Nawglan, the Sacred Nine
Listen to the full album:
- Alder of the Marches - Protection, Shelter, Restoration 11:00
- Ash of the Shadows - Motherhood, Strength, Healing 11:25
- Birch of the Waterfalls - Renewal, Birth, Change 6:13
- Elm of the Glens - Discernment, Prophecy, Knowledge 7:13
- Hazel of the Rocks - Wisdom, Dreams, Visions 3:02
- Oak of the Sun - Kingship, Fatherhood, Generosity, Justice 5:33
- Rowan of the Mountains - Power, Overcoming, Breakthrough 6:06
- Willow of the Streams - Growth, Surrender 9:01
- Yew of the Plain - Life, Death, Resurrection, Eternal life 6:01
Legend has it that Celtic Monks used a specially prepared mixture of ashes obtained from the burning of the boughs of nine sacred trees - Alder, Ash, Birch, Elm, Hazel, Oak, Rowan, Willow and Yew. The use of the ash in ceremonies was important, but for the monk, the collection of the individual woods was an act of worship in itself. They believed each tree had characteristics pointing towards various attributes of the Godhead, and they would meditate upon these as they would harvest each in turn. I've written each track on the album to do the same, each having a distinct character and embodying different divine characteristics. The finished album is, in a way, the ash, and the unseen creation process is an act of worship and devotion, similar to the gathering of the wood by the monk. The name of this ash was Nawglan, the Sacred Nine.
On a personal note, this has been quite an adventure for me. It has been totally different to any other album I've ever worked on - for a start it is instrumental! It has been a breath of fresh air for me, and I hope you'll find it the same. This album is perfect to sit with, to meditate with, to just BE with. It's great to have playing in the background while working, revising or reading. It was meant to be a personal project for myself, but has grown into something much more substantial than I imagined. Most of the tracks are based on improvisation sessions, including a truly memorable 40 minutes with John Reed that were recorded live and have been included almost as is. Terl Bryant guests on percussion, lending both a real gravitas and a joy to proceedings, and Nick Tsiatinis has again contributed some beautiful photography for the artwork.
How long have I waited for the chance to use the phrase “plangent sacerdotal tones” in a description of a piece of music? Correct: about that, and then a good deal longer. Now the chance has come with the arrival of the splendid new piece of work from the musical skyscape that is Matt Steady, which he has called Nawglan.
Calling on the Celtic mythology associated with trees which extends to the complete sequence of the Ogam alphabet, and the use of 9 trees in particular in religious ritual, Matt has constructed a major piece of instrumental music that evokes each of those Nine in turn.
The instrumentation throughout the album is almost entirely Matt’s own work. Let it be said that he is a hugely-talented musician. The talent is that of someone who can make the complex sound simple and yet emphasise the amount of hard work involved in creating and playing these sounds. He is one of those irritating people who plays any number of instruments to a standard that most of us would be delighted approach on just one. Most of them feature on this album: guitars, fiddle, uilleann pipes, fretless bass, piano and violin, along with any number of others that I’ve probably failed to identify.
Each track has its own qualities and a general review is not the place to pick out one or two. In any case, the beautiful and meditative quality of “Nawglan” suggests, but never insists – far too evangelical – that the album is a single entity. It is a delight, and the pleasure grows on returning to it over and over. It is not something to be glanced at, in an aural sense. If you do, there is a danger of dismissing it in the way you might think of panpipes playing in a lift, as someone once suggested.
However, if you insist on a go-to track, go to track 4, “Elm of the Glens”, where you will be absorbed into an extraordinary bout of fine fiddling, some exquisite percussion, a very fine and accurate solo electric guitar that sometimes soars – that word plangent again, insistent bass and so on. All thoughts of panpipes dissolve away.
Similarly, track 8 goes off in its own direction, with an insistent atmospheric background and some dramatic work on the cittern from John Reed, who knows Matt’s work well and has worked with him in other musical places.
Talking of collaboration, Matt has teamed up with the wonderful Terl Bryant to provide the percussion, to huge effect and with a subtlety that is perfect for the thinking that has gone into this.
But no track represents the whole album. It is just that, a unity of Nine.
Hugely recommended, the plangent sacerdotal tones of “Nawglan” will reward any listener, anywhere, but perhaps not in a lift.
Skye, May 2020