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A harpist's trip to the other side

One reason this season has a powerful effect on many of us is that it is a time to reconnect with what the ancient Celts called the "otherworld." Irish harpist-singer Aine Minogue has spent her life studying the beliefs from which so much traditional music sprang, how they were used by people in those times, and what use they have to us in our modern lives. Her 1995 CD, "To Warm the Winter's Night" (Evergreen), has become a holiday staple to thousands of folk fans precisely because it makes the ancient moods of midwinter real to us today. Now she has created an equally entrancing CD, "The Twilight Realm," calculated to let us feel that enchanted way any time of year. In studying myths of the otherworld, the domain of the supernatural, she saw that however different they might be, how people used them was strikingly similar.


"The way people used things like fairies and mermaids and selkies was to aid them with symbolic thinking in ways that helped them with their everyday life," she said from her Arlington home. "They told stories about people placed in impossible situations they couldn't balance through the religion or psychologies of the day, which gave them a symbolic way to grapple with life. The stories gave them the ability to get out of their own heads and realities, and to see their lives represented in different ways."

There is something magical about the old melodies created to transport us to the otherworld. They remain the foundation of our Christmas music, a major reason it has such an ability to put us in that meditative place where myth and memory mingle, where pictures of our childhood dance easily with images of sugarplum fairies and fat, jolly elves slipping down chimneys.

Minogue's CD is set in twilight, she said, because that was the time Celts believed the veil between the real world and the otherworld was the thinnest. "I was trying to convey a certain otherworldly feeling," she said, "and picked music I thought would create that. But I avoided things that seemed too heavy, too dark, or too seasonal."

Beyond its dreamlike loveliness, what is remarkable about "The Twilight Realm" is that it is not seasonal at all. Joined by an ambient ensemble that includes Solas founders Seamus Egan and Winifred Horan, Minogue evokes that reflective, otherworldly mood that Christmas music does, but this CD can be played at any time of year.

"The whole recording was meant to be very circular so you would escape into it and then come home to yourself," Minogue said. "I wanted to take music that explored the otherworld and put it together in a way that felt like a journey. It's good just to get out of our own heads for a short time, go somewhere else so we can come back and be in the world a little easier."

Minogue is also featured on "Comfort and Joy: A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, Volume 2" (Rounder), a gorgeous anthology of holiday music assembled by Brian O'Donovan, host of the weekly WGBH-FM Celtic Sojourn program. His annual Christmas show, which is now nationally syndicated, airs Saturday at noon.

Minogue performs holiday shows today (noon) at Old South Meeting House, Saturday (8 p.m.) at Common Fence Point, and Sunday (8 p.m.) at Club Passim. E-mail Scott Alarik at

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