I’ve always been interested in the atonality of instruments: the little sounds in between the more melodic sections, the click of a key, the chirp of a reed or the squeak of a bellows valve. I’m a big fan of Jimi Hendrix’s aggressive ‘dog fight’ rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, where the physicality of the instrument is challenged by an unrelenting wall of feedback and fuzz. Hendrix struggles to maintain the melody through a deeper exploration of what constitutes a tune, and what further explorative noises can be made with an electric guitar. In piping, the palette of sounds is similarly widened when you learn to embrace the off-notes and give in to the instrument’s own idiosyncrasies. Many of the recordings we have of the great older players such as Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis or Tommy Reck tap into these little tonally-off colourings and exploit them. This doesn’t exactly make for easy listening but it does offer something more to the formal listener.
In Irish traditional music, some of the oldest examples of written tunes are of a descriptive nature. Popular pieces such as The Foxchase, Oscar and Malvina, Allistrum's March and The Old Man Rocking the Cradle all make use of the uilleann pipes’ individuality to recreate these small vignettes, whether it be sounding a battle horn, a dog’s yelp, a bird’s tweet, a farmyard scene, or a step-father trying to console a crying child. We know from the archives that these tunes were often a showpiece for the master piper, wowing audiences with their wild renditions in an Eighteenth Century Ireland.
The idea of musical onomatopoeia isn’t exclusive to the Irish folk tradition, we have examples in the bluegrass tradition, such as Cluck Old Hen and multitudes of train songs like Orange Blossom Special, etc. In Irish music the pipes have played a prominent role in the revival and continuation of the descriptive piece.
In more recent times, we’ve see composers such as Shaun Davey, John Cage, Mícheal Ó Súilleabhain, Roger Doyle, Michael Holohan, and of course, Bill Whelan with Riverdance, take the uilleann pipes in the direction of a descriptive voice within a narrative element. While I’m not trying to create any great statements or produce anything with an orchestral arrangement with this small selection of recordings, I am attempting a deep dig into the aural possibilities of the instrument and addressing something that represents the pulse of modern life–the musical interlude that a ringtone unapologetically prods into the acoustic wilderness of our day to day lives.
Some of these tunes you may recognise, some are more obscure. I’ve taken a few small liberties with to help them ‘sit’ better on the pipes. This recording was completed entirely on a C# narrow-bore set of uilleann pipes made by George Glen in Edinburgh circa 1910, with a restoration and fantastic new matching chanter made by Sam Lawrence earlier this year. This is one of two sets of uilleann pipes we know Glen to have made. It seemed fitting to approach the project with this old instrument and try to place it in the current day, brining it up to speed with the current world of blips and bleeps and ones and zeros.
I hope you enjoy Ringtunes and embrace the strange and colourful sounds of this delightful instrument, much in the same way that I enjoyed recording it.
released April 1, 2022
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