed for just this purpose, from folk music celebrating sound and movement for their own sake to poems about human relationship or moments of reflection in everyday life. In doing so, Vanhoozer offers the listener an opportunity to reimagine the world in terms of the rhythms and patterns of a ceilidh dance.






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