“The Coral Suite” is an album that contains great riches for those who want to dig in.
By Daniel Neely
Regular readers of this column know that I appreciate the pure drop, but that I also love when musicians make trad the basis for smart, thoughtful excursions which take it to new places. Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna are two musicians who tick both boxes and in their new album, “The Coral Suite” they’ve revealed masterful piece of artistry rooted in traditional music that covers a great bit of musical ground in weaving a narrative about nature and conservation.
Lyn and Sanna are both exceptional musicians with a worldly outlook. Trad music lovers will know them “from around.” Lyn’s (danalynmusic.com) known for her work with Susan McKeown, Johnny Cunningham, Martin Hayes, Kevin Burke and The Green Fields of America, and Sanna (kylesanna.com) with folks like Burke, Hayes, and Seamus Egan. Together, they’ve worked with Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Cillian Vallely, Burke, and Mick McAuley, and earlier this year were featured artists at Irish Arts Center. Both, however, have rich musical lives that extend beyond Irish traditional music. Lyn, for example, performs with actor Vincent D’Onofrio in the spoken-word collaboration “Slim Bone Head Volt” (slimboneheadvolt.com), and has worked with actor Ethan Hawke and arranged for Loudon Wainwright III, among many, many other projects. Sanna, on the other hand, is an accomplished composer, arranger, and producer who has worked with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck and Chris Thile.
The expansive view of music they share has led to some truly fascinating work. Several years back, they were arranging Bach for fiddle and tenor guitar together. In 2013, Lyn released “Aqualude,” an album that I thought sounded as if “Sean McGuire were to tell a story channeling Ruth Crawford Seeger and Joe Zawinul.” That album was conceptually in line with a pair of more experimental albums Lyn and Sanna made together, “The Hare Said a Prayer to the Rainbow” (2011) and “The Great Arc” (2015). Like this album, “Arc” was a meditation on nature, its processes and our place in it.
“The Coral Suite” consists of two quite long tracks that run into each other and can be listened to as a whole. Due to space constraints, I will only deal with “Part I,” but suffice to say, the approach in the second part matches that of one, even if it manifests somewhat differently.
“Coral Suite, Part I” tells the story of the birth and life of a coral reef, using familiar tunes to evoke different moments of its existence. It opens with Lyn playing the slow air “Dear Irish Boy,” given an ethereal, transcendent feel, with Lyn’s fiddle and Sanna’s light backing complemented by a delicate texture of floating, prismatic sound. This texture remains as the melody washes into “Strawberry Blossom / Mulhaire’s” and the tempo picks up.
The track seems driven less by the tunes than by the wavelike moments that carry the tunes and drive the listener’s ear in unexpected but powerful ways. This is easily heard later in the track where the tune “Bunch of Keys” is used to signal “a school of Parrotfish bit[ing] off chunks of algae-rich coral.” Wave-like textures are used to communicate the danger of an approaching storm. Its inevitable arrival comes as “Toss the Feathers” begins, and as that tune unfolds, Sanna’s backing devolves into circle of tones and chords that rise like a Shepherd tone and create dramatic tension, resolved with a break into a briskly delivered “Mooncoin” jig, that illustrates the storm ravaging the coral structures, ending in a fanfare of minimalism reminiscent of the same sort of cues one finds in composer Terry Riley’s work that inspired Pete Townsend to write “Baba O’Reilly.”
The track ends as it began, on the slow air “Dear Irish Boy.” Here, though, it’s played on slide guitar, floated on a deep, sub-bass floats the melody. The reef’s spirit endures, but its manifestation has changed, and a coral spawn happens creating new life. The transition into “Part II” makes total sense.
“The Coral Suite” is a deep, complex album from two virtuoso musicians about which a lot can be said. The music works on a superficial level, in that one can put it on the player and in it find simple enjoyment as there are some very calming moments, and moments that are more dramatic, all of which are connected with an inner cohesion that can well engage a passive listener. But it’s also an album that contains great riches for those who want to dig in. The entire thing is alive with bits of expressive subtlety and symbolism that communicate the wonder of the subject at hand and tie them to Lyn and Sanna music in really effective and beautiful ways. I’m finding that the experience of Coral Suite its less like “an album” and more like cinema as the story it’s telling is so immersive and sensuously oriented. It’s different, but also familiar for lovers of traditional music. I highly recommend this one. To learn more, visit danalynkylesanna.com.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music every week in the Irish Echo.