Nightnoise was formed in the early 1980s by the recently departed Irish traditional musician, Micheál Ó Domhnaill and American violinist, Bill Oskay. They were soon joined by Micheál’s sister, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill and flautist, Brian Dunning, with Oskay eventually being replaced by the late Scottish fiddler, Johnny Cunningham. Pure Nightnoise presents a compilation of material spanning the band’s career, from their first album — 1984’s Nightnoise, right up to their 1995 album, A Different Shore.
The majority of the album consists of sublime — often other-worldly — instrumental performances, combining soothing flute and whistle with somewhat restrained guitar and fiddle. A number of songs feature the distinctive vocals of siblings Micheál and Tríona. Of particular note is “Fionnghuala,” an astounding piece of traditional mouth music that opens the collection, managing to combine a distinctly Celtic sound with haunting, monastic-like vocals. The mounting rhythm really carries you away as the song progresses, reaching hypnotic and almost frenzied proportions. There is a particularly subdued and eerie vocal performance of the traditional Gaelic song “Chi Mi Na Morbheanna” (“Mist Covered Mountains”), included as part of an Ó Domhnaill arrangement, titled “The March Air.”
The Johnny Cunningham composition “Night In That Land” is a remarkably expressive instrumental tune, imparting as much emotion as any cleverly written lyric ever could. The lusciously deep and resonant flute gives way to Cunningham’s tenderly bowed fiddle, before they combine in duet to create an atmosphere of sheer desolation and longing. Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill’s piano playing is exquisite on tracks such as “Hugh,” where she sometimes seems to be barely touching the keys, such is the sensitivity of her technique.
Pure is a most apt choice of title for a beautiful collection that remains true to its Celtic roots, with crisp and clear arrangements that at times can sound almost orchestral. The musicianship throughout is unquestionably flawless. “New Age” is a label that seemed to follow Nightnoise around, but I don’t think this fully does them justice. A potent empathy with traditional music is ever apparent and their ability to introduce traditional elements into contemporary compositions is among the best you will find in this genre. The recent loss of both Micheál Ó Domhnaill and Johnny Cunningham, both at a relatively young age, tinges this collection with a great deal of sadness, and adds to the overall poignancy.
(Windham Hill, 2006)