the wynd you know
This is a masterly performance by Ronan Browne which may very well turn out to be considered one of the great piping albums of the last forty years. It is a confident, mature and thought-provoking demonstration of superlatively executed classic pieces. Ronan has based his programme around some of the most evocative slow airs of the Irish tradition, interspersed with lighter pieces to relieve the tension of the airs with fine demonstrations of the brisker piping skills. There are fourteen sets on this album. Seven are airs (eight if you count a slow version of the Green Fields of America, before it throws off its disguise and turns into a set of reels). Such an unusual proportion of slow airs in a programme demands maturity and confidence on the part of the performer. I can tell you that Ronan Browne has the necessary.
Rather than beginning with a crash of reels or jigs he opens with Eilionoir a Ruin, a lesser-known setting of the familiar song Eileen Aroon. This sets the tone of the album. The air is comparitively uncomplicated, enabling the listener to settle down and tune into the player's wavelength and at the same time become aware of the superlative mellow tones of the chanter, the perfect tuning of the regulators and Ronan's ability to employ them to their full capability. In fact instrument sounds so mellow and sweet that it took me two or three tracks to realise that this was not a 'flat set' (pitched in C) but a 'concert set' pitched in D.
This air is followed by a pair of slip jigs, played in the tight piping style, and some fine examples of the cran, a piping technique by which the open bass note of the chanter are alternated in quick succssion with other higher notes.
The beautiful air The Bright Lady is the next piece. John Montague's accompanying notes (full marks for these, by the way, they being succinct, informative and authoritative) point out that this was a favourite of Leo Rowsome and Willie Clancy, but as I listened I felt I could also hear Dan Dowd, that great player of slow airs. This is a complex melody, involving much use of the F Natural, which Ronan bends up from the E with the wavering vibrato used by those other great players, which seems to make the chanter bear its soul in anguish in the upper octave or weep in despair in the lower octave. In his use of the regulators Ronan seems at times almost to bend the chord triad itself from F# to G, so smooth is the wrist action. At other times, he is fingering the regulator chord against the chanter note to produce almost minor or seventh harmonic effects.
Inevitably a piece as emotionally charged as The Bright Lady has to be followed by something lighter, and we are treated to a pair of classic reels, The Swallow's Tail and The Heather Breeze, on the warm tones of the bansuri, a wooden flageolet from India.
The musical selection now heads to Donegal. Ronan's pipes are joined by Kevin Glackan on fiddle. The two performers compliment each other perfectly. A sprightly Highland, incorporating some lower octave work from Kevin, is followed by the briskly paced Errigal Reel. Yet brisk as it is, the musicians are playing exactly in step with each other, note for note, decoration for decoration - a wonderful demonstration of formation flying. The tempo speeds up as they launch into The Black Mare of Fanad (a Donegal version of The Nine Points of Roguery) and soon the pair are flying along at a mad gallop - yet always perfectly in step. The excitement is palpable - in live performance this would have the audience whooping and howling with delight. I suspect that behind their screens the sound engineers were doing just that.
A pause, and then begins the piece which for me defines the quality of the album. Playing chanter only, with no vibrato or ornamentation, in order to allow the simple melody to express itself without artifice, Ronan plays that most mystical of airs immortalised by the Donegal fiddler John Doherty, Paddy's Rambles through the Park. The story attached to this air tells of a musician who hears a banshee singing in some ruins at night, and manages to learn the tune. It is said John Doherty thought of it as an allegory of his own life travelling the Donegal Countryside ever searching for musical enlightenment. Indeed, there is something untypical, something other-wordly about the melody, as though it taps into a deeper well of musicality. Seamus Ennis is said to have felt uncomfortable with it; Dan Dowd found it fey. It raises the hair on the back of my neck, not least because of the superb medlodic and chordal accompaniment of Triona Ni Domhnaill on the harmonium, which substitutes for drones and regulators, slowly developing in intensity and generating an almost spiritual solemnity.
More light music now. Ronan on flute generously allows Kevin's fiddle to take the foreground role in a pair of brisk slides, Cheer up old Hag and An Cailin an Ti Mhor.
Ronan continues with the flute for the air An Raibh Tu ag an gCarraig (Were you at the Rock). This is one of the classic competition pieces and hugely significant to the Irish tradition, dating as it does from the days of the persecution of the Roman Catholic faithful, when the Mass had to be said in secret locations out in the wild country (pairc can also mean this). A large lone rock was a typical landmark for such gatherings. In asking the question 'Were you at the Rock?' the singer is looking for the listener's avowal that they are adhering not merely to their faith but also to their belief of continuing nationhood in the face of foreign oppression. It is a statement of Irishness like no other. Again Ronan is joined by Triona Ni Dhomhnaill for a perfectly balanced harmonic foil, re-evoking that quality of spirituality so appropriate to this air.
Two single jigs follow on, favourites of Seamus Ennis, and played very much in his style, unhurried and with long regulator chords (Seamus could be very scathing on the over-use of rhythmic popping of the regulators, which, he grumbled once in my hearing, were a conceivably a result of the influence of George Formby).
Many slow airs are elegies springing from small local events, but more than a few relate to momentous events of Ireland's history. Ronan's next piece, Caoineadh Ui Neill, commemorates the downfall of Hugh O'Neill, last King of Tyrone, whose defeat by the forces of Elisabeth I at Kinsale in 1601 led to banishment of the old Gaelic aristocracy (known as 'The Flight of the Earls') and wholesale confiscations of their lands, to be subsequently parcelled up into plantations for incoming English and Scottish settlers, to begin the formation of a Protestant 'Garrison Class'. The air is equal to the theme, expressing noble and dignified grief with complex ornamentation, evolved to exploit the pipes' unique qualities and capabilities. Ronan in turn is equal to the task, allowing the melody to set its own pace, and providing a superb demonstration in the thoughtful use of the regulator accompaniment, so finely tuned and smoothly executed that the chord changes seem to be, well, seamless.
A set of reels follow the air, led by that session favourite The Green Fields of America, but by way of a change Ronan first explores the theme as a slow air, before leading off into the usual tempo (a favourite device of some of the old pipers). More of the unexpected ensues, for Ronan switches off the drones for the second reel. Given that when you play chanter solo there is nothing to hide behind - all fluffs of tone or rhythmn are exposed mercilessly - this is a high risk strategy. A bit like standing on the balcony rail and downing the pint with your back to the drop - a bravado thing. In this case Ronan drains the jar without loss of balance and jumps back to safety, switching on the drones again for the final reels of the set.
Another lighter air now, the well-known song If I were a Blackbird, a tribute now from Ronan to his maternal grandmother, the popular Irish singer Delia Murphy. Ronan builds up this simple and well-known melody from the solo chanter to the full instrument. Then it's back to that balcony again, with two flying reels on chanter only, and an excellent opportunity to listen to chanter technique without distraction.
To complete the album Ronan plays The Lament for the Wild Geese, another major commemorative slow air, recalling the departure of the survivors of the Irish Army to Europe, following their defeat by William of Orange in 1691. The air iself is believed to have been sung by the women on the shore who watched their embarkation. Although every bit as stirring as Caoineadh UI Neill previously, this air is far more poignant. Here the mood is less of digified grief and more of fearful desperation; the keening of the women left behind is hauntingly evoked by the pipes; not only by the air itself but also in no small part by the imaginative and intelligent use of the regulators. It is a fitting close to a superb album from a superb piper.
Post-script to what, in my opinion, will be hailed as one of the landmark recordings of uilleann piping:
Reed-making is more of an art than a craft, and not everyone has the gift. It involves sections of cut Spanish cane, and 5/8" gouges, hemp, beeswax, fine glass paper, snipped copper sheeting, and even a half-pint Guinness bottle for suitable internal curvature, according to the great Dan Dowd, who generously brought these mysteries into the public domain for the benefit of the members of Na Piobairi Uilleann in its early years. He didn't mention the huge amounts of patience required, and the disheartening production failure rate that went with it, even for experts.
It's hard enough to get a reed which plays true on all notes in the chanter and adheres to normal tuning. When you have a good one you treasure it, cosset it, treat it like a delicate flower. You worry about playing it in places that are too hot, too cold, too humid - anywhere which might result in temporary or permanent damage. Most pipers can manage the running repairs needed to achieve an acceptable sound, but when the regulators enter the equation the problem is compounded exponentially. Getting the reed in the tenor in tune with the chanter is the first hurdle. Getting the baritone to match the chanter and the tenor increases the complexity. Like the Lottery, it's not too difficult to get one number correct - the trick is to get the second, third and fourth correct as well.
On this album the tuning of the reeds is faultless. Not only are they in tune, but they are perfectly balanced in tone and volume. They complement each other, ringing so sweetly that, as I said earlier, when I heard the first tracks I thought that Ronan was playing a flat set. These are often referred to as 'the singing pipes' and certainly in the old days they were preferred for the playing of slow airs, since somehow that extra depth delivered a mellower tone. Concert-pitch pipes were more strident; they needed to be to make themselves heard in sessions. It would be fair to say that during the late sixties and early seventies, in the resurgence of uilleann piping, the new enthusiasts focussed their attention more on the ceol beag - the jigs and reels - than on the ceol mor of the slow airs ('Old Man's Music', as I once heard it irreverently put by one young buck of the day). But as we progress through this vale of tears I guess we learn a bit here and a bit there, and in the end we acquire a greater maturity with which to recognise the true power and beauty of these ancient airs. I used to say, somewhat tongue in cheek, that nobody should be allowed to play slow airs until they reached the age of fifty. As a result of listening to Ronan, I shall in future keep my gob shut on that one.
Tom Walsh - 10.9.01
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