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Billy Turney—Devotion to song

For the last 40-plus years, Billy Turney has been performing live music in churches, pubs, farmers markets, and a dozen other places from Santa Fe to Rome to Dublin.

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"To understand how Billy Turney came to embrace both sacred music and Irish folk songs, you have to consider two ends of the keyboard continuum: the biggest of all, the pipe organ, and the most portable, the accordion."

Devotion to song

“There’s nothing like live music,” says Billy Turney of the Laboratory’s Environmental Services group.

He should know. For the last 40-plus years, Billy has been performing for people in churches, pubs, farmers markets, and a dozen other places from Santa Fe to Rome to Dublin. One day he might be cranking out traditional Irish folk tunes on his accordion; another, stirring church rafters with a pipe organ; a third, enchanting an audience with his a cappella sacred-music choir, Schola Cantorum of Santa Fe. He also gives lessons in voice, accordion, piano, and organ; helps the brothers at the Christ in the Desert Monastery outside Abiquiú with their Gregorian chants and organ music; and lends a hand to the music program at a church in Rio Rancho.

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For a child of the rock and roll era, Billy has intriguingly unboxed musical tastes—and he has followed an intriguingly divergent path through music. By day, Billy works as an environmental engineer; nights and weekends, he honors his lifelong devotion to song.

Billy focuses much of his creativity on Schola, the choir he formed in the ancient tradition of unaccompanied Christian choruses. Although Schola has a wide repertory, at its core are Gregorian chants, which involve unison singing rather than harmony.

But there’s a flip side to Billy, the Irish side, equal and not really opposite to the sacred music. Drenched in the traditions of folk music, pubs, and pints of Guinness stout, it rings out in Schola’s concert programs and Billy’s other wide-ranging musical adventures. To understand how he came to embrace such seemingly disparate musical genres, you have to consider two ends of the keyboard continuum: the biggest of all, the pipe organ, and the most portable, the accordion.

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This Road Leads to Rome

Growing up as a Roman Catholic in Santa Fe, Billy studied music at the Loretto Academy and attended the venerable St. Francis Cathedral, a marvel of Romanesque architecture. Its medieval ambience, the chants and sacred music, and the powerful pipe organ seized his imagination. At 18 he became the substitute organist at the cathedral and by 20 he began his 25-year stint as director of music.

That road, it turns out, led to Rome.

“The archbishop [of Santa Fe] thought I had talent in music,” Billy says. “He suggested I study at the Vatican.” On that recommendation, Billy went to the prestigious Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music several times, concentrating on Gregorian chant and organ. Utterly taken with Gregorian chant, Billy founded the Schola Cantorum of Santa Fe in 1990 to carry on the tradition locally and bring it to a wider audience. The group now sings in the cathedral, other historic Catholic churches in Santa Fe, around New Mexico, and in Colorado. They make their home at Santa Fe’s San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the United States, where the group sings vespers and a Gregorian chant mass once a month on Sundays at 5:00 p.m.

“It’s great to sing chants that were sung in the San Miguel Mission 400 years ago,” Billy says. "Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy stopped at this church for vespers in the 1850s, and he probably sang the same chants we’re singing.” Billy calls the historic church a “really warm, receptive place, both the physical church and the people. When we sing there, it’s very calming, very much about giving and receiving, and very immediate.” Tourists schedule their Santa Fe vacations to include hearing Schola at the chapel, he says, and Christmas Eve is always “packed.”

In January 2013, Billy arranged to take Schola to Italy on a performance tour, reversing the musical migration. In a lifetime highlight, they sang the papal mass with the Sistine Chapel Choir.

Folk Music

Billy’s fascination with traditional Irish folk music evolved as he explored his Irish ancestry—the accordion gave him the path into the music and the culture. But this sideline has New Mexico connections. As a young man, Billy hauled his accordion around northern New Mexico, playing New Mexican folk music at pueblo feast days, weddings, and the like. Then in 2011 he went to Ireland, researching his heritage while attending a workshop for choral directors at the Anúna International Summer School in Dublin. On the side he played his accordion in the small pubs at the heart of the traditional music scene. He enjoyed the school and the pub gatherings so much that he returned in 2013 and 2014.

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“It was a blast,” Billy recalls. “I’d take my accordion into the pub, and the musicians there would size me up. Lucinda, my much better half, and I would play some northern New Mexico songs, and they’d come in with a fiddle and a tin whistle, and pretty soon they’re buying you another Guinness,” that being the unofficial beer of Ireland. “Irish music is totally different from Schola. It’s more like, ‘Let’s just pick this up and see what happens.’ That’s fun.”

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On those first trips to the Emerald Isle, Billy also connected with Michael McGlynn, the “Riverdance” composer who formed Anúna, the Irish national choir, and who oversees the Anúna summer school. Back home, Billy began incorporating McGlynn’s tricky, close-harmony choral compositions into the Schola song list. This summer, the group heads to Ireland for the first time, participating in an Anúna workshop in July, then performing around Ireland—and of course they’ll venture into the pubs to sing and play, too.

But you don’t have to book a flight to Dublin to hear them. At a St. Patrick’s Day concert March 13 at Loretto Chapel, they will perform an eclectic but Irish-centered playlist: jigs, laments, and ballads—“If it’s sad, it must be Irish,” Billy says—plus ancient monastic chants, contemporary Irish folk music, and choral compositions by McGlynn. Come a half hour early to hear Billy’s concert preview talk.

If you can’t make the concert, you might catch Billy at the Los Alamos Farmers Market with the Billy’s Goats, keeping live music alive in Los Alamos.


Billy Turney works for the Laboratory Environmental Services group.


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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Employee Spotlight articles are solely those of the featured employees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Los Alamos National Laboratory.


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