Early on, New York City-based fiddler-composer-arranger Dana Lyn got the message that playing music was about more than, well, just playing music.
“My classical violin teacher was all about interpretation and expression,” recalls Lyn, who will appear at Boston College this month with guitarist Kyle Sanna. “She’d say, ‘What do you want the listener to feel? What story do you want to tell the audience?’ It’s much the same as acting: Classical music is seen as overly technical, but to me it’s passionate, full of overwhelming emotion. And I always tried to get that across in my playing.”
Even as Lyn went on to explore Irish traditional music (playing with such luminaries as Mick Moloney, Kevin Burke, and Martin Hayes), along with other genres, she retained that imperative of seeking, or creating, a narrative amidst the notes. She found a kindred spirit in Sanna, whose background and interests were as wide-ranging as hers. First playing as the accompanists for Irish singer and flutist Nuala Kennedy, Lyn and Sanna began their own collaboration, and in 2011 they released their first album, “The Hare Said a Prayer to the Rainbow and Followed the Fox Down the Hole,” mixing traditional tunes, original compositions and improvised passages.
While their second release, “The Great Arc” (2015), followed much the same template, the album had a unifying theme: portraits of extinct or endangered animal species, like the trilobite, stegosaurus, the Sumatran orangutan, and the blue-tailed skink.
Lyn and Sanna will present their latest project, “The Coral Suite” – an imagining of a coral reef and the diversity of life in its ecosystem – on Oct. 18 as part of BC’s Gaelic Roots series. The free event takes place at 6:30 p.m. in the Theology and Ministry Library on BC’s Brighton campus.
While not exactly a companion piece, “The Coral Suite” has some common threads with “The Great Arc” – in fact, the latter album’s final track was a tribute to the world’s largest coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia – not least of which is the focus on wildlife and natural habitats (and a reminder of the fragility of each). But where “Arc” comprised separate, self-contained pieces, “Coral Suite” is a continuous 50-minute set; in live performances, the music is complemented by light boxes and projections featuring illustrations by Lyn.
“The Coral Suite” depicts a procession of various sea creatures in a coral reef, their interactions with one another, and their responses to changes in the environment, all evoked through Lyn’s fiddles and Sanna’s acoustic and electric guitars (in some cases, the instruments are multiply tracked or filtered through special effects).
Lyn talks of using “the vocabulary of Irish melody” for works such as “The Great Arc” and “The Coral Suite.” It all makes for a fascinating repurposing of Irish traditional music. Instead of thinking of the tunes in the context of dance, you’re prompted by Lyn and Sanna to hear them as representations of movement, anatomy, and other characteristics of marine life. In this setting, the tunes change tempo, sometimes abruptly, sometimes little by little, or they are deconstructed into components that take on a life of their own.
The suite begins by portraying the arrival of fertilized coral eggs on the seabed, as Lyn plays the traditional air “Dear Irish Boy,” Sanna gradually joining in and then taking the lead on an improvised passage until Lyn re-enters. The corals’ growth and competition with one another for space on the reef comes as Sanna ratchets up the rhythm, as Lyn launches into “The Strawberry Blossom Reel.”
Scenes and tempos change. A tranquil “Aqualude” (a Lyn-Sanna original) summons up scenes of sea snakes’ pursuit of smaller fish, and in a later reprise, the byplay among a group of cuttlefish. A storm arrives to the strains of the reel “Toss the Feathers” and its departure, along with the appearance of full moon, is heralded by “The Mooncoin Jig.” Sanna’s slide guitar revisits “Dear Irish Boy” as the coral spawn. Other characters appear: an octopus out on a hunt; manta rays feeding on plankton, one of them suddenly pursued by a shark; finally, a sea turtle, off in search of a new reef.
The inspiration for “Great Arc” and “Coral Suite” stem from Lyn’s interests in the natural world. A self-described “nature geek,” Lyn liked swimming and drawing as a kid, and part of her studies at Oberlin included environmental science.
“Nature and the environment are more than stories; they’re something important that binds us as people,” she says. “I sometimes feel guilty for not having been a scientist, so ‘The Great Arc’ and ‘The Coral Suite’ are an effort to draw that side of me into my musical side.”
But Lyn – whose resume as a composer includes commission for a project on the 1916 Easter Rising by Boston College faculty members Richard Kearney and Sheila Gallagher is quick to note that “Arc” and “Coral” were joint efforts between her and Sanna: “We built it together, we know all of it in our heads,” she says.
For Sanna, who’s written music to accompany silent films, theater pieces, spoken or sung poetry, and works inspired by short stories and images, these collaborations with Lyn are aligned with his overall style and approach.
“It’s much easier for me to move forward with a creative project if it’s grounded in a narrative. Music itself is an abstract language, but because it is time-based and carries emotion, it lends itself to stories and dramas, even if they’re only in the imagination of the listener. I think Dana and I are both drawn to these types of narrative projects and collaborations. It seems natural for us to connect our music to something broader. We both feel a sense of urgency around environmental issues so we’ve found ways of tying themes of environmental fragility into our musical arrangements and artwork.”
For information about Gaelic Roots events, see the Boston College Irish Studies home page at bc.edu/irish.html.
Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna’s website is danalynkylesanna.com.