Music at the festival: growth, trance, and the gods

A pilot boat, small in the middle of the frame, cuts through dark green, glassy whitecaps in the fog.

This past Sunday, Three Cranes celebrated the feast of Lughnasa. As we have for eight years now, we did so at the Dublin Irish Festival. That in itself is a big deal: we get a very large crowd, mostly non-regulars, who attend a pagan ritual that receives equal billing with multiple Christian services (everything from an interdenominational service to a Gaelic mass to a ‘U2Charist’) at one of the largest Irish festivals in the country. Such very public reverence for the old gods is in itself a powerful instantiation of the vision of Ár nDraíocht Féin. But beyond the questions of organizational stature and presence, this year’s DIF — our ritual and the broader festival both — had me thinking a good deal about music and the ways its presence supports and shapes my spiritual growth and wellbeing.

First, Lughnasa at DIF is a useful comparison point for me to pause and look back. In 2016, I sang with the bards, mostly as backup. I did rewrite the lyrics to Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” (from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) as a praisesong for Lugh, which went well enough that Jan and I have performed it once or twice for bardic nights, and reprised it for this year’s prelude set. But that was the very very beginning of my songwriting, and at the time I didn’t think I had any original work in me; I couldn’t conceive of writing my own melodies, etc.

Fast forward a year, and I’ve learned to play guitar. I write songs frequently. I led the music at this ritual, not for the first time. Three of the pieces we performed in the pre-ritual set were my compositions. Jan said last night, to my surprise, that she considers me 3CG’s primary bard (though I’m still very happy for her presence and experience!). I don’t want to belabor this, since my last post was largely about how far I’ve come (and how far I’ve yet to go), but still, the progress was driven firmly home on Sunday. I’ve grown into a role that I didn’t even know, 12 months ago, that I was growing toward, and in ways that feel solid and good.

My second thought has to do with, of all things, trance. DIF’s Irish Thunder Stage is in an amphitheatre of Coffman Park, and though the festival erects a canopy for the performers, the audience is largely at the mercy of the sun and its shifting shadows. When I arrived there for a set, I winkled my way into the middle of the smallish fin of shade, where I was glad to find a seat. The performers, John Whelan’s Atlantic Crossings, included guitar, bouzouki, fiddle, pipes, and accordion, and they were tight. Everything layered in beautifully in a sort of musical tapestry. Directly in front of the speaker stack where I had ended up by chance, it was a wall of complexly intertwining multi-timbre sound, and I was startled to realize when I came up for air at an applause break that I had tranced out thoroughly.

Thing is, I’m not a good trancer. I pray, I manage to have some amazing and intense experiences with gods and spirits, but it’s all rather tenuous and requires a fairly controlled set of circumstances and minimal interruption. So to find myself in an entirely transported mental state in the midst of a crowded, chaotic festival was rather surprising. I’d heard tell of a technique often called the ‘trance hammer’, a sensory overload technique with a lot of raucous drumming, de-unified chanting, etc., but the couple of times I’d experienced it nothing really took. This experience of getting not just lost in the music but completely buried in it, though, has some obvious similarities, and it gives me some ideas: I can’t just call up a major outdoor festival at the drop of a hat, of course, but I think some of the components — repetitive musical rhythms, insistent beats, a [moderate] bit of disinhibiting alcohol — are achievable, and could act as stepping stones, which excites me.

Lastly, and most profoundly, the musicians I play with have taught me about my gods. One of the songs I wrote that we performed on Sunday, “Obsidian,” is a praisesong to Manannán mac Lir. The song takes a traditional Manx hymn and interweaves it among contemporary English-language verses. Both the hymnsong and my verses were originally very soft and reverent, but as I’ve worked on the song over the last few months it’s become more driving and forceful, until it’s now really a folk-rock song. During the rehearsal process leading up to DIF, I tried it in a number of keys, attempting to settle into the right part of my voice. After we bounced between two capo positions for a bit, I announced that I was pretty sure it was better a half-step higher.

And every single other person in the room disagreed. I was, to be honest, a bit taken aback: I think I know my own voice! But this is why I love playing with other musicians: they hear things you don’t. And what I wasn’t hearing was the effect of the growl. I knew it sounded less clear, I knew it sounded rougher, but what I didn’t hear was what the song wanted. As Meg finally said: “He’s a seagod, right? The lower key sounds like the storm.”

Like the storm! It clicked instantly. One of the key images I tend to bring to mind when discussing Manannán is his ease on the sea: the lore tells us that he rides over the waves as if they were land (a plain of flowers, in fact), with ease and grace. To me, this image has always previously brought to mind an idea of stillness: the whitecaps are no impediment, and the wavelord is unbothered by them. And at times this is certainly a useful, true telling: he smooths the rough seas for us, guiding us in safe passage. But Meg’s insight allowed me to reframe the image entirely: what if Manannán moves, not in spite of the waves, but in concert with them? He is the lord of the sea! He commands it, inhabits it, lives with it in a symbiotic relationship. For us mere mortals he may calm the sea, but for himself in his majesty, why would he not thrill in the power of the storm surge, the breaking wave, the destroying swell?

In retrospect, this is almost painfully obvious. But previously, I had always encountered Manannán in one of two aspects: either he’s more grandfatherly (wry and comfortable and reassuring and a little jocular), or he’s kingly (aloof, stern, reserved, and mighty). Meg’s one word — I scrawled STORM at the top of the page, it was so evident — suddenly opened up a new realm of understanding. In the two weeks since, it’s been constantly on my mind. That reconception helped me perform “Obsidian,” which is certainly a boon. But more importantly, it’s deepened my understanding of the god I hold most dear. I’m both humbled and uplifted by the mighty and awe-inspiring master of wave and seastorm, and in the end it’s music that’s brought me here.

Header image: “Yellow Rose in Weather” by Louis Vest/Flickr. License: CC BY-NC.


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