An Irish Music Magazine article by Sean Laffey
Published in FolkWorld with friendly permission of the Irish Music editor

Calling on the Piper

Liam O'Flynn

Where else other than Ireland would a bagpiper be feted by a Nobel Prize winner and the Minister of Finance?

Liam in Tonder; photo by The Mollis There I was in the driving rain, trying to find the right turn off on the Naas dual carriage way, when I got a phone call and missed the exit, so I headed north to Johnstown and Kil so I could turn back again and call on piper Liam O'Flynn.The previous night I had been one of the hundred or so guests at the official launch of The Piper's Call (TARA CD 3037) in the Pillar Room of the Rotunda Hospital - a Palladian building by Richard Johnston 1786, (funds for which were raised from public subscription entertainments in the late 1700s). For those who know Dublin, the Pillar room is in the magnificent basement of the Gate Theatre at the the posh end of O' Connell Street by the Parnell Monument.

Seamus Heaney gave a long and thoughtful speech, and eulogised on Liam's eloquence with the chanter and his ability to transmit the emotional intelligence of a tune. Charlie McCreevy, Minister for Finance, and a friend of Liam since school days, brought us a glimpse of the young world of their childhood life lived outdoors on farms and with horses. There were also fond reminiscences of Liam's father, who came up from Kerry to teach in the National School, and his mother, a Scanlon, a near relation of the Crehans of Miltown Malbay the Munster influence was there early on.

Then to the music. The audience applauded loudly and there were hoots and shouts of 'aris' and 'more'. John Cook and Trish Murphy of Tara had done an excellent PR job. The crowd resembled a selected audience from a tribute night on the Late Late Show: Paul Brady, Liam O Maonli, Gerry O'Connor, Ciaran MacMathuna, Christy MacNamara, Philip King and they were only the ones I could see from my row near the back of the Pillar Room. All were calling on the piper and the respect for his powers was palpable.

Leaving the motorway, I was in a country lane looking for an unassuming cottage on the outskirts of Kilcullen, (a short distance from Liam's birth place in Kill and about 1 2 miles from Dunlavin).I'll admit it now, I got lost. A quick call on my mobile from Nass and I set off in search of another story for IMM. As you might have suspected, I did manage to locate Liam, his house being "the third one from the turning, it's yellow and its behind a hedge" - you need a high IQ to be a post man in Ireland, that's for sure. Liam and his rotweiller met me at the garden gate. It was a choice between soaking or braving the beast, I made for the gate. The dog, as gentle as a puppy, was all over me (which adds another criterion for postmen in Kildare).

Liam showed me into a log cabin at the end of his lawned garden. He explained that this is own space, where he plays the pipes for maybe two hours each day, where he can divert phone calls, read a book, catch up on paper work and listen to music; an oasis where he can rekindle his creative energies. He lit the stove and we sat down to a lovely hour of relaxed talk.

Tara is set to release a video to accompany the CD, a great deal of which centres on Liam's life history. There's obligatory footage of lush Irish guest vignette from Seamus Heaney to add weight to the proceedings. Bearing the content of the video in mind, I decided to focus my questions around the CD. We haven't reviewed it in yet ( John Brophy will have a review in the August issue of IMM). Suffice to say it is IMHO) a top drawer album. I discerned three major musical threads within the silk of the album. Piping echoing his earlier work with Planxty which is music that is close to the pure tradition. There's a piece with orchestra, written by Micheal 0 Suilleabhain; and lastly, a number of tracks of European music where he duets with Carlos Nunez.

I decided to unpack each thread at a time. The conversation moved naturally to consider the orchestral piece first.
"Tara have been very good to me over the years, when Shaun Davey came to me with the idea of an uilleann pipes and orchestra project (The Brendan Voyage). John Cook at Tara had the vision to allow me to follow the work to a conclusion.
"I was probably the first uilleann piper to play music with an orchestra that wasn't based on the traditional repertoire. Although the track, Bean Duhh a' Ghleanna, is an arrangement by Micheal of the traditional air for the Chamber Orchestra and pipes.

Liam in Tonder; photo by The Mollis Is playing with an orchestra a difficult task?
"When I started playing The Brendan Voyage, the formality and the discipline of orchestras was certainly strange to me. The conductor is the person in charge and you have to work to his direction, there's less latitude for mistakes or improvisation, and your timing has to be absolutely perfect.
"I've enjoyed working with orchestras and I've always found them to be really interested in the pipes, they treat them as a curiosity at first, but once they hear the sound, and realise how well they can work within classical music they gain a lot of respect."

The album contains a number of tracks that might be called traditional such as The Gold Ring , The Humours of Kiltyclogher both played in a band setting. What do you find exciting about traditional ensemble playing?
"Firstly the guys on the album were a pleasure to work with, there's so much musical understanding and imagination at work it was a joy to record.I regularly tour with Arty McGlynn, Rod McVey and Stephen Cooney - they formed the nucleus of the band for the CD. They are great company and I am sure this comes out in our playing"

I interject and ask him if he would ever consider putting a band on the road again -an obvious reference to his Planxty days (which were notorious for the their glorious music and shall we say less than cordial relationships within the band itself). He paused and thought deeply for a few moments.
"In the early days on those Planxty tours, we had no idea the whole thing would last as long as it has, we were very naive about touring, we were young and it was all great fun. Now things are different, I still tour, but it isn't the same hectic pace it once was. It is important to come home, not to spend so long on the road. Constant travelling and performing doesn't do the music any good, it kills the freshness, you become stale and the music goes kind of sour."

Liam is not known for producing a vast body of work - he doesn't go into the studio on a yearly basis to churn out album after album. How long does it take to make a CD?
"In the past thirty years or so I have been on about sixty albums, which is an average of two per year. However, for my own records, I like to release one every three years or so. It takes a long time to collect the music, rehearsal and recording can take up to six months and then the album to live for at least 18 months. If I were to produce albums at a greater rate it would actually be self defeating."

I then asked where did he find the tunes?
"Years ago, I used to record a lot of tunes on tape, and I've still got those to look back over. I also listen to CDs and I go back to tune books. I look for new combinations of tunes, I try to figure out what will work within the range of the pipes. Of course I also get tunes form other players. Sean Keane plays fiddle on The Piper's Call, and he's a great inspiration, full of musical ideas, not just traditional tunes. He has a very wide grasp of music and he's happy to share his enthusiasm with us. In the main like music that has balls, that has something to say."

Does Liam listen to any of the younger generation of Pipers?
"Sure, and there are some very good players around at the moment. But for myself, I tend to listen to the pipe music of Willie Clancy and Seamus Ennis. They'd be my musical heroes.They were the pipers I travelled miles to see in my summer holidays. I knew them personally and they passed more than the music on to me. They were very different personalities, Willie was a great character, very witty, and he had a great philosophy of life.
"Seamus was a larger than life figure. He could play to the gallery at times, but his piping was so deep. I listened to him playing slow airs, and I couldn't make out what he was up to. Then he told me the stories behind the tunes and, through him, I discovered the words to the airs and his piping began make perfect sense. That's where his genius was - in bringing the words into the music."

Carlos Nunez, photo by The Mollis Seamus Ennis was a great solo player, and since the Planxty days, uilleann pipes have become very much part of the accepted group sound. Liam still does solo tours, is it important to keep the solo tradition alive?
"Oh yes, it is very important to me, the pipes are a great solo instrument, they have all these capabilities, and pipe tunes are big tunes - take the Gold Ring for example, it's a seven-part jig. I like to do at least one solo tour a year. It makes me look closely at the tunes. I find the stories behind the melodies and I have to communicate these to an audience both through my explanations and the music. I don't go an stage with a rigid set worked out, I have a rough idea of the order and the tunes I might play, but each night is different. There's so much more musical and emotional freedom when you are playing solo and I couldn't give up that aspect of my music."

Now on to the third strand of the CD, the musical collaboration with Galician piper Carlos Nunez, how did Liam discover the music of Northern Spain.
"I really like the Spanish attitude to music and love touring in Spain. Audiences are so open, if they like what you do, they show their appreciation immediately. Galician music is in many ways similar to Irish music certainly their jigs are constructed like our own. Perhaps it is because Irish regiments were stationed in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries and some of the Irish influence is there today?
"Working with Carlos was a real treat, although he is so young, he is very focused. He has this clear vision of where Galician gaita music is going, and, of course, he has the technical ability to achieve his ambition. He is so well organised, a big contrast to myself at his age."

Finally then, does he think his mentors Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy would have approved of where the pipes have gone to over the last 20 years or so?
"I think, in the main, they would. Certainly Willie Clancy knew that the pipes had the potential to move out of strict traditional music. He might not have agreed with everything the pipes have done, but I think he'd be pleased they are so well received now.

They are so well received because musicians of the calibre of Liam O'Flynn still have a passion for the uniquely difficult and beautiful sound of the uilleann pipes. And make no mistake, Tare has been crucial in this development allowing Liam to call his tunes no matter who is paying far the recording.

Photo Credit: The Mollis

Latest published CD: The Piper's Call on Tara Music

The video of The Piper's Call is a Hummingbird production in association with T na G. It is due for release soon. Details from Trish Murphy at Tare Te +353 1 677 6921 Fax +353 1 679 1314

Sean Laffey, author of this article, is the editor of the excellent monthly Irish Music Magazine, one of the best and most professional folk magazines around. The article was published in Irish Music's July '98 issue; © Sean Laffey.

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