On the 23rd and 24th of December, Niall Carroll's Classical Daytime on RTÉ lyric fm will premiere the first two recordings from a project called The Universal Mass. The recordings form part of a larger work in progress which was begun by the composer and broadcaster J.J. O'Shea during the lockdown of 2020.

Below, J.J. introduces the project...

I`ve always loved the simple austere elegance of medieval chant – it seems to evoke a sense of spirituality without sentimentality. And paradoxically it seems to proceed from a place of profound silence.

It was during the lockdown, and without any particular motive or project in mind, that I began composing a series of pieces for a Sung Mass (The Alleluia, Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Gloria Patri) that was in part inspired by my love of simple plainchant. The pieces almost wrote themselves and as they were emerging, I imagined them as sung by monks or nuns in a cloistered world in times past, but couldn`t help but wonder how these same melodies might sound if interpreted by other singing groups and in other styles.

Composer and broadcaster J.J. O'Shea

For example, I also love the ecstatic sense of jubilation and freedom in the sweeping harmonies of the great American and African gospel groups like the Swan Silvertones and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I asked myself how might an African choir interpret these same melodies? I was aware of the African Gospel Choir based in Drogheda and vaguely wondered if I might be able interest them in arranging the Mass in their own idiom.

As I was working on the pieces, Paul de Grae the guitar player and musical arranger happened to hear the Kyrie, which he liked, and he suggested he write an arrangement for a string quartet based on the melody. I jumped at the chance! It wasn`t long before we had expanded the idea to include all the pieces of the Mass. But Paul`s arrangements seemed to call for a solo singer to best complement the strings. So now there were two versions of the Mass in transit - a simple plainchant version that had been my initial inspiration, and now Paul`s arrangement to accompany a solo singer.

The African Gospel Choir in action

It was around this time that the BAI announced a new strand to its upcoming funding round - a strand that was aimed at musical projects that would help all those working in the Live Music Sector negatively impacted by the pandemic. Here was a chance to bring the Mass project to life! I contacted the African Gospel Choir and RTÉ lyric fm and made an application to the BAI – and, in short version – my application was accepted!

The African Gospel Choir immediately began working on their arrangement under their musical director Adeniyi Allen-Taylor who translated the Latin Mass into the Yoruba language and arranged the pieces in the luscious West African harmonies in which the choir specialise. Originally founded in 2007 the ensemble blends elements of West African traditions and the choir is typically accompanied by keyboard and drums.

Emma Langford

Emma Langford needs no introduction. She is a multi-award winning singer and songwriter. I had worked with Emma before and felt the bright crystal-clear quality in her voice would be a perfect fit for the Mass with strings. She came to the project with a heart and a half and I`m delighted to say even exceeded my expectations.

The first two versions of The Universal Mass can be heard on Niall Carroll's Classical Daytime on RTÉ lyric fm at 11 am on Thursday 23rd of December and with the African Gospel Choir and at 11 am on Christmas Eve with Emma Langford accompanied by a string arrangement by Paul De Grae.