Updated: Nov 8, 2018
The Walt Disney Concert Hall Organ The Blind Piper
made by Rosales/Glatter-Götz, 2004 by Joseph Patrick Haverty, 1844
Los Angeles, CA National Gallery of Ireland
By Edmond Johnson
On October 7, 2018, organist Renée Anne Louprette performed a recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. She was joined for several works by Ivan Goff, a Dublin-born musician who performed on both the uilleann pipes and Irish flute. Though an unusual combination, the sound of traditional Irish instruments proved to be a surprisingly suitable counterpart to the concert hall’s famous 109-rank Rosales/Glatter-Götz pipe organ.
Louprette and Goff began their collaboration in 2017, and gave their public debut in a January 2018 concert at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Manhattan. Their Los Angeles performance featured Louprette alone on several virtuosic works for organ—including Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541, and Duruflé’s Suite for Organ—interspersed with arrangements of traditional Irish songs, in which Louprette was joined on stage by Goff playing the uilleann pipes. The recital also featured the world premiere of a new work by Eve Beglarian for organ, Irish flute, and uilleann pipes entitled “Were You at the Rock?”
Compared with the better-known Scottish highland pipes, the uilleann pipes have a more delicate timbre, as well as a larger pitch range. Another key difference is the presence of a small set of bellows that the player pumps to fill the bag, rather than the use of a blowpipe as found on the highland pipes. The different component of the instrument can be seen in the video below:
The history of the uilleann pipes goes back to at least the middle of the 18th century. There is some debate about the instrument’s origins, with some scholars suggesting that it may have roots in Scotland or northern England as an off-shoot of a similar instrument called the pastoral pipes. In any case, it has long been associated with Irish musical culture, and it is in that country that the instrument was fully developed.
The instrument’s name has its own peculiar history. Until the 20th century, it was universally known as the “union pipes.” The term “uilleann” (occasionally spelled “uillean”) seems to have been coined by Irish author and musicology William Henry Grattan Flood (1857-1928). In his History of Irish Music (1905), Grattan Flood argued that “union” was in fact an Anglicization of the Irish word “uilleann,” the genitive singular of uille, meaning elbow—presumably a reference to use of the player’s elbow to operate the feeder bellows. Modern scholars have been unable to find any usage of “uilleann” to refer to the instrument prior to the 20th century, and the name appears to be entirely of Grattan Flood’s invention. Nevertheless, the new moniker quickly grew in popularity—no doubt propelled by the fervent Irish nationalism of the period—and is now accepted as the standard name for the instrument.
While the uilleann pipes are rarely encountered in the classical concert hall, the instrument’s distinctive sounds have been prominently featured on the soundtracks of several movies, including Braveheart (1995). In a 2015 interview with Scotland’s Daily Record, Eric Rigler, who played the pipes for the film, explained the logic behind choosing an Irish instrument to be one of the defining sounds for a film about Scottish History: “James Horner, the composer, said he knew exactly what he was doing and that he wanted the uilleann pipes because they fitted into an orchestra better than the Scottish pipes. They’re not so loud and commanding, and have a greater range of notes. He said he wanted the pipes to be the voice of William Wallace integrated into themes he was writing, rather than the limitations of Highland pipes.”
Back at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the expressive possibilities of the uilleann pipes were on full display as Goff performed elaborately ornamented melodies, sensitively accompanied by Louprette on the organ. Despite the obvious differences between the two instruments, they are surprisingly similar in the ways in which they produce sound. Indeed, the underlying mechanism of the uillean pipes—an enclosed reed that is caused to vibrate by pressurized air—is closely related to the sounding mechanism of an organ’s reed pipes.
Where the two instruments differ considerably, however, is in the ways in which the performers can control and shape their sounds. Seated at the Disney Hall organ console, Louprette relied upon the vast array of draw knobs, strategically adding and subtracting stops to vary the instrument’s timbre and volume. Goff, on the other hand, relied on skillful motion of his fingers over the chanter’s open tone holes to alter both pitch and tone with great nuance and fluidity.
The result was an entrancing sonic blend. At times the uillean pipes would combine into the organ’s ensemble, with a reedy tone not so different from that of a cromorne. But then Goff would slide between pitches or add a subtle microtonal ornament, effects impossible on the larger instrument. Though the two instruments each have their own distinct musical traditions and cultures, in the capable hands of Louprette and Goff the pairing seemed completely natural and almost inevitable.
See Louprette and Goff perform in New York:
Want to know more?
*William H. Grattan Flood. A History of Irish Music. Dublin: Browne and Nolin Limited, 1905.
*Paul Roberts. "Unraveling the History of the Uilleann Pipes." Common Stock: The Journal of the Lowland and Border Pipers' Society 1, no. 4 (Nov. 1984) : 11-16.
*Hugh Cheape. "The Pastoral or New Bagpipe: Piping and the New-Baroque." The Galpin Society Journal 61 (April 2008): 285-304.
* William A Cocks, Anthony C. Baines, and Roderick D. Cannon. "Bagpipe." Grove Music Online.
Dr. Edmond Johnson is the Director of Academic Advising and Coordinator of the Core Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, where he also serves as an adjunct assistant professor of music history. He is a member of the Board of Governors of the American Musical Instrument Society and recipient of the Society's 2015 Frances Densmore Prize.