After the Pipes

Don’t forget, but look at the piper, for there’s something loving in the way he cradles the music in his arms.  In much the same way as you would hold on to a baby.  He holds lightly to what I would cling to, and in the space where holder and held meets is made something new and sweet.  He sits on the edge, with one foot grounded.  The other, though, is struck out behind him; he is like one caught in the motion of getting up, in that moment between staying and leaving.  His eyes are closed. 

He cranes his neck, sometimes forward, sometimes backwards, like a waterbird, drinking.  His eyes are closed, and his face reflects the light and shadows of what he plays and what he feels like ripples over water.  He is oak-sturdy, set like ogham stone, but the dome of his shoulders arcs over the pipes.  His strong arms, held out like the white wings of a bird, are a vault, enveloping the air and the breathing music; covering the world he holds, like some other Atlas carrying a world of glass at his breast, and willingly. 

These pipes, they don’t need the man’s own breath, unlike other pipes.  They don’t need his voice, but they need to be song-harnessed to him.  Bound at waist and at elbow, one is driver, one is driven; one is captor, one is captive.  The word, Uilleann, itself, being the gaelic for elbow, tells us how the piper gives the pipes their song.  The one elbow drives the bellow, as might one fan a flame to a breath of fire.  It is this bellow that is strapped to the man, buckled once above the elbow, and another strap clinging to the waist.  Breathing for the pipes with his very body, the piper draws air in and drives it from the bellows through to the bag, as from heart to lungs.  This bag is not strapped, but held at the other elbow; held in a constant embrace by the piper.  How constantly he presses it to him will determine how true the note is.  This constant embrace is the song of the pipes. 

And when it does speak, it’s voice is all reed-warbling to me.  The timbre is wood, and tobacco, and mist rising from peat and turf.  The higher tones are crystal water dripping, and when the notes are changed, there is a break like a voice might crack.  

To me, the parlance of the pipes is a water bird calling, and falling, and landing as a downy weight in my arms, as I wade through murky waters of memories.  Some of these memories I know to be mine; like when I stood by the Moy in the heather and steel colours of evening, and watched the rain shatter the river.  Others are memories I am less clear about; perhaps I made shadows into Odysseus or Cù Chulainn?  This water bird, this albatross in my arms, implores that I should know and understand, but the tighter I hold it, the more I strain to hear, the more I feel how I cannot hold it; how intangible this language and discourse is; how there is a part of me missing.  And despite the weight of it, this reed-warbling bird, always poised for the leaving, starts and flies from me. 

He gave me a set of pipes once.  I cut my finger on the hardness of them, and let blood run, unstemmed, into the wood and reed.  And so is it blood gives the plaintive pipe’s their cradling hold and piper’s grip?  Do you hear the Kyrie in the tamed píob-mhór?  I believe there to be some kind of grace of holding dormant song, waiting to rise, like a pieta draped in my arms.  It never lets me go.  I am harnessed to it; it holds me around my middle.  I believe there to be some string attached to this weighty water bird in my arms, such that even when it sings and flies from me, it cannot leave me entirely, but lifts me from these murky waters, on a purple evening by the Moy, to a string of stars flung heavenward.  Don’t forget, but look at the piper.  There is something loving in the way he holds on.    

The music in the background is Taimse Im Chodladh, which is Gaelic for “I am sleeping”. Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker and John Doyle. from the Album “The Reed That Bends in the Storm”; Label: Under One Sky Records, released 20 April 2020. McGoldrick is on the pipes I implore you – if you ever have the chance, go and watch these artists play, and in the interim, go and find their music and listen and listen and listen. Listen in the same way he made me listen – pull the car over to a safe and quiet spot, and wait for the song to finish before driving off again.

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