April 28, 2021
Julian Loida: “I grew up with Irish music, and I loved it, but I didn’t know how to locate it in my life. What I’ve come to discover was that it was inside of me all along.”
For years, Boston-area musician Julian Loida tried to find a way to properly commemorate the life of his beloved Irish grandmother Bridget Patricia Albright (neé Foody), who died in 2016, and what she meant to him.
It wasn’t just the fact of her passing that motivated Loida. A Belfast native who immigrated to the US in 1955, Bridget had died practically on the eve of a major multi-media performance event at New England Conservatory for which Loida – then a student at NEC – served as organizer and producer, and in which he was appearing. Reluctantly, though with the support of his parents, he had decided to stay in Boston to continue preparations for the show rather than go to St. Louis for her funeral.
Loida was saddened at having missed the funeral, but it was when he visited St. Louis a short while later that he experienced an even greater sense of loss.
“I came home and I saw my family, and heard them talk about the funeral,” he recalls, “and I had the feeling of having missed out on something huge.”
This revelation would help spark Loida’s interest in affirming his family heritage by becoming involved in the Boston Irish/Celtic music scene, culminating in his production earlier this year of a short video project, “My Gentle Harp,” that serves as an elegy for his grandmother. The video features a narration by Loida and a montage of photos from Bridget’s life interspersed with solo choreography by Kieran Jordan, the Boston-based Irish dance performer, teacher, and choreographer – all to the accompaniment of the old Irish song “My Gentle Harp,” which Loida plays on vibraphone.
“In Ireland, funerals are celebrations of life as heard in this major key,” he says in the narration, “soaring with childish wonder, while in the end falling to its final descent, like a casket lowered beneath the surface – with a pedal lifting like the last clump of dirt covering our buried loved ones.”
For Loida, these past five years have been a demonstration of how grief can be a catalyst for growth, change, and self-discovery, and – with the right alignment of friends, acquaintances, circumstances, and events – lead us to more fully appreciate the bonds we’ve shared with loved ones, even after they’re gone.
“I grew up with Irish music, and I loved it, but I didn’t know how to locate it in my life,” says Loida, who is outreach manager for Cambridge nonprofit Passim (which operates Club Passim in Harvard Square) and has been an assistant producer for the “Celtic Sojourn” Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day productions. “What I’ve come to discover was that it was inside of me all along.”
The namesake and unifying feature of Loida’s video is the song credited to Thomas Moore (1779-1852) as part of his famous “Irish Melodies” collection. The first of its four stanzas begins:
My gentle harp, once more I waken
The sweetness of thy slumb'ring strain
In tears our last farewell was taken
And now in tears we meet again.
As often happens in both folk and literary traditions, over time “My Gentle Harp” became associated with different melodies, including “Londonderry Air” – also the music for “Danny Boy.” In some instances, the song has been performed or recorded purely as an instrumental piece.
A percussionist whose musical experiences and collaborations involved classical and jazz as well as folk genres, Loida knew “My Gentle Harp” as a funeral ballad, and after hearing of Bridget’s death he dedicated himself to learning it on the vibraphone as a means of honoring her memory as well as her Irish roots. But that wasn’t enough; he sought to connect the song more directly to her in a meaningful way.
Even as he contemplated how to do that, Loida’s career began to take shape. He and other NEC students formed a multi-genre band, Night Tree, some of whose members had backgrounds in Irish and other traditional music. Night Tree caught the attention of Seamus Egan, co-founder of the Irish American group Solas, and he wound up producing the band’s two albums. Loida also deepened his producer/organizer credentials by working on the “Celtic Sojourn” stage shows and with Passim, for whom he began managing the Boston Celtic Music Fest in 2019, all of which brought him into more contact with Boston’s Celtic music community.
Then, during the winter of 2020, Loida had the opportunity for a free recording session at Dimension Sound Studios in Boston, whose operator, Dan Cardinal, wanted to record him on the vibes, so Loida played “My Gentle Harp.” Now with a professional-quality recording of the song, Loida hatched the idea of using it for a dance video, and contacted Jordan, with whom he had become acquainted through his growing ties with Boston-area Celtic performers.
“I knew Kieran was a great Irish dancer, but she’s equally amazing doing contemporary, modern dance, and that’s where I felt she could contribute,” says Loida. “I still felt a bit of an outsider in the Irish music community, and she was so welcoming to me, and took me under her wing.”
“For me, there are lots of common threads between Irish and contemporary dance,” says Jordan. “The kind of Irish dance I focus on, sean-nos, is all about improvisation. And most of what I do in contemporary dance is improvised. It’s a matter of listening, and then going into the empty space and trying something and building on it, with the finished choreography coming later.”
There followed a goodly amount of brainstorming between the two, as Loida strove to refine and explain his artistic vision while Jordan endeavored to realize it through the mode of dance. Jordan concluded that, instead of a straightforwardly expressive interpretation, the dance – and the video itself – should tell a story, and she suggested Loida write a narrative that could be used as a voice-over while also providing a guide for her creative efforts.
“That was a big moment of clarity, where I said to Julian, ‘You have to tell the story of Bridget in your own words, what she meant to you, what you felt about her,’” recalls Jordan. “The other ‘Aha’ moment was him understanding that I wasn’t only interpreting his grandmother, but I was also interpreting him and his part in the story.”
While there was still more revising and editing to be done before it was ready, Loida felt the project was on the right track: Besides providing a biographical sketch of Bridget, the video – with his words and his rendition of “The Gentle Harp” – underscored the deep connection he felt to her.
“I grew up in a classic Irish Catholic community, and my grandmother was definitely part of that,” says Loida, who recites memories of being at her house for Christmas, with a holiday dinner and Mass as part of the visit, or of Bridget buying baked goods but insisting she had made them “even though we could see they were wrapped in plastic.” She also loyally attended Loida’s soccer games, and it was at one of them when a teammate remarked to him, “Oh, your grandma’s Irish.”
“It never really occurred to me that she might have grown up in a different country. I had never heard her as having a ‘different’ accent.”
Such a direct connection to an Irish native was a point of pride in his community, and Loida – whose father’s side of the family was of Austrian descent – found himself gravitating more to his Irish side. That meant, among other things, attending St. Patrick’s Day festivities, where he would see Irish dance performances. But for all that, Loida did not develop an interest in Irish music: “It just didn’t stick with me.”
If Bridget was disappointed that her grandson didn’t take up Irish music, she never showed it. She cheered his enrollment in NEC, expressing confidence that he was sure to become famous, and as Loida says, “would even write her a symphony one day.”
A death in the family sometimes has unexpected after-effects that may exacerbate the tragedy or, as in Loida’s case, make one believe that the universe can behave in strange but wonderful ways. At his older brother’s wedding some months after Bridget’s death, Loida met her twin brother Paddy, and learned there was a whole part of the family back in Ireland he hadn’t yet met – some of whom played Irish traditional music. Loida established contact with these distant relatives and discovered one of them, Conal O’Grada, had often toured the US, including Boston.
And then, when Loida shared the “My Gentle Harp” video with O’Grada, he found out that O’Grada knew Kieran Jordan.
“I think the whole world just opened up to me then,” he laughs.
Somehow, improbably, a key linchpin in Loida’s life turned out to be this resilient little woman from Belfast who had come to the US on a whiskey freighter and lived out the classic immigrant success story. It’s a story Loida himself is part of, and is gratified to be able to tell in such a personal, heartfelt way.
“You think about all that’s happened: what it took for my grandmother to go to America, start a family, have a grandson who decides he wants to be a musician, comes to Boston, gets to know the Irish music community, finds a collaborator in Kieran Jordan who it turns out knows someone I’m related to – and it’s because I wanted to do something to show how important a person my grandmother was to me. It really feels that there was a plan for me to do what I’ve been doing.
“So I feel now that there’s so much more to do. I want to learn more, see where else I can go with Irish music. I wish she could see what I’ve done; I think she’d be proud.”
“My Gentle Harp” can be viewed on YouTube at https://youtu.be/Y_XmChOZElo. For more about Julian Loida, see julianloida.com.