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.)
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.
The uilleann pipes are probably the most complex of all the pipes because of the regulators.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
People often write to us at The Thistle & Shamrock asking how to identify between different types of tunes.
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.
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.
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.
That must be because your music is doing what it was intended to do; that is, motivating people to get up and spin!
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.
It sounds like you were destined to do what you're doing. Do you think you could you have avoided it?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many people associate your career with Planxty. Do people still associate you with that despite having done so much else?
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 took off so instantly, which makes me think that there must have been a real hunger for that sound back then.
It certainly explains why the band made such an immediate impact.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes, in these works, the different idioms can sound a bit broken up.
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.
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.
That's exactly it. The pipes became the central, focal point, and everything else grew around them.
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.
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.
Your piping has taken you all over the world. Where would be you ideal place to play, and to what audience?
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.
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.
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.
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.
It's such a powerful voice in itself. There are certain notes in the instrument which speak volumes in themselves.
No, you can't. You're either drawn to it or you're not. You can't analyze or dissect it too much.
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.