Jerry, every story has a "beginning," a "middle" and an "end." Many people are familiar with the “middle” part so perhaps you might take us back to when and where the story began.
Where and when did it start? Well, when I was a little kid, maybe four or five years old, I can remember that on Sunday afternoons in Yonkers (NY), my mother’s father would play Long Playing (LPs) records of traditional Irish dance music. My maternal grandmother was more into the songs and ballads. One of the LPs we had in the house was from an Irish American label, Avoca, a label that may have been located in nearby Queens County, New York. I tried once or twice to track down more information concerning that label but had no luck.
But the one Avoca LP that we had was titled “The Traditional Dance Music of Ireland” with Peter Carberry and Sean Ryan. It was a very simple album, just Uilleann Pipes chanter and fiddle: no piano, no guitar, no backup at all, not even drones or regulators. That record mesmerized me; I loved it. It was my favorite out of the whole bunch. I think that’s where the initial interest came in. Again, it was a ritual in the house on Sunday afternoon, usually after Mass, where my grandfather would listen to his LPs of traditional Irish music with me alongside him. My other family members were not interested. So, it was Grandfather and myself sitting on the couch, listening to the LPs. As I got older I started buying my own LPs. But that would be the earliest influence, the Peter Carberry/Sean Ryan album, as far as the Uilleann pipes go.
And what kept your interest going?
Well, when I got into my early teens I started to buy my own traditional music records. That’s really all there was in those days, the LPs. This was even before cassettes came on the scene. One of the earliest LPs I bought was Leo Rowsome’s The King of the Pipers. That was the first release on the Claddagh record label and I loved it! I loved the tunes on that record and I play practically all of those pieces now. I notice the influence on me of that record when I listen to recordings of myself playing. This applies somewhat to my style of playing the chanter but particularly in the way I play the regulators. I can hear Leo’s influence in what I do. I don’t use two note chords or three note chords as much as Leo did; I tend to focus more on single note regulator lines but it is certainly influenced by what Leo did and I can hear that debt I owe him. So that recording, The King Of The Pipers, was one of the earliest and very profound influences.
Another early album that had a big impact on me was one of Seamus Ennis’s recordings, The Pure Drop. Obviously Seamus had a much different style than either Leo or Peter and also a different repertoire but it was great to start getting an appreciation of Seamus early on. Those were my main “pre-piping” recordings, as I hadn’t yet started playing the Uilleann pipes. So, in terms of laying the foundation, those were three rather important recordings.
As I got older, however, I think the major defining moment, or shot in the arm if you will, was hearing the Planxty recordings and listening to Liam O’Flynn. Their albums came out in the early seventies and I got them around 1975. The arrangements were very beautiful and thoughtful and the pipes were spectacular on these recordings. The intonation was as good as it gets and the pipes just sounded beautiful against the wonderful string parts that the other band members were laying down for Liam O’Flynn’s piping and whistle playing. As a group, they really made the pipes sound beautiful; more so than any other traditional group had done. The string backup was very well done but certainly the pipes were showcased right out front with Liam O’Flynn’s beautiful, measured style of playing. He was and is very much the Gentleman Piper; the Chamber Musician of the Uilleann world. He has a way of making the pipes sound beautiful no matter what he is playing.
So when did you actually start playing? Were the Pipes your first instrument?
Actually the first musical instrument I played, not counting the piano where I would fool around playing Hot Cross Buns, but in terms of getting lessons and learning to actually play something, was the Highland Pipes. This came about on my first day in High School, when I met another older student named Tommy Martin, who was a year ahead of me. He was a piper and was looking for recruits for the County Tyrone Pipe Band in New York. I was smitten and my grandmother thought it would be a nice idea if I was in a Pipe Band so I listened to her. I went to Tommy O’Connor, who was a very good player from County Monaghan. He was very good to me; a very kind man and I enjoyed going to see him. I would go down for lessons a few times a week and always enjoyed his company. I joined the band and it was fun but I always had a problem with the pitch of the Highland Pipes. At that time it was just above A and not quite B flat; now, over 30 years later it has climbed up to around B. The problem I had with the pitch was the fact that you really could not play them with any fixed pitch instrument, like a piano or accordion. Other than playing with a drummer, you were out of luck. Obviously you couldn’t play them for very long indoors. I would play my party piece for about five minutes and that was about it for the night. It became very frustrating, especially on trips to Ireland. I was blessed that I got to go on many trips through my Father’s generosity. I spent time with his parents and in later years with relatives on my Mother’s side of the family.
Also, as well as limited performance options in the Irish session world with the Highland Pipes, I found there were an awful lot of tunes in my head that I just couldn’t play as I had no second octave. It was pretty much a case of destroying the melody by trying to fit a round musical peg into a square musical hole. I felt that the Highland Pipes were too restrictive in terms of Irish traditional music. So, staying in the piping world, I became even more interested in the Uilleann pipes. On one of my summer trips to Dublin I was introduced to a piper named Paul Leech. It was the first time I ever saw an Uilleann piper playing live and up close. Later that summer Paul’s father told me about Matt Kiernan, who was a retired Gardai, who lived in Dublin, not far from my Great Uncle’s house. It was about a twenty-minute walk to Matt’s house, so I found his home and made a pest of myself. He was very, very gracious and he made me welcome. I hope he didn’t mind too much. Eventually, he agreed to make my first practice set so that got me going. It was made of Greenheart, a species of Lignum, I think. That was the beginning of the end, so to say.
When did you start the whistle and flute?
Unlike many Uilleann pipers, I did not play the whistle first. I started that a few years after starting the Uilleann pipes. I was about eighteen at the time. Needless to say, my approach to the whistle, and by extension the flute, was from an Uilleann piper’s point of view. For example, on the whistle I do little tonguing, which is a technique for stopping the air for a moment. I use it on the high octave to avoid squeaks, such as going back and forth with a high B note. So, only in spots of necessity do I tongue notes. Frequency of tonguing depends on the player’s style.
I use a very legato, connected style of whistle playing, which I think is the influence of the Uilleann pipes. I messed with the flute for years but I only got a decent instrument probably back around 2000. Seth Gallagher made me a very, very nice flute, a lovely instrument. And, again, like my whistle playing there are many influences from my piping that influence the way I play the flute. My flute playing has also been influenced by Mike Rafferty, a friend of mine who is very prominent in the traditional Irish music scene. Mike’s particular style is also very much influenced by the Uilleann pipes. Mike plays the Uilleann pipes and his father played the pipes, flute and whistle. Mike’s flute style has a piping-like quality to it. His playing makes sense to me and, to my ear, he approaches the flute very much as an Uilleann piper would. Another main influence, certainly for any Irish flute player, would be Matt Molloy. Matt is from a different part of Ireland, in the Northwest, and his playing is faster, rhythmically more hard hitting, very punchy and a bit more syncopated. I think I am in between the Northeast Connacht style of flute playing and the East Clare/East Galway style. I’m somewhere in the middle and it depends on who I am playing with; I can bend either way. One thing I found helpful about the flute, musically speaking, is that it is easier to learn 18th Century Baroque music on the flute. It has allowed me to translate some of those ideas to the Uilleann Pipes.
What was the piping scene in New York when you started to play?
Well, going back before my time (I started playing around 1975), Bill Ochs was one of the very few younger people playing the Uilleann pipes. I would put Mattie Connolly in that group, as well. Before them was the older generation of Irish-born players in New York. Of that group, the one that I was personally acquainted with was the late Tom Busby who lived in Long Island. He was an inheritor of the Patsy Touhey style of playing.
Tom Busby would have been publicly playing since perhaps the late 1920s and into the 1970s. I only met Tom once. He seemed to be the most influential and the most prominent piping personality in the New York area during that time. I should add that Mrs. Busby was a player as well. But in those days, the lady players usually “didn’t play out.” Mike Carney was also a great New York piper in the Touhey style. He knew Touhey. Mike was from Irishtown, Co. Mayo. He was a good reed maker as well from what I understand. His niece was married to Tom Busby. It was a small but tightly connected piping scene in New York back then. Jack Coen tells me that another very good piper in New York was Johnny Coyle, who was a student of Leo Rowsome. Another piper, Andy Conroy, was also playing in New York in the 1960s. He was a bricklayer by trade and was the “tightest of the tight” staccato pipers in the Touhey style, and even more so than Touhey, in fact. Andy went back to Ireland in the early 1970s. He was Bill Ochs’ teacher early on. Bill’s knowledge of backstitching and other ornaments came from Andy.
Following that early group, Bill Ochs and Mattie Connolly emerged as the next prominent players in the New York area. When I started to learn, Bill was a great friend and influence and very helpful. He showed me the rudiments of reed making and a lot of technique. So Bill, for me, was a link to Andy Conroy. He and Mattie kept the tradition going after Tom Busby started to retire from actively playing in public. So when I started playing around 1975 (Bill started around 1970), Tim Britton was the only other American born piper, aside from Bill and myself that was playing back then. Since then, of course, everything has changed.
You mentioned Andy Conroy as the “tightest of the tight” closed style player. Do you have any thoughts on the open or closed styles?
Benedict Koehler clued me into something some years ago that was very useful. And I’m in debt to Benedict for many things. He felt, and I think his intuition is spot on, that Northumbrian Small Pipes, native to the North of England along the Scottish border, influenced the staccato developments in Uilleann piping. The Northumbrian Small Pipes have a closed end chanter, which allows the player to put silences before and after every note, if they so wish. The Uilleann pipes are capable of doing the same thing.
This influence, which Benedict talks about, makes sense musically as well as historically. Take, for example, Robert Reid, an Uilleann pipe maker that David Quinn cites as one of his premiere influences. David mentions Reid in a recent interview with Bill Hanneman on the NPU web site. Reid was a maker of both Uilleann Pipes and Northumbrian Small Pipes in the Border area of Scotland and England. Reid made pipes during the O’Farrell era: the early 19th century. The Scots/English border was a fertile and rich area in terms of music and instrument making, particularly bellows-blown bagpipes. So, Robert Reid would have significant knowledge of all the varieties of bellows-blown bagpipes in Ireland, Scotland, and England and it is also likely that he had a good knowledge of the baroque oboe. It’s eminently plausible that Benedict’s intuition is right and supported by the historical record.
Also keep in mind the link between Scotland and France during the 18th Century. One example would be commerce such as the wine trade. More importantly, the French court was seen as the model for elegance; French dancing masters were in great demand as dancing and deportment teachers for the children of the aristocracy in Ireland, Scotland, and England. Also, in the early 18th Century the French were the masters of woodwind instrument making and playing in Europe. The Hotteterres were the first family to develop the Baroque oboe from an earlier Renaissance instrument. They also designed the first Baroque flute and the first Musette de Coeur , the court Musette, a close relation to the Northumbrian pipes.
There was also much commerce and cultural exchange between Dublin, London and Edinburgh in the 18th Century so it makes sense that these very staccato techniques from the Northumbrian smallpipes would have been passed on to the Uilleann pipes. Uilleann piping, at its best, is a mixture of the staccato and legato. Individual taste matters, of course, but certainly good Uilleann piping should employ all the major staccato triplets as well as ornaments such as backstitching. Depending on the player, some uilleann pipers will put in more rests between the notes of the melody for musical emphasis. Sometimes I do this to imitate flute playing. There are logical spots where a flute player would breath in order to take a breath and I find, for example, on some Mike Rafferty tunes, that I will tend to take a musical “breath” at the same spots in the tune that Mike would– unconsciously echoing his breathing. (As an aside, Mike’s daughter Mary plays the accordion and I notice that she tends to pause at the same spots as Mike does).
Otherwise, I tend not to put in many rests because it’s not my style; however, I do try to use as many tight triplets as I think tasteful in a piece. Some players do employ many rests and it can be very effective, but it has to be subtle. If you check the books by Pat Mitchell where he meticulously transcribes the music of Seamus Ennis, Patsy Touhey, and Willie Clancy, the subtle breaths, the “rests,” are notated. Transcriptions, of course, are just a rough approximation. A rest can be of long or short duration or anywhere in between. It’s part of variation and very important.
In terms of the tightest player ever that I know about, the late Andy Conroy certainly comes to mind but his music was always very musical and interesting. For example, when Andy played a jig called “Maude Gonne,” he would make the piping tighter and tighter to the point where the melody eventually vanished and he was playing a series of tight ornaments. It was an amazing display of his talents. While the melody took a back seat at those moments, it was tasteful as well as creative. That would be one end of the piping spectrum. The other end would be a totally legato piping style, with virtually no pauses in the melody and practically no tight ornaments. That can be boring, of course, and sometimes comes from a piper with a flute background who doesn’t take the time to learn the intricacies of the Uilleann pipes. They would be “winging it” with flute fingering and never employ any staccato triplets, which is not ideal. In recent times some players try to mimic Paddy Keenan’s piping but without the tight piping that Paddy throws in. When you hear the man himself doing it there is incredible artistry as regards his use of triplets, rests, double and triple tipping. Paddy is a master of staccato playing. He can do it all with incredible ease. So those would be the opposite ends of the spectrum of open and closed playing.
You’ve made several references to piping history. What are some of the historical themes that interest you?
Well, as I get older I tend to have more appreciation for a couple of things, one of which is traditional Uilleann Pipes music from the 18th and 19th Century. Also, I’m especially interested in tasteful regulator playing. In my opinion, regulators have been neglected in recent years. Again, there’s a spectrum of how much to utilize them, as some people feel they are an artificial 18th Century graft-on to the Uilleann pipes and that the pipes should just be chanter and drones. I don’t agree with that. I really think the Uilleann pipes are an 18th Century instrument and they were not necessarily always limited to traditional Irish or Scottish pieces, or to traditional folk tunes from England, either. They also became very adept at playing Baroque-influenced music in the 18th and 19th Century and I think the regulators are part of that natural development of the instrument.
Obviously, I think very early Uilleann pipes started off with probably two drones and a keyless chanter. Then, of course, the first regulator added was the tenor and the really early tenor regulators only had four notes: typically F#, G A and B, in the same octave as the chanter. Eventually, the C natural was added to have the standard tenor regulator of five notes. I think the reason the regulator was added at all was to provide an extra drone initially.
I have seen pictures of early uilleann pipes that had multiple drones and no regulators. The early Northumbrian pipes employed the same logic in that they had multiple drone tunings like the French Musette. So I think in the case of the uilleann pipes, rather than having to build sets with five or six drones, some very intelligent person came up with the idea that by basically taking an old chanter and plugging up the end and putting wax in some holes you would get an extra drone with several choices as to the note being produced. In other words, out of one piece of wood and one reed you would get the choice of maybe three or four different notes.
Eventually, rather than wax, the makers started using keys to shut off certain holes and the true regulator was born. Although the initial musical reason for the regulator was to have extra drones, once you put keys on the regulator it could be played rhythmically. The reason the regulators were expanded was to move beyond simple folk tunes and play 18th Century Baroque harmony, even if it was somewhat simplified. I think that’s what they were doing and as the instrument went on through the 19th Century, the regulator set- up got more elaborate with more notes and more harmonic possibilities.
You could also ask, why have keys on the chanter? For the most part you could live quite happily with a keyless chanter and play a lot of nice pieces. So the question then is, “Why did we get eight-keyed chanters on Uilleann pipes around the mid 19th Century, the time of the American Civil War”? Why did that become the standard thing? Why did “E” regulators become standard on many of the better instruments? I think the answer is the same in all cases: to play more challenging folk-Baroque pieces.
Keep this in mind, and this is not my idea, but Baroque music has a very strong rustic, pastoral element. The composers of this genre did this on purpose, especially in French Baroque music. Typically, French Baroque pieces are modeled on dance forms and they have a very courtly/rustic feel. It was an 18th Century aim of the affluent classes to "Return to Arcadia”; that is, to “play” at being peasants. They wanted a farm but didn’t want to do the work. The French Court had their soirees and out-of-door picnics and dressed up like Shepherds, but in silk attire. They liked to pretend they were Shepherds, returning to the soil, imitating rustic roles and simplicity. The music reflects that idea. Even in Italian and German Baroque music there is that element of pastoral and rustic identity.
Getting back to the Uilleann pipes, the reason for the addition of keys on the chanter and the development of the regulators, allowed the Uilleann Pipes to play the “Top Forty” compositions of the day. These were not only folk tunes but also the more Baroque-flavored compositions. In fact, there is a recorder duet by George F. Handel in the O’Farrell Collection; this is a purely Baroque piece. On this same theme, 19th century pipemakers viewed their instruments as bona fide; they considered them as sophisticated as any other instrument on which music was played in those days.
Who were some oft he personalities in the piping world that had an impact on you, people you heard or helped you along?
Well, I mentioned Matt Kiernan earlier, who made my first practice set. He was a very good pipemaker who did very clean work with solid craftsmanship. He was making pipes well into his nineties. I also have fond memories of his sister, Mrs. Maguire. She cycled out to Matt’s house every day, a good twelve-mile roundtrip, to make his early afternoon dinner. It’s great to have those memories. Matt was one of the few pipemakers in Dublin after Leo Rowsome died. Then there was Dan Dowd, a real Dublin character in the best sense of the word. The British interred him at the Curragh during the 1916 period. He played the Highland Pipes, as well, and I believe it was through Leo Rowsome that he started on the Uilleann pipes. He eventually became a pipe maker and, I might add, a very good reed maker. He didn’t live very far from Leo Rowsome. In fact, along with Leo and Seamus Ennis, Dan was one of the early patrons of NPU. One of his apprentices was Johnny Bourke from Bray, Co. Wicklow. Later on I got a set of pipes from Johnny in 1981. I had bought a chanter in 1979, and the drones in 1980 and the regulators in 1981. In the early 1980s Johnny set up his own workshop at home, in Bray, and worked there until he passed away in 1987. There was also Eugene Lambe who was taught the rudiments of pipe making by Dan Dowd and Matt Kiernan. Eugene then became a pipe maker himself. So after Leo died at a relatively young age, Matt, Dan, Johnny and Eugene kept the tradition going. So those were some of the pipe makers.
As regards other pipers and musicians, I remember when I was in my teens hearing and meeting Mick O’Brien for the first time. He was playing with his father, accordionist Dinny O’Brien and his brother, tin whistler Donncha O’Brien. Donncha passed away some years ago. Donncha was a wonderful whistle player and he recorded one album that was really excellent. He was a very talented whistle player and a very funny, warm human being. He is much missed, even now. At this first meeting, Mick was probably about fourteen at the time. Even at that point Mick was a superb player with a wonderful approach to the instrument.
I also remember hearing and learning much from Gay McKeon in my early piping days. Peter McKenna, Joe’s brother, actually gave me one of my first lessons on the pipes, showing me the fingering and how to do rolls. He was a very good player and a nice chap. Going back to Gay McKeon, I believe he was part of the last generation of Leo Rowsome’s students. I learned a lot listening to Gay, particularly his GFG triplets. I think I got that from listening to him. Also, back in the Seventies, I recall being helped by Fergus Finnegan, a Dublin piper and a devotee of Liam O’Flynn. He was an excellent piper and banjo player and a very good reed maker. He was a tremendous help to me. I saw him a few years ago at the rededication of the NPU building in Dublin. Another musician that helped me would include my cousin Tom Dermody, who was very generous with sharing his music with me. He let me tag along with him to music venues and I would play with him.
Closer to home, Seamus Connolly, who lives in Portland, Maine, was a prodigy on the fiddle when he was a young man in Ireland. As well being an incredible talent on the fiddle, he had the advantage of meeting and playing with the best of the older players. He’s met and played and learned from them all. He has astounding knowledge of all the Irish fiddle styles, as well as Scottish and French Canadian fiddling. Another thing I love about Seamus is his exquisite taste in tunes. I also appreciate that he approaches the fiddle like a piper. Rhythmically, he plays his ornaments very like an uilleann piper. Not many other instrumentalists do what Seamus does, not even other fiddle players. It’s a very Uilleann pipe-like approach. His phrasing on slow airs seems also to be informed or
influenced by Uilleann pipes. I think it’s intuitive with Seamus; he thinks like a piper. In his head he is hearing a tune the same way a piper would, especially on those pieces he would have learned from Willie Clancy or other pipers. Then the influence of Uilleann piping really comes out. Seamus is also adept at playing the O’Carolan repertoire. Like
me, he is interested in Baroque music. He gets it and he understands baroque phrasing. He can express an O’Carolan tune in the manner of a Baroque violinist somewhat, but it is not overdone. Hands down I think he is the best at interpreting O’Carolan on the fiddle. More importantly you wouldn’t meet a finer gentleman and when I play with
him I feel I am forced to play my best to come close to his level. He’s a musical “soul mate” and it’s always a great gift to play with him and hear him play.
Are you actively teaching?
Yes, I love teaching. I like having a laugh with people and I find teaching is a great opportunity to do something constructive. Hopefully, the idea is to accomplish something that is helpful to the learner and, at the same time, to enjoy their company. I like to keep the lesson low key and make it a positive experience. That’s good for both the instructor and the student. One thing I think, in many ways, that is really helping students is the advent of distance learning on SKYPE, as well as CDs and DVDs, especially the ones from NPU. It’s not as difficult a situation now for remote pipers trying to learn a difficult instrument. Years ago, it was very difficult for pipers to have access to instructors or recorded materials.
Typically, a problem with a lot of the tutors available 25 years ago was the lack of a CD or Cassette, plus they were typically made for an Irish market. They would start with a simple tune and then gradually go to a reel right after that. On page One you were doing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and on page six was “The Bucks of Oranmore.” It didn’t work, unless you were in Ireland where you had players available to decode the music. It’s far better these days, with the Internet and recording options and more and more instructors available.
The biggest problem I find, and it’s human nature, is that people want to run before they can walk. They don’t want to play a piece properly at a slow tempo; they have an impulse to rush into sessions in which the music is poor quality and played too fast to begin with. People rush in for social reasons, but musically it is a disaster. Many folks try to play very fast tempos before they are ready. The result is pretty dreadful to listen to. My approach is to get people to work with the metronome, to start slowly and play at a steady tempo, no matter how slow. Even fast tunes like reels and jigs have such good, strong melodies that, even slowed down, they still sound good. For example, you can take a reel and play it as a march. You can take a jig and play it as a waltz. You can slow a hornpipe down and it’s still beautiful. Then people can play along with you.
For me, the paramount thing is rhythm and keeping the tune steady in the beginning. If you are playing in tune and are using the correct fingering and playing at a steady rhythm, you’ll sound pretty good. It might be simple and not the end result you want forever but it’s a good and necessary start. If you skip that step and rush through, I don’t think your music will be ever be where you want it to be.
Basically, the game is over if the rhythm is unsteady; it makes things jarring musically and impossible to listen to. Simple is better at the beginning, like a child learning a language – you start off with simple sentences. Then the sentences get longer and the child develops more complex communication. It’s the same process with the Uilleann Pipes. Music is really a linguistic ability. Another thing I notice about children (which adults frequently lose) is they are not afraid to make mistakes; they are not self-conscious. They will take a whack at something and they will keep trying. Adults think they are a failure if they don’t get it right the first time and then they stop. Kids approach music as a play activity. I try to tell my students that this is about having fun. You should be doing it because you want to do it. Therefore, you should be careful about being too goal-oriented. It’s necessary to want to get better but the best learning takes place in an atmosphere of play and adventure. It should be enjoyable. Without that the learning process is retarded. It retards learning, playing and enjoyment. This still counts for adult learners. The opposite danger is if you are a sloppy player but you don’t care.
In your discography there are numerous references to professional appearances with symphony orchestras, tours, movies and the like. Can you tell us something about those appearances?
Well, I can tell you about two that I’ll never forget and I’m still scared when I recall them. One is about the movie Far and Away which, in my opinion, was a particularly dreadful movie from 1992 starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The music was beautiful because John Williams wrote the score and he’s an incredible composer. It was a wonderful score but a terrible movie. Every stage-Irish bit of nonsense you could think of was in the movie. It had a very negative, stereotypical view of the Irish.
But, as regards the music: I got a call from John Williams to play on the soundtrack. I went to Los Angeles and I was given the lead melody part for the pipes for about five or six pieces. I was told that of the six, three were “definites” and the other three were “maybes.” As it worked out, the three “maybes” were the ones they picked. To make things worse, even though I requested it several times, I never got a tape or any
recording of these orchestral parts. Therefore, I was trying to read these things and desperately trying to figure out the tempo. The slowest piece of the three was the hardest to decode solely from the sheet music. Generally, the rhythms of the dance tunes are pretty straightforward but with a slow piece, it helps to hear it played at least once. So, I was pretty clueless to how some of these pieces really sounded or what John Williams was going for.
So, I got out to California and in typical Hollywood fashion, decisions were made at the last second. I was told that, in two hours, I was going to play these three pieces that I never heard and I was just working from the scores and, in some cases, there were oddball rhythms I was trying to work out. I was rehearsing in a little trailer, scared out of my wits and praying all the time that I would get through the recording session. It was a nightmare. You can imagine the scene where I was at the MGM sound studio where the music for the Wizard of Oz and other great MGM movies were recorded. So I was there, hiding in the trailer, knowing that I will be playing shortly with a 120-piece orchestra that are the “crème de la crème” of musicians on the West Coast. In fact, I have never heard another orchestra since that were as good!
Anyway, it came time for my solos and I had to send for John Williams’ recording secretary to tell the guy to let John know that I don’t think I can play any of these pieces (since I don’t know how they go). I was sweating buckets. They flew and my family and I out there, provided a hotel, etc. and now came the classic nightmare moment where they discover that you are a fraud. The secretary relayed the message to John Williams and John said, “It will be fine; you’ll be great.” He was very gracious. Well, it was fine but on the slow piece I had no idea what it sounded like, so the flute player sitting next to me conducted me through the piece by holding the tip of his tin whistle on the score and I followed his whistle as he pointed from note to note on the music score. Without him helping me out there was no way I could have played, and these were solo pieces with the orchestra! That moment when I told them I don’t know what I was doing was rather humbling but thanks be to God (and the flute player), I played the parts and got through them. It was probably the most hair-raising experience of my life.
The only other experience that ranks near that, where I was saved at the last minute, was when I was on a Don Henley tour. Don had an album back in 2000 called Inside Job and in that tour there were two Irish songs he was doing: one called Lila that he wrote that had a pipes and whistle part. I played the pipes. We played Lila for the first couple of concerts and there was another of those “maybe” pieces written by Mark Knopfler – a beautiful piece, a song with a very Irish/Scottish feel to it, played on the pipes and whistle. It was a very breathtaking melody. A Night In Summer Long Ago, I believe it was called. Well, one night Don wanted to do it for an encore. I had a very rough idea of how it went, but we had never rehearsed it. There was no score to figure it out. I had never really played it before and I didn’t expect to play it that night. Anyway, I got through it, amazingly without any mistakes. We wound up playing it at all the Don Henley concerts that summer in 2000. But the pressure, the terrible moment of real fear, of being brought out on tour and then caught with your pants down musically was horrifying. But the Good Lord came through, the right notes came out of the chanter and I stayed on the gig. These were the two most frightening episodes in my musical career, at least so far. Both were ultimately successful but were two very scary moments where I felt I was going to be in a whole lot of trouble.
Have you been paying attention to the up-and-coming pipers here and in Ireland?
Well, I’ve been out of the loop somewhat with my teaching job and family responsibilities in recent years. Therefore, a lot of my knowledge is not first hand on the up-coming pipers here and in Ireland but, for what it’s worth, I have a few thoughts. On the recording side I do like a CD by Mikie Smyth from Dublin. I liked the fact that he had his bass drone tuned to a G rather than a low D and on the pieces where he used the drones they have a very Northumbrian feel as I talked about earlier, the drone being tuned to the fourth of the scale. Again, the G against the D works very well with the drones and I thought that was good. I also liked Mikie’s regulator style. He’s not afraid to play them and it’s interesting what he does on the chanter. Here in the US, a lot of people know Michael Stribling, currently living in Florida. Michael is a wonderful player for a 17-year old. He really has soul for a young player. A lot of younger pipers have good technique but they don’t yet have that special feeling or quality in their piping. It usually takes some maturity and experience. But Michael has it and I hope that it will only increase as he gets more experience. Keep in mind there are many people I haven’t met or heard but in terms of younger players in the US, Michael stands out. Also, in Ireland, Sean McKeon is an excellent young player. He came out with an album recently, with Liam O’Connor on fiddle. Sean does a great job with the regulators. He really is a lovely player and certainly is one of the up and coming players in Ireland. I wish I had a chance to spend more time there so I would be more familiar with more of the younger players.
Do you go to sessions often?
I do once in a while but I don’t seek them out. Typically it depends a lot on the musicians that are there and the physical layout. If you mean sessions in bars I don’t do those too often, with one exception. In nearby White Plains, NY, at Dunne’s Pub, I do occasionally join a session that’s anchored by Brian Conway, the well-known fiddle player. I enjoy playing there. It has a great atmosphere and it is always great to play with Brian. I remember hearing Brian play when he was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. He was great then and has become one of the master players on the scene today.
Many bar sessions are marred by alcohol and background noise. Honestly, I tend to avoid those sessions. With amplified sessions, there are also problems with sound and amplification where sometimes the better players can’t be heard. Also in the session world, there are problems with folks playing way too fast and sloppily. Sometimes amplification is a temptation for musicians to play too gimmicky, in which the “Celtic Rock” syndrome shows up and the traditional Irish music is pushed aside.
Now in terms of playing in people’s homes, at “House Sessions,” that’s different. That’s a situation where it is a social gathering of friends where music “breaks out” and good camaraderie is the order of the day. The music is part of the social atmosphere and you’re not under any pressure to please a bar owner. Those are the sessions that I enjoy most. It’s just more relaxing, more informal. You’re not under some obligation and you have flexibility and freedom to play or not play. When I was younger, of course, I was grateful for the opportunity to get paid for those aforementioned bar sessions. Perhaps it’s my age but now I would much rather go to house sessions.
How about public performances?
I enjoy performances. I enjoy meeting people and I like discussing the history of piping with the audience, and exploring the history of Irish or Scottish music. I suppose it’s my teaching background coming through. I like explaining things. Some musicians are not comfortable with that. I like examining and connecting the historical background to the music.
To give you an idea concerning the types of instruments that go well with the pipes, I like playing with a guitar or bouzouki player in a small ensemble setting. It’s also great if one of the instrumentalists performing with me can sing. It adds a nice dimension to the concert for the audience. I would usually accompany singers with either the whistle or flute. Pipes and fiddle are also a natural. Historically, the majority of Irish dance tunes were composed for pipes and fiddle. For example, if you go back and look at the travel diaries of visitors to Ireland in the late 18th Century or early 19th Century who write about Irish dancing, it usually involved an Uilleann piper or a fiddler providing the music. Again, nearly all of the tunes in the Irish tradition up until the late 1800s, perhaps prior to 1860 were composed on the pipes or the fiddle because before then banjos or accordions and the other instruments were simply not around.
Occasionally I will do a solo performance where you really get to explore what the pipes are capable of doing. It’s just you and the audience and I find I really tend to focus on regulator possibilities. There’s a lot to be said for solo piping. Musically it really encourages the piper to be as creative as possible with the instrument. It’s a great challenge to keep one’s skills honed, so solo performances are a huge help.
Speaking of performances, you recently were invited to the William Kennedy Piping Festival in Armagh, certainly a venue with very accomplished and knowledgeable pipers. How was that event?
It was one of the best Piping Festivals I’ve ever been to. Armagh is a lovely town. It was my first visit there and I got to see St. Patrick’s Cathedral and many other very interesting local sites. There was one gig in the (Robinson) Library, filled with 18th Century books. It was a beautiful spot, ideal for listening to music. The Festival, of course, is produced by the Vallely family, Brian and Ethne, specifically, Cillian’s mother and father. Cillian’s sisters and brothers were very much involved as well. It was wonderful hearing Ronan Brown playing after all these years; I haven’t seen him in some twenty years. He was playing a James Kenna set made in the 1780s.
As an aside, most authorities I am acquainted with believe that the Pastoral pipes are the direct precursors of the Uilleann pipes. They are very similar but the main difference being the chanter on the Pastoral pipe is always played off the knee in addition to the fact that the long foot joint at the end of the chanter allows you to play a low C. Tonally there is a certain sound to Pastoral Pipe chanters that I found similar to the sound of Ronan’s Kenna chanter previously mentioned. Ronan graciously allowed me to play the James Kenna set and what I found was that it was fun to play and it was very specific in what it liked. As Benedict Koehler has said, ”Instruments tell you what they like” and the Kenna set told me that it liked being played off the knee quite a bit and also certain alternate fingerings worked better and were more in tune. It was a beautiful instrument; it wasn’t loud, being a narrow bore D set of pipes, but it had lovely tone and something charming and intriguing about the way the chanter played. It lends credence, I think, to the belief that the Uilleann pipes were developed out of the older, Pastoral pipe chanters. There is a famous illustration, a woodcut I believe, showing a fiddler, a flute player and a pastoral piper. There’s great detail in the illustration and the funny thing, it was done by an Irish artist capturing an Irish scene. So, there is some historical evidence that the Pastoral pipes were played in Ireland. Anyway, Ronan’s James Kenna set comes as close as I’ve ever seen to the root of the Uilleann pipe tree. In fact, Ronan has a Facebook page with sound samples of these pipes.
In Armagh, I also had a great session with Tiarnan O Duinnchinn, an incredible player, who displays flawless technique and great soul. His style reminded me of a northern Paddy Keenan but with his own unique spin on it. Tiarnan is a great regulator player and employs a lot of interesting tight playing, as well. I really enjoyed meeting him and playing with him; he is a real gentleman. I find that I am listening to his work, now that I’ve met him, and he does many superb things with his music.
There was also an exhibition of pipes by Richard L. O’Meally, from County Westmeath. He had moved to Belfast in the earlier part of the 20th Century. His pipe making was very much in the style of the Taylor brothers from Drogheda. However, in O’Meally’s regulator set up, instead of a tenor regulator, he did away with that and added a double bass regulator in the same spot that played the notes F#, E and D an octave lower than those notes on the chanter. So basically he sacrificed the tenor regulator for a double bass. Since the O’Meally double bass regulator was so loud compared to the chanter, O’Meally didn’t play long chords on the double bass; he would do short taps here and there and occasionally play a longer chord at the end of a musical phrase . This was the first time I had seen O’Meally’s Pipes up close and it was fun to hear Ronan playing them. In fact there is an old-movie clip from the 1930s on YouTube showing O’Meally playing his pipes. He also was recorded on some old 78 recordings. When Robbie Hannan was doing the Radio show, “The Long Note” for RTE, he had one or two programs on Richard O’Meally.
It was also a pleasure to meet Bill Hanneman, who does such a good job on the NPU web site videos. I think NPU does a fantastic job with the site. I especially like the interviews Bill does on camera with different pipers. I also met Eamon Curran, a piper and resident pipe maker for the Armagh Pipers Club. Eamon played and recorded with John Faulkner and Dolores Keane years ago and I was always a fan of his piping. The lovely boxwood D chanter played by Tiarnan on his recent recording “Ceol is Piob” was made by Eamon. Armagh was also a great opportunity to catch up with Elliot Grasso and Kieran O’Hare, whom I haven’t seen in a while.
Jerry, what’s next? Anything new on Volume II, the follow up to your “O’Sullivan Meets O’Farrell” CD of a few years ago.
Well, volume II of O’Sullivan Meets O’Farrell is finally going to be released by July 2010, specifically during the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, NY. The pieces featured on the recording were all taken from the O’Farrell collections. Unlike volume I though, all these pieces are very baroque in nature. In fact, nearly all these pieces do not sound well as solo Uilleann Pipes pieces; they need a harpsichord and cello to make them come alive. I think that this is because baroque pieces are composed around a chord structure. Dance music from Ireland, Scotland, and England of course has a chord structure as well but the melody is the primary thing rather than a particular progression of chords.
I found that the Uilleann Pipes chanter sounds superb with the harpsichord and cello and I was fortunate to have Paul and Audrey Cienniwa, two consummate masters of these respective instruments, play on this recording. Boston Uilleann piper Kevin O’Brien did an amazing job of writing harpsichord and cello parts for them. The original O’Farrell collections only had the lead melodies and Kevin captured perfectly the continuo parts that these pieces suggested.
I am hoping that this new recording will show how well the pipes fit with an 18th century continuo (harpsichord and cello) and also how naturally the pipes play this very different repertoire. I am excited that this recording uses actual harpsichord and baroque cello rather than a synthesizer and a modern cello. These two 18th century acoustic instruments formed the “rhythm section” for 18th century music, both classical and folk. In my opinion, the Uilleann Pipes are a child of the 18th century and this explains the affinity that the Uilleann Pipes have for the harpsichord and baroque cello. Also, the Uilleann Pipes chanter has some sonic characteristics of the early 18th century oboe and my approach with this recording was to use the chanter in an “oboe-like” fashion.
Thanks, Jerry, for sharing your personal history with the pipes and your thoughts and insights on the music and history of the instrument.