Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning, an acclaimed duo on the Contemporary Celtic music scene for more than 30 years, come together again on the album Eirlandia, inspired by the best-selling author Stephen R. Lawhead’s new Celtic fantasy novel, In The Region of the Summer Stars – Book 1 of the Eirlandia Series.
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Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning are known for past recordings together on Ark Records such as A Quiet Knowing Christmas, Stars In The Morning East, The Katurran Odyssey, The Enduring Story, Winterfold, If I Do Not Remember…, and A Quiet Knowing, among others. Their music has been included on best-selling contemporary instrumental compilations released by Windham Hill (Celtic Christmas, Winter Solstice) and Hearts of Space (Celtic Twilight), and featured in documentary and feature films including Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York. Johnson has recorded many solo and collaborative albums including several with guitarist Phil Keaggy. Dunning is known for his recordings and tours with the renowned Celtic group Nightnoise.
In the Region of the Summer Stars, in which the main action takes place in the Celtic fantasy land called Eirlandia, is Stephen R. Lawhead’s 29th novel and is published by Tor Books (for more info go to StephenLawhead.com). Lawhead is well-known for his critically-acclaimed Pendragon Cycle and Bright Empires series. Previously Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning have collaborated with Lawhead by creating three CDs inspired by his Song of Albion series, three EPs based on his King Raven trilogy, individual CDs based on his books Byzantium and Patrick, plus the albums The Music of Celtic Legends – The Bard and The Warrior and Prayers of St. Brendan – The Journey Home with those latter two both featuring original stories that Lawhead wrote for inclusion in the CD’s packaging.
CDs and digital download tracks from Eirlandia and other recordings by the duo (as well as dozens of Jeff Johnson solo albums and additional collaborations) are available at the label’s website (ArkMusic.com) as well as online sales sites such as Bandcamp, CDbaby, Amazon, iTunes, eMusic and many others.
“Lawhead’s first Eirlandia book, In the Region of the Summer Stars, is a tremendous story,” states Johnson. “I think that his readers are absolutely going to love the world he’s portrayed and the marvelous characters that are a part of it. There is a profound beauty and sense of wonder in these books. Yet, there is a great struggle between the forces that serve this beauty and those who would threaten it. This creates a very real tension not unlike the kinds of issues we face in our own world. I believe our music captures the essence of the Eirlandia world that Lawhead has created. Good fantasy has always been about good story telling that touches us and inspires us. For listeners who have read the book there is an extra layer of meaning in the music, but the music is also a journey itself with deep emotions and Celtic melodies that can be enjoyed again and again.”
Featured on the Eirlandia album are Jeff Johnson on keyboards and percussion, and Brian Dunning on flutes and penny whistles. Special guests are regular collaborators Wendy Goodwin on violin, Janet Marie Chvatal singing wordless vocalizations, Phil Baker on bass, Roy Salmond and Eric Miller on guitars, and the late Tim Ellis on Ebow guitar.
The music is a Contemporary Celtic sound that takes traditional Irish musical elements and blends them with some modern instrumentation to create a fantasy soundtrack rich in imagery and emotional content spread through upbeat, swirling tunes followed by slower, haunting, meditative pieces. These are stunningly-effective, full-bodied, multi-layered, ensemble pieces, primarily instrumental but with occasional ethereal wordless vocals mixed in.
“When Brian and I first began collaborating in the late 1980s,” remembers Johnson, “we were both based in Portland, Oregon, so we would get together in my studio, each with a few ideas that we would then develop and record together. When he and his family moved back to Ireland in the early 1990s, we began sending musical tracks back and forth with each of us adding to them as we went along, although we still occasionally record together in my studio or when I take a trip to Ireland. In addition, for the past 17 years Brian has traveled to the USA to join me for the Celtic Christmas Tour which gives us the opportunity to further realize our music together in a live concert environment which is always a joy.”
Johnson’s early work was vocal progressive-rock, but his sound evolved to focus more on jazz, new age, contemporary instrumental, contemplative-spiritual and Celtic styles. “I started writing songs in 1976 when I was just a teenager. I was influenced and intrigued by great literature, poetry and art.” Over the years his music has been inspired by a diverse group of authors, artists and historical figures including CS Lewis, Charles Williams, George MacDonald, Blaise Pascal, Francis Schaeffer, Tom Stoppard, William Shakespeare, Auguste Rodin, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Biblical Psalms, early Irish saints Columba and Patrick, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, and a variety of fantasy and sci-fi writers.
Johnson’s solo projects include, Broken, Gazing, Journey Prayers and A Thin Silence which reflect his work with Selah, a contemplative worship service he presents in many churches and retreat centers, and with pilgrimage groups. He has also recorded the critically-acclaimed instrumental releases WaterSky and Frio Suite with guitar virtuoso Phil Keaggy. Johnson’s other collaborations over the years include Wendy Goodwin, Janet Marie Chvatal, David Friesen, Dave Hagelganz, Mark Schulman, Derri Daugherty, Sandy Simpson, the Coran Deo Ensemble, John Fitzpatrick, Jozef Luptak, Dallas McKennon and Scott Cairns.
Brian Dunning’s latest solo recording is Blue Sphere Motifs with percussionist Robbie Harris. He is a former member of the Irish/Scottish supergroup Nightnoise (Shadow Of Time, Something Of Time). Dunning always had Celtic influences from his Irish heritage, but he studied jazz and classical music at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in the United States. He also studied under world-renowned classical flautist James Galway.
Dunning played the flute and panpipe in Puck Fair, a primarily instrumental “Irish jazz” group formed in New York in 1984 that played traditional Irish songs and original compositions. They released the album Fairplay on the Lost Lake Arts/Windham Hill label in 1987, with Dunning on flute and drummer Tommy Hayes on bodhran, joined by various musicians including Micheal O Domhnaill. The group was later reformed in Dublin with Dunning, guitarist Sean Whelan, and percussionist Robbie Harris, releasing the album Forgotten Carnival in 2008. Dunning also can be heard on the soundtracks for the films Windhorse and The Outcasts.
“From the beginning of my recording career some 47 albums back, most of my music has been ‘concept based’ and this really hasn’t changed,” explains Johnson, “even today in a world where most people listen to songs rather than sitting down and listening to an entire album in one sitting. I do believe modern audiences would enjoy the full album experience if more of them gave it a chance.
“I truly enjoy creating music to expand upon and exemplify a good written story, like the books of Stephen Lawhead. So often great novels parallel the narratives of our own lives. Sure, we won’t ever be or meet an elf or a druid or an ancient Celtic warrior in this life, but like those fantastical characters, we are often personally faced with great struggles and must make difficult choices and act upon them to not only survive but to live lives that are worth living. Thus, our music based on these books is an attempt to creatively portray the feelings and experiences behind the story and some of the characters that inhabit it.”