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JMT 1.10 Enya, from Tolkien to Dark Sky

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 10: Enya, from Tolkien to Dark Sky

There were few pop and new age fans who missed Enya's break-out hit 'Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)' from her 1989 album Watermark. Fans of other genres, however, may not have discovered her work until Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy. In fact, if Enya were to be known for only one thing, it would probably be the song 'May It Be' from The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) - despite the fact that the orchestration is by Howard Shore, the lyrics are by her long-time collaborator Roma Ryan, and the fictional Elvish words were written by author JRR Tolkien.

Let's listen to this haunting piece in a video which includes the lyrics (and translations):

Enya (born Enya Patricia Brennan) is easily one of the most successful Irish singers of all time; in her decades-long career she has outsold everyone but Irish band U2. With album sales of over 75m worldwide, she has also become one of the best-selling artists of all time. (bio here.) There are still those, however, who confuse the artist's name with that of a band, due to her use of a single name along with the enormous wall of sound built by her carefully crafted musical style.

But wait! What do I mean by a 'wall of sound'? Think Phil Spector. Even better - have a look at this short video (but you might want to turn down your volume!):

Let's apply this technique to the music of Enya, by using a track from her album Shepherd Moons (1991). Enya has stated that the song 'Angeles' has roughly 500 vocals recorded individually and layered on top of one another. Although her early works feature a plethora of synthesizers, Enya not only sings but plays the majority of instruments in her songs apart from occasional musicians who play percussion, guitar, uilleann pipes, cornet, and double bass. Try actively listening to 'Angeles', using this static, non-distracting video. If you want to listen a second time, you can find the lyrics here.

Far from being a cheap gimmick or effect, Enya's wall of sound is labour-intensive, and due to her distinctive voice, no one has ever been able to successfully copy her style. Since she has won four Grammy Awards in the New Age category, it would be difficult for her to escape the genre. I will freely admit to having become somewhat jaded after hearing so much of her music across the years, so that when her 2015 release Dark Sky Island hit the playlists, I didn't rush to have a listen. When I did make time for it, I was absolutely blown away; I truly believe this is her finest work to date.

Dark Sky Island refers to the island of Sark, off the coast of Normandy. Sark is one of the few remaining places in the world where cars are banned and only tractors and horse-drawn vehicles are allowed on the roads. In 2011, Sark was designated as a Dark Sky Community, a place which restricts light pollution, thereby becoming the first Dark Sky Island in the world. Have a listen to the opening track called 'The Humming' (lyrics are included in the video).

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. Now that we've listened to the song, here's a bit of extra information. In the official press release Nicky Ryan states: '...after writing the melody line, Enya started humming a small part of the melody...the title refers to the sound of the early universe which is at around 47 octaves below the lowest note on the piano keyboard. Scientists have compressed this extremely low frequency vibration...so that it would be audible to us. It has a humming sound. (NASA: Sounds of the Ancient Universe)
  • 2. Enya's lyrics follow the cyclic nature of the universe, remarking on not only the constancy, but the consistency of change. I've often thought of this as 'The Change Song', but Enya's title 'The Humming' is more inline with its scientific implications. Notice how she uses repetition in the lyrics to achieve a lilting or rocking effect (and all the light, will be, will be...and all the waves, the sea, the sea), creating a sort of lullaby for the universe.
  • 3. There is a tiny 5 second pre-intro, if you will, to the introduction. The song begins with three descending low brass chords which are probably played by a synth, since everything but the bass line on one track of the album is credited to Enya. The proper introduction begins with acoustic instruments over a string pad, setting up the rocking rhythm of the song. I still don't understand the reason for those chords. Once I realised that Dark Sky Island is not a concept album but clearly about a journey through life, I played the last few seconds of the album hoping to hear those same chords repeated - but alas, they're not there. And yet, those chords remain critical to the song and to the opening of the album in a way that only Enya understands; the album would be truly bereft without them.
  • 4. Although Enya uses percussive effects on the piano, the plucked strings, and the orchestral strings, the only percussion instrument that appears in the song is the sound of the timpani or kettle drum (short example). Perhaps I'm falling under Enya's cosmic spell, but to my ear the timpani has a resonance that evokes the universe itself. I can't even imagine something as mundane as a tambourine in 'The Humming' (nor will I cry for more cowbell!) because there is nothing which could be as evocative as the instrument she chose. Like her vocals, Enya's music is so multi-layered that one could easily get lost in philosophical discussions regarding her musical choices.
  • 5. And the end of the song? Every time I listen, I wait in vain for the opening chords to provide a neat closing 'bookend' because that would be so much more comforting than the final closing note. What begins in harmony, ends in singularity. The ending could be interpreted as indicative of the journey that lies ahead, or it could imply that only the unknown awaits us as the comforting certainty of those opening chords is left behind. Perhaps it's only meant to propel us forward into the next track, in an age when playing albums from start to finish has fallen out of fashion. I don't know what Enya's vision was, but I find that final note to be remarkably unsettling.

As an artist it's vital that one discovers a unique voice: a voice that grows throughout the years, refusing to become stagnant whilst remaining true to itself. Enya is one of the most remarkable examples of this lesson; although many eventually find their voice (often too late), Enya was able to discern her musical vision early enough to mold and shape her career in its image.

Find Enya!
Official website
Enya Blue fansite
Enya on Facebook
Enya on Twitter

This episode goes out to one of my Ko-Fi supporters, George Ann, who is an Enya fan and NASA enthusiast. Thank you!
If you enjoyed this episode of Jane's Musical Takeaway, buy me a cup of coffee :)

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