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Liam O'Flynn
From County Kildare, Ireland, master uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn was born into a musical family -- his father was a schoolmaster and fiddle player and his late mother, who played and taught piano, came from a family of famous musicians from Clare.

As a young child, Liam was taught by Kildare piper Tom Armstrong and at the age of eleven, his master-classes began in earnest with Leo Rowsome. In the early 1970s, he formed the "trad" band Planxty with Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine in the early seventies.

The ensuing years have seen Liam perform the world over as a soloist with an orchestra or working with artists as diverse as John Cage, The Everly Brothers, Van Morrison and Kate Bush. He has made over fifty recordings.

(This interview was recorded in Glasgow in 1999.)

Liam:

The uilleann pipes are a distinctively Irish form of the pipes. The name comes from the Irish word for "elbow" because there's a bellows attached to the players elbow and then around the waist. This is how the air is provided, as opposed to blowing. The player is always seated with the bag under his or her left arm.

It's a complex instrument: It has a chanter with a musical range of two octaves, and can produce semi-tones as well. The second octave is produced, as on a tin whistle or flute, by over blowing. It has three drones and also has regulators. These are three pipes that come out of the main stock of the instrument, with a system of keys for providing accompaniment or harmony.

Historically, the uilleann Pipes developed out of the Irish equivalent of the highland pipes, or war pipes, in around 1700. Developing the chanter reed, which produces the two octaves, was a big breakthrough in the 18th Century, when the uilleann pipes evolved into what we know now.

Fiona:

The uilleann pipes are probably the most complex of all the pipes because of the regulators.

Liam:

That's right, and also because of the fact that you have two octaves. The old pipers used to say that it takes twenty-one years to make a piper: seven years of learning, seven years of practicing and seven years of playing. I think there's a lot of truth to that because it's a complex instrument and requires a lot of co-ordination to play a tune. You're learning all the time.

Fiona:

Can you look back on your career to periods when you thought you'd mastered it, and then hit a new level seven years later?

Liam:

I spent six years with a practice set which consisted of the bellows, the bag and the chanter. My teacher insisted that I spend that length of time with the chanter, because the essence of the music comes from that part of the instrument. Then I was given a half set of drones for two years before getting the full set.

Fiona:

People enjoy hearing the instrument played, but you think they also need to see it being played to fully understand what the artist is doing.

Liam:

It's great when someone comes up to you after seeing the uilleann pipes played for the first time. They can be utterly amazed by all the things going on. You're pumping bellows, keeping pressure on your left arm, sending air into the instrument, and they also see something happening under the right wrist, where the regulators are. There's a lot going on.

Fiona:

We've talked about the instrument so now let's talk about the music. The pipes have their own repertoire, even though there are tunes shared between instruments.

Liam:

Traditional Irish music, as we know it, evolved through the 17th Century to the 19th Century. There are particular sorts of tunes that fit the pipes really well. These are tunes that have been composed by pipers, or which have been taken and played into shape for the pipes.

There are certain piping techniques which are part of the way the instrument speaks, and pipers will go for tunes into which these techniques can be worked. There exists a body of tunes that has evolved over the years, into beautifully rounded, perfect piping tunes.

Fiona:

When I hear an Irish sean nos singer and the ornamentation around the notes, I wonder if the singer is trying to evoke the sound of the pipes, or if the pipes are trying to echo the sound of the human voice. Is it that these things have just evolved together in the music of Ireland?

Liam:

The singing style would be older, but there's a parallel development and evolution going on. If I have a new slow air tune, I make an effort to find a traditional sean nos singer to sing it, because it then translates much better back on to the instrument.

Fiona:

People often write to us at The Thistle & Shamrock asking how to identify between different types of tunes.

Liam:

In the Irish tradition, double jigs, written in 6/8 time, are the oldest form. Then there are reels, hornpipes, single jigs and slip jigs, and slow airs which come from sean nos. This old style of song tune is an art form in itself. There's also a body of march tunes. A lot of the jig tunes were originally clan marches.

Fiona:

It's often forgotten that much of the music is music for people to dance to. Some of it only makes sense when you see the dance to go with it.

Liam:

The Clare tradition had a strong influence on my development, and when I go to County Clare, there's such a strong tradition of dancing there. The Clare-set is a great thing, so there's a terrific satisfaction in playing for a set.

Fiona:

That must be because your music is doing what it was intended to do; that is, motivating people to get up and spin!

We've talked about the pipes and about the music, now let's talk about the piper, Liam O'Flynn. Can you give us a quick tour of your musical life, from your tutelage under Leo Rowsome to performing with musicians of your own generation?

Liam:

I was born into a traditional musical family. My father played the fiddle and he had a good friend who was an uilleann piper. I was very fortunate to have Leo Rowsome as my first teacher, not just because he was a good piper and teacher, but also because he was a pipe maker. That was helpful for a person starting to play, as any piper will bemoan to you the problems you can have with reeds.

After that, got to know the County Clare piper, Willie Clancy, who was a very generous person. The pipes that I now play, used to belong to Willie, and they were made by Leo Rowsome in 1936. It's fitting since my mother originally came from County Clare, from same town as Willie Clancy.

Fiona:

It sounds like you were destined to do what you're doing. Do you think you could you have avoided it?

Liam:

I don't believe that I could have. I was a teacher for a couple of years, but the music always had a huge call.

Fiona:

You were fortunate to grow up being able to hear the uilleann pipes played by the best, because at that time, the instrument really had faded from popularity.

Liam:

Yes, during the '30s-'50s the instrument almost died out, but people like Leo Rowsome, Willie Clancy and Seamus Ennis kept it going. In 1968, the uilleann pipers formed their own organization, which was important. After that the instrument was being heard in a more commercial field, and it was made more accessible to people.

Fiona:

People also quickly started to recognize the versatility of the uilleann pipes. Unlike the Scottish Highland pipes which are very dominating, the uilleann pipes are very sociable and can be played with a chamber or symphony orchestra, or with a small group of acoustic instruments.

Liam:

Traditionally the pipes and the fiddle are the most popular kind of duet. Growing up I played in solo uilleann pipe competitions, but there were always fiddle and pipe duet competitions.


Fiona:

Many people associate your career with Planxty. Do people still associate you with that despite having done so much else?

Liam:

I'm amazed that so many people over the years have come up and said that it was through my piping with Planxty that they found traditional music. When we came together as a band, we didn't have any ideas about the kind of impact we were going to make.

It all happened through a solo album that Christy Moore made. Myself, Andy and Donal were invited to play on it, and it worked really well. At the time we decided to give it two or three months to see what happened, but then it really took off.

The far-reaching influence that the band has had is amazing, and it's very satisfying. I think that the success of the band had to do with the individuals involved. Christy Moore is very energetic on stage, and relates to people really well. The way that Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny combine together to accompany songs and tunes is very special, and more so when this is mixed with the unique sound of the uilleann pipes.

Fiona:

It took off so instantly, which makes me think that there must have been a real hunger for that sound back then.

Liam:

It certainly explains why the band made such an immediate impact.


Fiona:

Since then, there have been other groundbreaking shifts in your career, such as your collaboration with Shaun Davey. You were really the first people to experiment with putting traditional instruments in an orchestral setting with The Brendan Voyage. Like Planxty, this piece captured the imagination of people throughout the world and it was another groundbreaking moment for Irish music.

Liam:

We recorded The Brendan Voyage in 1981. Shaun came to me in 1979 with the idea of writing a tune for solo uilleann pipes, based on this voyage. He sent me the tune and we worked at it to make it fit the pipes. Then he decided to do another one, and another one, and then he had the idea of trying to tell the story of the whole voyage through music.

He was quite happy with the idea that the uilleann pipes were the ideal instrument to represent the little, leather-skinned boat that made the voyage, but he wondered what other instruments would best describe what the boat encountered on its voyage across the Atlantic in the 5th or 6th century. He decided that an orchestra was the thing to do it, since it had the huge forces within it to describe the forces of nature, the sea and the storms.

Shaun had never written music for an orchestra before. It's not as if we sat down and decided that something needed to be written for the uilleann pipes and an orchestra – it didn't happen that way. It was another case of an evolution in itself; deciding that the orchestra had the required forces to do the job. I'd never worked with an orchestra before and that in itself was another extraordinary experience.

Fiona:

That work set off a whole lot of collaborations between traditional musicians, composers and orchestras. People realized that what had previously been seen as a boundary between traditional music and classical music was a false one, and that the virtuosity on either side could be matched and mingled.

Liam:

It's something I've always enjoyed doing: crossing frontiers and mixing musical idioms. It's a huge challenge for musicians from different backgrounds to do, because it's really difficult to make it work and to do justice to both sides. If you succeed, you've created something new, and that's what's really exciting.

Fiona:

Sometimes, in these works, the different idioms can sound a bit broken up.

Liam:

It's a challenge to mesh them together, rather than for the piece just to be layered. It's very difficult, which is why it's so exciting when it works.


Fiona:

It clearly does work with your work. What I enjoy is the fact that, unlike some other collaborations, which push a whole lot of different types of artists onto stage, it's the uilleann pipes that unified everything.


Liam:

That's exactly it. The pipes became the central, focal point, and everything else grew around them.

Fiona:

Ever since you worked with Shaun Davey, it has been your approach to music to collaborate with other musicians. Your albums have brought together a whole variety of instrumentalists and players, as well as singers from many different backgrounds. You've not just with musicians from the Irish musical traditions, but also with people from classical, and even jazz backgrounds. These are musicians who all have a different approach to music.

Liam:

The actual collaborations have been tremendously exciting, but the solo part of my career, actually playing the solo pipes, will also always be hugely satisfying and enjoyable. I really love the idea of there being these two sides to my work: the solo concerts and being able to make music with people from other musical backgrounds or with other traditional musicians. It obviously gives tremendous variety in music making.

When I was preparing the most recent cd, The Piper's Call, a good friend of mine, Philip King, a film maker who makes excellent documentaries on traditional music, approached me with the idea of making a film about me and my musical life. The CD became two projects in one: the CD and the film. There were certain people I really wanted to be on this film. People that I've admired greatly down the years and enjoyed making music with, and consequently these people were also on the CD.

I think immediately of Matt Malloy and Sean Keane. We were making music together long before Planxty and The Chieftains, and musically, we've kept close together down the years. I also wanted Carlos Nuñez. I've got very interested in music from Galicia, and Carlos is such a wonderful player who brought some terrific tunes to the CD. I've worked on a couple of CDs with Mark Knopfler who has a terrific interest in Irish music and the pipes in particular and I thought it would be wonderful to get him to play on the CD. There's great warmth in the man and in his playing.

Fiona:

Your piping has taken you all over the world. Where would be you ideal place to play, and to what audience?

Liam:

Some of my nicest musical experiences have been in England and Scotland, as part of the folk club scene. The first time I came over, it was as a young, green, uilleann piper. I was blown away by it and I experienced and incredible high. You experience the same with some of the folk audiences in the States.

Fiona:

I imagine, when you talk about solo playing, that one thing you enjoy is the intimacy, and the opportunity to play to people in a really small room, who are there to hear the uilleann pipes.

What is it about sitting listening to a piper that makes for such an intimate experience, and why do you think people are so drawn to the music of the pipes, and so drawn in when they hear them?

Liam:

Traditional music is inherently intimate for a variety of reasons: the tunes are short and, some would say, simple, but the ornamentation is what makes them special and creates that intimacy. There's a comparison to be made between the music and works of Irish art, with minute ornamentation on the lettering such as in The Book of Kells.

Traditional music began to evolve in the 17th century at a time when people's circumstances were ferocious and terrible. They lived in complete poverty, with all their rights taken away and they had absolutely nothing. The only way that they could express themselves, was through the intimate arts, through music and poetry. That accounts for the particular type of intimacy that's in the music.

Fiona:

I think all music is experienced on an emotional level, both for the people playing it and for the people listening to it. But for me, the music of the pipes is even more so. It completely bypasses the brain, and it's as if you're listening from your heart and your guts.

Liam:

It's such a powerful voice in itself. There are certain notes in the instrument which speak volumes in themselves.

Fiona: It is very powerful and I think you almost can't get to the heart of it and dissect it.

Liam:

No, you can't. You're either drawn to it or you're not. You can't analyze or dissect it too much.

Fiona:

Well, we're looking forward to some of these moments tonight at the concert with yourself and Sean and Matt. Thank you very much, Liam O'Flynn.