This Glorious Instrument

The Pipes, The Pipes

This Glorious Instrument

A new work by Dónal Dineen, 'The Pipes, The Pipes', combines three uilleann pipers with live art. Dermot McLaughlin attended a recent performance in Dublin.

The uilleann pipes are among the most advanced form of bagpipe in existence, with a history that can be traced back to the eighteenth century. A full set of uilleann pipes has a bellows, bag, chanter, three drones, three keyed regulators and seven reeds. Beautifully complex, and crafted with materials that include various woods, leather, cane, silver, brass, ivory, bone, hemp and beeswax, their melodic range extends to two octaves or more.

Playing uilleann pipes is a complicated and multi-dimensional business. The uilleann piper is seated and uses a bellows strapped to one elbow to blow air into a bag (‘elbow’ is uilleann in Irish). Using the other elbow, the piper squeezes the bag to create the pressure and flow that make the reeds sing inside the pipes. The melody is played on the chanter, which is rested on the knee or thigh – on a ‘popping strap’ or ‘piper’s apron’, a piece of leather or similar material that creates an airtight seal. Lifting the chanter off the knee releases this seal and allows the bottom note of the chanter (the ‘bell note’) to sound, and it allows the piper to increase the volume of certain other notes that augment the sonic and emotional impact of the music.

A full set of pipes in good order will produce an enthralling, rich, lonesome and exciting sound, and it’s easy to imagine why the instrument has been described as the ‘organ pipes’. However, each of the seven reeds in a full set of uilleann pipes is very sensitive to humidity and temperature. Even with the improvements in pipe-making and reed-making in recent decades, keeping a full set of uilleann pipes in tune remains a challenge, and the art of pipering involves being able to deal with the response of the instrument to changes in ambient conditions. Speaking as a lapsed piper, when I heard about the new performance devised by Dónal Dineen, The Pipes, The Pipes, I was intrigued by the idea of a work built around not just one but three uilleann pipers playing live in unison – how would they manage that? And how would this work with live art and video?

The Pipes, The Pipes was commissioned by The Dock Arts Centre (Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim), supported by the Arts Council, produced by Siobhán O’Malley as part of DOCK10 Celebrating Ten Years and curated/directed by Dónal Dineen who also contributes the live art element of the show. The artists in the performance I saw were uilleann pipers Leonard Barry, Pádraig McGovern and John Tuohy alongside a team of video and visual artists – painter Guillermo Carrión, video artist Lionel Palun, film-maker Myles O’Reilly and cameraman Simon O’Neill. The work was given its world premiere at The Dock on 30 January 2015 and I attended the second performance which took place in Dublin at the RHA Gallery on 15 March.

Dónal Dineen’s influence on music and visual art spans some twenty years. On top of his pioneering career in radio and television with Network Two, RTÉ 2FM, Today FM and RTÉ Lyric FM, he has a prolific record as a visual artist, curator and director through his work with artists as diverse as This Is How We Fly, Lisa Hannigan, David Gray and DJ Koze. Dineen is interested in the relationship between music and art and he has curated events in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin City Gallery/The Hugh Lane and St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. His work has also featured at festivals such as Electric Picnic.

Dineen has a vision, a mission and an agenda for the uilleann pipes. He calls on us to pause and take stock of this distinctive instrument, to listen and appreciate the power and beauty of its sound, and to celebrate the pipes as a cornerstone of Irish cultural identity. There’s a particular drive and energy in Dineen’s approach – he’s a lover of sound, of music, of form, of colour. He comes to the uilleann pipes with the unburdened lightness of an ‘outsider’ and he can see and hear things with a fresh eye and ear. That freshness pervades the experience of The Pipes, The Pipes.

The performance runs for around 45 minutes; there’s no interval and, apart from Dineen’s words of welcome, there are no introductions to the music. It’s an intense, high-energy blast of ensemble piping and a visual adventure that involves exploration, experimentation and risk-taking; it’s all down to execution.

At the start of the piece, we see silhouette images of the pipers projected onto the screen where the visual adventure unfolds. This feels like a bridge from the tangible and sonic into the visual world, a channel that feeds the wild energy and punch of the music. There’s a waterfall of piping and the shadows of three pipers moving, dissolving into whatever is happening with the shapes, colours, images and forms that are emerging and disappearing on them and behind them. I’m hearing melodies that I know inside out, but now it’s different; the notes are flowing, flapping, fluttering, flying, floating; nobody in the room can know what will happen next in this capsule of sound and image. It’s beautiful, it’s odd; I think I get it, then I don’t know what I think I get. The pipers are guiding each other along almost invisibly – there’s a nod, the tilt of a shoulder, a glance, a furtive smile, an arched eyebrow, a barely raised chanter, the odd hushed word between medleys of tunes. The pipers are at the heart of it all, but they don’t respond in any obvious way to what’s going on with the visuals; the visuals make an impression on me as part of what is happening in the room, and I’m glad I don’t see a literal or figurative response to the piping.

The repertoire performed by the pipers is widely known traditional music: a florid, gutsy treatment of the reel ‘Colonel Fraser’; the ‘Hope Jig’ set evoking the legacy of Séamus Ennis; and repertoire associated with pipers such as Willie Clancy, Felix Doran and Tommy Reck. The decision to include Kerry slides is an effective challenge to the orthodoxy that slides don’t really suit the pipes – in their hands, they sizzle off the chanters. The trio of pipers push the boundaries harder with their harmonically surprising version of the air ‘Port na bPúcaí’. Then there are settings of very old pieces such as the jig ‘Nóra Críonna’, which opens the performance, and the beautiful, primitive ‘Mici Cumba Ó Súilleabháin’s Jig’, which survives from one of the earliest known recordings of uilleann pipes. It’s a thoughtful and challenging set with a terrific ensemble performance involving unison playing, harmonies, the rhythmic and percussive accompaniment of the regulators and different drones.

The event is an impassioned celebration of what Dineen calls the ‘majesty of this extraordinary instrument’ and ‘the international significance of this glorious instrument’.

Dineen has curated the event from a standpoint of concern about the visibility and audibility of the uilleann pipes in the mainstream media: ‘…it often seems that they are notable only by their absence from the mainstream media… it’s a real shame that we aren’t exposed to them more often… we could do with understanding these machines a bit better.’ I think these are valid points that indicate a restless curiosity and wonder about, as well as dissatisfaction with, the status of this distinctive Irish instrument.

Fifty years ago the uilleann pipes faced extinction. Credit for rescuing the instrument and its culture rests mainly with Na Píobairí Uilleann, established in 1968 when uilleann pipers numbered in dozens, and there were maybe six people in the world making pipes. The pipes have since worked their way into many parts of the contemporary Irish soundscape. One is no longer surprised to hear the pipes in film scores, jingles, ads or orchestral settings, as well as in more conventional traditional bands and ensemble settings. The revived interest in the instrument and its acceptance and elision into parts of the mainstream also owe much to Seán Ó Riada and his work with Ceoltóirí Chualann, which prefigured Paddy Moloney’s Chieftains. Then other ensembles made space, often centre stage, for the pipes – The Fureys, Planxty, The Bothy Band – and wrote the code for how to be a traditional music band. More daring adventures on a larger scale happened in the closing decades of the last century with the orchestral work of Shaun Davey, and then there was Moving Hearts whose work carved out an entirely new sonic role for uilleann pipes in the hands of Davy Spillane and Declan Masterson.

Have things really moved on all that much since? Have we experienced fully what the pipes have to offer? I doubt it, and it is interesting that it has taken someone with Dineen’s profile which is ‘outside’ the tradition to team up with a rural arts centre and use an Arts Council award to create a challenging new open space for the uilleann pipes, emphasising sensation and experience over art form or tradition or genre. It’s about present tense and future aspect, and this is consistent with Dineen’s view that ‘music doesn’t fear the future: they travel together, bosom buddies.’ The Pipes, The Pipes ought to be seen and heard by many more at venues, festivals and other events in Ireland and elsewhere. 

Published on 6 April 2015

Dermot McLaughlin is a fiddle player and currently Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

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