Few would dispute that the piping scene in Scotland has changed hugely since 20 years ago. In that time a significant swathe of pipers has emerged that have eschewed the world of competition entirely. Not because they’re not good enough – they most certainly are – but because the competition platform is not for them, indeed they see it as a “strait-jacket”. Performance is where the attraction lies.
Glasgow-based piper, John Mulhearn is an example of this. The 37-year-old is fast becoming one of the most innovative pipers of the modern era and today he releases his third solo album, The Pipe Factory. The recording follows on from his acclaimed Pipes which was shortlisted in the Album of the Year category at the 2017 MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards.
John is well known not just as a performer but as a composer and full-time teacher at the National Piping Centre. As if that wasn’t enough he is also studying for a Masters degree.
Born in Johannesburg and brought up in Ayrshire, John lives in the east end of Glasgow for the last few years. His new recording conveys a sense of place, emotionally connecting the listener to the area he calls home, with tunes like London Road, Greenhead Street, Hielan Jessie. Maggie McIver (the woman who founded the Barras, the famous market in Calton), Tongland (which acknowledges the area’s grim gang related history) and so on.
The Pipe Factory was recorded over two days at a disused clay pipe factory inside the Barras. Bagpipe.News enjoyed a preview of the recording and found it to be consistent with the direction taken by quite a few of today’s creative pipers, one that has jettisoned the, in John’s own words, “cultural baggage of a tradition that, in many eyes, is either wrapped up in a pseudo-military straight-jacket – with every aspect of Scottish kitsch on full display – or as self-parodying light entertainment.”
We hear ambient sounds, sounds that are field recordings recorded in the streets and pubs of the Calton area. Every musical sound comes from one set of highland pipes: synth sounds are in reality the drone sounds sampled, pitched down and manipulated, and percussive sounds are all taps and flicks of reeds, valves and drones, pitched and manipulated. John says: “No artificial reverb is used, reflecting the unique acoustics of the recording location. The paradox at the centre of the album is that the sound world that we hear could only have been created using electronic production techniques, yet the source of all of the sounds is purely organic.” We were conscious of the spirit of Martyn Bennett standing over John’s shoulder.
The Pipe Factory is available via Bandcamp for the next few weeks. For those who may not be familiar with Bandcamp, it is a music streaming company. Artists upload their recording to it and they control how they sell it as well as setting their own prices. The company was founded in California in 2008 and is now becoming Last November, Peter Gabriel added his complete solo catalog to Bandcamp. The company usually takes a 15% commission on sales but with the Covid-19 pandemic having impacted hugely on the ability of musicians to earn money, it has waived its commission fees for short periods.
A review will appear on BagpipeNews in due course.
• The Pipe Factory is available now via Bandcamp: