Wednesday, August 12, 2009
The current form of the Irish Uilleann Pipes may have been inspired by the Scottish "Pastoral Pipes". The pastoral pipes are bellows blown and played in a seated position. The conical bored chanter is played open along with 3 drones and (as with most examples of the instrument) 1 regulator. I personally believe that the Uilleann Pipes and the Pastoral Pipes may have developed simultaneously, with ideas on the instrument being traded back-and-forth between Ireland and Scotland. The major difference between the 2 being that the Uilleann Pipe chanter is played in a closed, partially staccato style. Whereas the Scottish Pastoral Pipes are played in an open, legato style. This occurred, roughly, around the 18th and early 19th century.
This early form of the Uilleann Pipes was played relatively unchanged until the late 19th century. Early Uilleann Pipes (or "Union Pipes as they were called) were flat pitched. They were usually pitched around B up to perhaps C sharp. Around the turn of the century, pipemakers began to make what are now called "Concert Pitched" Uilleann Pipes. The Concert pitched set were (and still are) pitched in the key of D and are somewhat brighter and louder in tone. The development of the concert pitched Uilleann Pipes is generally attributed to the Taylor brothers of Philadelphia, PA. Again, it is more likely that several versions were developed, simultaneously in Ireland and America, with ideas making their way from one pipemaker to another. Either voluntarily or, more likely, by quiet observation.
A few great makers in the mid 20th century were instrumental in keeping the instrument from dying out due to the modernization of music and the instruments popular music is played on. The 1960's and the 1970's, on to the present, saw a resurgence in popularity of the Uilleann Pipes, thanks to several traditionally based Irish musical groups that had the foresight to record and tour. Also, with great gratitude from all who love the pipes, to the pioneering organizations in Ireland who kept the music and the pipes from becoming an anachronism.
The Uilleann Pipes belong to a family of bagpipes generically referred to as "parlor pipes". Parlor pipes are most often bellows blown and are no louder than, say, a fiddle. Some are even quieter than that.
The heart of the Uilleann Pipes is the chanter. The Uilleann Pipes have a "conical bored" chanter. That is to say the bore tapers from a narrow "throat" on the reed side to a wider end. Eight finger holes of various sizes and spacing are drilled in a straight line along the length of the chanter to produce different musical tones. They are covered by the thumb and three fingers of the left hand and four fingers of the right hand. The Uilleann Pipes are unique among bagpipes in that they can play two octaves (as opposed to the Scottish Highland Pipes that play one octave). They will also play staccato notes. Both characteristics of second octave and staccato notes are possible, primarily due to the chanter being played with the large end closed against a leather pad situated on the player's right thigh. The second octave is also possible because of the nature of the bore and reed.
The Uilleann Pipes chanter has a longer and narrower bore than most other bagpipes. That, and the fact that it is bellows blown, (also called "dry reed" , "cold wind" or "dry wind") allows for a reed that is longer and trimmed somewhat thinner than most bagpipes chanter reeds. This is why the Chanter reed on the Uilleann Pipes can cause the player so many problems. They are much more sensitive to weather extremes than many other woodwind musical instrument reeds. Many pipers prefer to make their own reeds because of this. Making reeds is a worthwhile goal of any piper that I, personally, strongly encourage. Reed making is often unique to a particular chanter and no two chanters are often alike in the reeding characteristics. Even two chanters from the same maker.
The second major portion of the Uilleann Pipes is the drones. They provide a harmonic "bed" to compliment the chanter. They are fundamentally cylindrical in bore, although most sets vary in bore width in one way or another. The drones are driven by "single reeds". This is usually a small piece of cylindrical reed cane that is cut partially across and split back to form a tongue. Many wonderful things are being done in modern pipes in regard to composite and synthetic drone reeds. Most often, composite and synthetic drone reeds are more dependable than their cane counterparts and require less air to play.
The modern Uilleann Pipes usually have three drones that are arranged in a common stock, parallel to each other. The shortest drone (tenor) plays a D above middle C (the root tone of the D pitched chanter). The middle drone (baritone) plays a D one octave below that. And, the bass drone plays a D an octave below the baritone drone. The drones have a key in the stock attached to a valve which can start or stop the airflow to the drones. This can be used to nice effect in the music. It also allows the drones to start at playing pressure. There is no ramp-up to the drone note as in pipes with no drone valve key. The low, mellow sound of the Uilleann Pipe's drones is what attracts many people to the instrument.
The third important part of the full set of Uilleann Pipes is those daunting regulators. (I don't know where the term "Regulators" comes from). The regulators are (on a modern full set) three conical bored pipes, set side by side in the same stock as the drones. The regulators are keyed and have a stop on the end. Because the keys are spring loaded shut and because of the end stop, the regulators only sound when a key is depressed. The regulators are fitted with a double reed, very much like the chanter's double reed. Since the regulators don't play a second octave, they generally give less trouble than the chanter. They are also easier to tune, overall, because of "tuning rushes" that extend the length of the bore. If necessary, pieces of material can be attached to the rush wire to tune selected notes on the regulator. I like "tack putty" for that purpose. The keys on the regulators are arranged in rows of three that match in length when the regulators are set into the main stock. With the player in a seated position, the regulators extend across the player's right thigh. In this position the regulators pass under the right hand as it is playing the chanter. The regulator keys are depressed with the heel of the right hand, thus allowing for a simple chordal accompaniment to the chanter and drones. In certain chanter passages, the player may also reach around and play the regulators with the fingertips of the right hand.
The bag on the Uilleann Pipes is fairly straightforward. It is simply a reservoir of air made, most typically, of leather. Most bags of leather are made of chrome tanned leather. These sometimes need treatment with oils or other concoctions to be airtight. "Elk tanned" cowhide needs no treatment. Some bags are made of synthetic materials, as well. Synthetic bags can be surprisingly good and easy to construct. They can be a good bag for beginning or hobbyist pipe makers. The outlet tube of the bellows leads into a stock on the bag where there is a valve to check the airflow in one direction into the bag. For my pipes, I use bags made by Michael MacHarg. "The best bags in the world". Michael MacHarg owns and operates "The Wee Piper" at: RFD 2, Rt. 14, Box 286 So.Royalton, VT 05068 Phone : 802-763-8812. (top)
The bellows consist of two wooden paddles (often called "cheeks") that are fitted with a piece of leather around the edge called the "gusset". A valve on the outside cheek brings air in, on the outstroke, and directs it one way out of the bellows, on the instroke. A belt is fitted to the inside cheek to go around the payer's lower rib cage. A smaller belt is attached to the outside cheek to clasp around the player's arm, just above the elbow.
By turns soul-searching and exuberant, the sound of the Irish uilleann pipes is familiar enough today from the mist-laden TV dramas and a cameo role in Titanic, but only 50 years ago it was on the verge of extinction.Julian May explores the instrument under the guidance of Liam O'Flynn, whose playing has helped to ensure the tradition is thriving again.
(Reproduced by Kind permission of Songlines: Photos Toner)
|The uilleann pipes, lock, stock and several barrels. From left to right; the chanter, the drones, and regulators with the bag and popping strap, and the bellows|
The film Braveheart opens with roaming shots of a rugged, damp, mysterious landscape; a beautiful Scotland riven by atrocity. To aurally augment the atmosphere, what do we hear? Of course, a distant lamentation of pipes. But not Highland pipes; for his film, Mel Gibson imported their distant Irish cousins, the uilleannvariety. William Wallace had been dead for half a millennium before they were invented, but Hey - this is Hollywood. Cut to Titanic, Leonardo di Caprio wants to show Kate Winslet a really good time. They escape the stuffed shirts in first class, dive below decks and behold, the Irish émigrés are dancing with wild abandon to the great tunes that a musician in the corner ...is squeezing from his uilleann pipes. There you have it, the two stereotypical extremes of the Celtic world, encapsulated by this single instrument.
Paddy Mo loney chief of The Chieftains, must possess the best travelled set - he's played them everywhere, with everyone. Davy Spillane uses his like a jazz saxophonist and they are a crucial ingredient to the mix of the most successful fusion band of the moment, Afro-Celt Sound System. The uilleann (pronounced 'illun') pipes, like the rest of Irish culture, have gone global.
Even so, the moment of musical history the great piper Liam O'Flynn will cherish for the rest of his days is the recital he gave in London on August 12th 1999. He played a few tunes from Galicia and a smattering of new work, but predominately the programme was of Irish traditional music. Nothing unusual in that; it's what he does. But the venue was the Royal Albert Hall and the evening was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 as part of the most prestigious of serious music festivals, the BBC Proms. 'It's wonderful,' O'Flynn enthuses. 'This is the first time this music has appeared on such a platform. It's tremendously important.' So it is, because while there have been African, Jazz and Indian Proms, this was the first featuring the traditional music of Ireland. 'Not mediated through versions by classical composers,' O'Flynn asserts, 'but the thing itself.' It's a measure of the respect for that music, for the musician and the instrument itself.
Saved from extinction
It is strange to think, then, that within living memory the health of uilleann piping was even more parlous than that of the Irish language. 'The instrument came very close to extinction,' O'Flynn reflects. 'It nearly did die, and the ordinary people would not have been aware of the existence of the uilleann pipes. The lowest point came about 60 years ago when there were very few piper's left, maybe 50 at most, and no more than a handful could make a set of pipes.' But those few tenacious pipers - notably Leo Rowsome, Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy - clung on when the Irish began to rediscover their own music in the 1950s the tradition, at its last gasp, was not beyond resuscitation. For O'Flynn these players, all of whom he new and learned from, are heroic figures: wonderful musicians, vital bearers and advocates of their tradition, generous teachers and great men. O'Flynn has played a crucial role himself. He joined the group Planxty in 1972 and they were phenomenally successful, touring widely and beyond the usual remit of folk music. Many people, drawn to their exciting music, heard the uilleann pipes for the first time and were struck by their power, their expressiveness.
'I must have been hearing the uilleann pipes from more or less day one,' says O'Flynn. 'I was born into a family of traditional musicians - though none of them pipers.' His mother, from County Clare, sang and played the piano; his father was a fiddler whose good friend Sergeant Tom Armstrong, of the Kildare Garda, used to visit frequently, bringing his pipes. 'My earliest musical memory is of extraordinary impact - some deep chord within me that the sound of the uilleann pipes struck. And I was in no doubt that that was the instrument that I wanted to play. I dreamt about the time when I'd be old enough and strong enough to get a set of pipes.'
O'Flynn extolls the mellowness of their sound, the uilleann pipes' characteristic sweetness of tone, but he acknowledges too their raw wildness - a quality hinting that the piper is perhaps not totally in control. As well as chirruping happily along, these pipes can wail chillingly, as in 'The Foxhunt', the most remarkable descriptive piece in their repertoire, when they evoke first the yelps of the hounds, then the death throes of their unfortunate prey. The poet Seamus Heaney, who works in an occasional duo with O'Flynn, credits the strength the drones bring, creating the 'floor of the sound, the foundation to build on with their deep steady quality'. He relishes too 'the merriment playing along with it' in the jigs and reels, yet, like O'Flynn, is struck by the emotional impact of the uilleann pipes, likening 'their capacity to lament and enlarge sorrow' to great poetry. A fine example of this is 'The Death of Staker Wallace'. 'Staker Wallace led an outfit called the White Boys,' O'Flynn explains. 'They dressed up in sheets at night and rooted up the hedges the landlords enclosed the commonage with - the peasants were already in a desperate plight. He was hunted down, tortured and hanged in 1798. Then his head was put on a spike. There was a song about him. Only a few lines survive but we have the tune, which is a kind of monument to the man.' It is unutterably sad, and when O'Flynn plays it he lengthens and blends certain notes, and the melody itself seems weighted down by anguish and loss. 'Many of the tunes', says Heaney, 'are slow airs with a certain dolourness.' But the aspect of the uilleann pipes and their music that impresses him most is that they are 'not about dolour, but overcoming it; a spirit not caving in but keeping going.' One begins to realize why for many Irish people the pipes rather than the harp are the national instrument. Indeed, one of the new pieces O'Flynn included in his Proms concert was The Bridge, written - at her request that the uilleann pipes be played - for the inauguration of Mary McAleese as President of Ireland.
A mechanical marvel
It is the extraordinary sophistication of these pipes that makes such a range of expression possible. O'Flynn complains that ordinary musicians can just pick up their instruments, while he has to strap himself into his. The piper has to sit , with the bellows under one arm, pumping air with his elbow - resisting the temptation to do this in time with the music - through a tube across the stomach to the bag under the other arm. Ideally, the bag is made of pigskin, which used to be treated with lard to keep it airtight ('with dire consequences for the piper', O'Flynn recalls, 'should he sit too close to the fire'). Cheaper modern pipes have rubber bags which don't leak, but leather is still preferred because it filters the air, catching the dust that can play havoc with the reeds. The bag powers the chanter, the pipe which plays the melody. It has seven finger-holes and a single thumb-hole on the back. Unlike the Northumbrian small pipes this chanter is open-ended and has a conical bore. For much of the time the chanter rests on the 'popping strap', a piece of leather tied around the pipers thigh, but it must be lifted off the strap to obtain certain notes and to blend them. The best chanters are made of ebony, or African blackwood, but these, prized for their density even more than for their beauty, have long been difficult to acquire. O'Flynn recalls his teacher Leo Rowsome, who was a great pipe-maker as well as player. 'He was always on the lookout for old policeman's truncheons - just right for making chanters if they weren't split with use. He used to be on the lookout for old billiard balls too. They were sometimes made of ivory and he'd use them for mountings.' Nowadays, chanters are sometimes made made of boxwood, which is also very close-grained and hard, or even cherry. As many as seven keys may be fitted, giving a range of sharps and flats, but traditional music requires only one, which gives C natural in the second octave; the scale of the instrument is D major.
Yes, indeed: the second octave. Nearly 300 years ago an unknown genius pared a reed that gave access to the upper octave by means of overblowing - using extra pressure on the bag. Whereas the beauty of the Highland pipes lies in the exploitation and ornamentation of their restricted range, that of the uilleann pipes is the freedom to roam over two octaves. But there are also 'flat pipes', pitched a tone or more lower. O'Flynn has a set of these inherited from the great piper and collector Seamus Ennis. These are quieter, mellow and even more of a chamber instrument.
Across the piper's lap lie the drones - three of them. These provide a constant accompaniment to the chanter. One of the secrets of listening to pipe music is to attune the ear to hear not just the drone and a chanter but the cords they create together (such as, with Highland pipes, an apparent fifth, a note that is there even though nothing is producing it). The tenor drone echoes the bottom note of the chanter, the barritone is an octave below that and the bass another octave below the baritone. (Uilleann pipes, ever versatile, have a key which can silence the drones.)
|Top: the chanter with its single key, resting on the popping strap. Bottom: the chanter is raised off the strap for certain pitch changes.|
Bagpipers the world over content themselves with bags, chanters and drones in various combinations. But Ireland is a land given to excess - so the uilleann piper has to contend with regulators too. These are three pipes, stopped at the end and fitted with keys, arranged over the drones. With the heel of the fist, or the fingers of one hand if it is not too busy on the chanter, the dextrous piper depresses the keys to provide simple chordal accompaniment. 'Why "regulators" no one has ever been able to tell me, nor any book either,' muses O'Flynn. 'But "regulators" they are.' The use of these is controversial. Leo Rowsome was inordinately fond of them, leading Seamus Ennis to mock his 'parp-parping' style. Johnny Doran, a traveller piper (who died as a result of a wall collapsing on his caravan in Dublin) used them almost percussively. His playing was fast, even flashy, because he played at fairs and markets: his audience was on the move and he had to arrest them with his virtuosity. He influenced Willie Clancy, and more recently Davy Spillane who admired the wildness of Doran's style more than the parlour 'pipering' of Rowsome. Ennis, whom O'Flynn reveres for his mastery of the instrument in its entirety, used the regulators sparingly, to great effect. O'Flynn exploits the regulators with his customary restraint.
So the piper is pumping the bellows, varying the pressure of the bag, bouncing the chanter off his thigh as he plays the tune, switching the drones in and out and wresting chords out of the regulators. 'There is quite a lot to think about,' says O'Flynn, a man of almost English understatement. 'It calls for a certain degree of co-ordination. I don't play any other pipes but if there are any more difficult ones I don't want to know about them.' He tells a story of coming through customs with a friend at Heathrow airport with his pipes in their neat case. A stressed security man rushed up. 'Is that a gun in there?', he snapped. 'No,' piped O'Flynn's companion, 'Worse!'
A woolly tale
In the Merchant of Venice Shylock remarked that, 'There are those who when the woollen bagpipe sings i'th nose cannot contain their urine.' It's not the alleged diuretic property of the pipes that has exercised scholars, but the word 'woollen'. There are no known knitted bagpipes, though it may refer to the decorative covering of the bag. But 'woollen' is not that distant in sound from 'uilleann', especially if you're pirating a copy of a play scribbling it down as it's being performed, and you have little grasp of Irish. Was Shakespeare familiar with the uilleann pipes? It's a nice notion, but unlikely.
Shakespeare died in 1616, a century or so before they began to develop and at least two before they reached their present state. The name is derived from 'uille' the Irish for 'elbow', because they are bellows or elbow-driven rather than mouth-blown. But this name was itself only introduced at the turn of the century. Prior to that they were known as 'union' pipes because their sound is formed by the unity of chanter, drones and regulators.
The uilleann pipes were popular across the range of society. Indeed, there is some evidence that the bellows developed so that aristocrats would not ruin their faces and dignity by indecorously puffing into their pipes. These gentleman pipers included Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Lord Rossmore, and the great houses of the early nineteenth century employed pipers. At the other end of the social spectrum there was the itinerant pipers, epitomized in this century by Johnny Doran and, in between, farmers like Leo Rowsome's grandfather Samuel and the blind piper Garret Barry of Inagh, in whose footsteps Willie Clancy followed. After the Great Famine in the 1840s many musicians were among those who left for America. Eventually there was an important traditional scene in Chicago, sustained by Francis O'Neill, the captain of police who employed musicians on the force - and was known to release musical felons in return for a tune.
Playing the chanter and the regulators can be a serious business.
An eighteenth-century gentleman piper Photo Irish Traditional Music Archive
Back in Ireland the uilleann pipes were almost ousted by melodeons and concertinas. These were cheap, loud and less demanding. The maintenance of a set of uilleann pipes is almost as demanding as the playing of them. Orchestral wind-players moan about the double reeds but they gaze in awe when they work with Liam O'Flynn, who has often worked with symphony orchestras, performing Shaun Davey's suite for orchestra and pipes, The Brendan Voyage. The wind-players have just the one recalcitrant reed; a set of uilleann pipes has four doubles and three singles. 'There's quite a lot that can go wrong,' O'Flynn sighs. 'It's quite a job sometimes to keep them all happy.' Even O'Flynn's venerable pipes sport the odd rubber band and a bit of sticky tape to keep them steaming along.
Liam O'Flynn was 11 before his dream came true and he was given a set of uilleann pipes. This was a practice set - the bellows, bag and chanter without the distraction of drones and regulators. 'I was playing the practice set for at least five years,' O'Flynn remembers. 'My first teacher, Leo Rowsome, insisted on that and I'm very glad, because with the drones and regulators it's too easy to cover mistakes and problems.' O'Flynn describes a relationship with his teacher, who also taught the young Paddy Moloney, that is archetypal and, in the West now rare indeed. 'It was like being an apprentice to a master. Almost all the uilleann pipers I know refer to an older piper. I would say it was impossible to learn on your own. All my music I learned by ear - dots never came into it - and now once the piece is living inside me I can begin to express myself through it.'
From pub to platform
O'Flynn has been known to make airport staff distinctly nervous - the pipes' case looks alarmingly suspect.
O'Flynn is a traditional musician, but a contemporary man of considerable musical curiosity and ambition. He has worked with a great variety of musicians - Mark Knopfler, John Williams, Kate Bush. He even played in Roaratorio, a piece the modernist composer John Cage wrote for the dancer Merce Cunningham, based on James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Of deeper significance, though was playing Shaun Davey's The Brendan Voyage as a soloist in front of a full symphony orchestra. In the past, classical composers have had a somewhat imperial attitude towards vernacular music. 'They took the tunes and brought them into the concert hall,' says Shaun Davey. 'But where was the traditional musician? They left him back in the pub.' Since then O'Flynn has been up on the platform, and the uilleann pipes pop up everywhere. Even the quintessential English band of Hope - Roy Bailey, Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick and John Kirkpatrick - included Steafan Hannigan playing pipes. Some pipers, especially those working in bands, rarely venture on to the regulators - 'Because they are surrounded by accompaniment,' O'Flynn notes, 'they don't need to use the instrument's own.' He is generous and respectful. Of Davy Spillane, for instance, he quotes the man himself: 'Davy once said he was not anuilleann piper, but a musician who happens to play the pipes.' And a tinge, but no more, of regret, colours his voice.
O'Flynn revels in the knowledge that in his lifetime the number of uilleann pipers has grown from a handful to thousands; that the sound that so moved him as a boy is heard on every continent. But he is clear in his own mind: the uilleann pipes are a traditional instrument, at their best playing music in that idiom. And there's plenty of it. 'I'm playing now for more than 40 years,' he says, ''and still finding new tunes. Well new old tunes. It's wonderful music and you'd never reach the end of it.'
Now that O'Flynn has played on BBC Radio 3 and broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall at the Proms, the traditional musician has come out of the pub and onto the concert platform, bringing his instrument and the music with him.