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Nóirín Ní Riain: Vox de Nube

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 08, 2012
Category: World

There are voices that crack glass. That’s impressive, always. Nóirín Ní Riain has a voice that stops you in your tracks and fills your eyes with tears and makes all that is holy to you as real as your hand. If you don’t believe that, listen to ten seconds of “Magnificat cum alleluia” and see if you don’t suddenly feel the impulse to drop to your knees.

Nóirín Ní Riain is not much known outside Ireland. There’s a reason. As a child, she learned 1,000 traditional Irish songs in a style that’s hundreds of years old. She made her first recordings with the choir of Benedictine monks at the Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, Ireland in 1979. The monks were, in essence, her record company. A very non-commercial company — the monks filled orders but did not engage in the worldly practice of promotion.

Nóirín Ní Riain was an Irish national treasure for a decade. (Sinéad O’Connor called her “my biggest influence and heroine in music.”) Then she began performing outside of Ireland, often in support of peace groups. She’s learned to sing the sacred music of India in Hindi and to play Indian instruments. In 2003, she earned a PhD. in theology from the University of Limerick. Her thesis subject: “Theosony,” a theology she devised that marries listening to Spirit.

An Irish critic, Brendan Kennelly, nails her appeal: “Nóirín Ní Riain’s special magic springs from her ability to meditate coherently on the nature and consequences of her own passion for music, song and chant. She is a very conscious artist who has a direct, articulate link with her unconscious powers. The beautiful clarity of her singing and thinking is born of her intrepid ability to confront and express the complexity of her dreams, instincts, aspirations and longings. I believe that is why her genius, at once contained and soaring, creates in the listener’s heart an atmosphere of serenity and calm, a peace that is all the more profound and convincing for being voiced in a world of horror,  greed and compulsive destruction…”

I don’t understand the words she sings. But I don’t need to use the liner notes to know what they say. Her music comes across time, from a place out of time. Her voice is of this earth, and not. (The title of the CD means “voice from a cloud.”) There is no arguing with it — this music is truth, beyond judgment. And this is the most wonderful thing about it: There’s no negativity. Nóirín Ní Riain may knock you to the floor, but she will never fail to lift your heart to the heavens. [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

But I don’t want to get all heavy about Nóirín Ní Riain’s gifts. Of course this CD will have special appeal to those who are hurt and lost and alone and feeling all of that every minute of the day. But this music can also be played for enjoyment — in “Saint Brigid’s Prayer,” she sings: “I’d like to give a lake of beer to God/ I’d love the Heavenly Host/ to be tippling there/ For all eternity.” So much for stuffy “church” music! (Consumer warning: There are some prayers spoken at one point. But they’re not long, and they don’t fatally break the mood.)

I wish I could give this CD to everyone in the world.