Neil Mulligan – An Tobar Glé– Shore Records SCD 1049
One of the driving influences in the development of traditional music is the process of transmission. Maybe transmission is not always how it looks and feels at first hand – within the community of practitioners of traditional music, we often talk about getting things from others, we talk of learning from others. We rarely say that we took anything from anybody. For us, things just get passed on deliberately or by chance, by somebody specific or by somebody who knows somebody. Yes, it does sound shady. We pick things up. Maybe from time to time they fall off the back of the proverbial lorry! The right time and the right place are important in this music.
Only rarely does the idea of reciprocation come into it, although we do stray into this territory when we talk of being ‘influenced by’ or ‘following in the tradition of’. Some musicians will create their own sound world around the music of one or more significant players who they were lucky enough to meet. Some musicians will follow a path that is more or less mapped out by others whose music and musical attitude made enough of an impression on them, even from a distance in space of time, to determine their personal musical choices and direction into the future.
These ways into the transmission process are visible to greater or lesser degrees throughout the entire practice of traditional music, song and dance. In my view, they are especially prominent in a few elements of the instrumental tradition and also in the song traditions of our two principal languages. Within the instrumental tradition, the amazing world of piping and pipering stands out. The particular culture around the instrument itself, the piperosity of its players, the way players influence and lead others, and the act of performance of music on this instrument all lend extra weight to standard notions of transmission and legacy.
In this context, An Tobar Glé, the new album from Neil Mulligan, presses many of the right buttons for me, not least in the quality of the relaxed playing that Mulligan presents here. He comes across as relaxed and confident to the extent that the pure musicality of performance takes
precedence over any aspirations to faultlessness of performance and I think this works really well in this case. Listening to An Tobar Glé for the first time, I was struck by two things.
First, the extent to which Mulligan very comfortably inhabits what is an exclusive enough territory, and not one into which any piper wisely strays either unprepared or by chance – the Ennis school of piping. Choice of repertoire is only one indicator of Mulligan’s debt to Ennis. What makes for much more interesting listening, to my ear, is how Mulligan interprets other tunes (‘other’ meaning not from the Ennis canon) through the filter of Ennis’ approach which is by far the strongest influence on his playing here. On An Tobar Glé we get a very clear sense of how Mulligan has internalised and re-expressed in his own voice a particular approach to rhythm, ornamentation and overall sound that is clearly indebted to the Ennis school, with many shades of other influences as well. Frankie Lane’s informed approach to the recording and engineering of An Tobar Glé also suggests a relaxed confidence – is it not about time that we were allowed to hear pipes being played enjoyably in a room sound just like pipes being played enjoyably in a room!
The second thing that struck me was the graceful and respectful way in which Mulligan discloses his relatively privileged access to all of the significant routes into the transmission processes that have made him the musician he is today. The reason Mulligan is good is not simply that he knew anybody in particular, it’s that he knows exactly what it means to have known them and he has made musical sense of all of this. Aside from the solo piping which acts as a musical mirror for Mulligan’s development as a musician, there is a constant grounding effect in the notes to the performances. Everything has come to Mulligan from somebody somewhere and the way he sets about ‘owning up’ to this adds immeasurably to the sense of authenticity that pours from his music. Hence the inclusion of two sonically difficult tracks derived from home recordings of Neil and his late father Tom, which do jar on the ear at first hearing, but which also explain much of the rest of the music on the album. The visual materials in the liner notes are presented in a warmly conceived design by Edain O’Donnell and they reinforce the importance of the people who make and keep traditional music alive and dynamic as any contemporary artform must be if it is to make sense.
I was delighted to hear four new compositions of Mulligan’s on this album. These show another dimension to his musicianship – he is well aware of both the tradition and the limitations that go with the instrument, but he is game to tackle these to good effect, particularly in the air ‘Caitríona Rua’ and the reels ‘An Tobar Glé’ and ‘Oileán na Meannáin’.
As an accurate musical portrait of a man who has given so much to piping and who has so much still to say, An Tobar Glé does the business.
Published on 1 November 2003
Dermot McLaughlin is a traditional fiddle player. Since 2003 he has been Chief Executive of Temple Bar Cultural Trust and before that (1986-2003) he worked with the Arts Council in a range of management positions, the first of which was Traditional Music Officer. He presents The Raw Bar on RTÉ 1 television.