John Mulhearn is Head of Piping Studies on the BMus (Traditional Music – Piping) Degree run by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and delivered by The National Piping Centre, and his day is filled with admin, teaching and lecturing the students on the course.
He grew up as a solo piping competitor and was on the competition circuit till 2016 when he decided to take a break.
The enforced break we all had from normal life in 2020 and 2021 made John realise he wanted to get back to it, and he has been busy on the competitive scene in 2022 and 2023. His return to the solo boards has been successful with a win of the Strachan Cup for the A Grade MSR in London in 2022, and a second place in the piobaireachd at the 2023 Uist and Barra competition being two of the highlights.
But John’s musical tastes have always been much wider than the traditional Highland piping fare. His 2009 album, The Extraordinary Little Cough, first brought his musical vision to the piping public with the juxtaposition of traditional tunes and canntaireachd with rhythmic samples, beats and loops. Many of the tracks on the album painted strong cinematic pictures, and Allan MacDonald’s lush vocals singing The Desperate Battle of the Birds to close the album is still a classic track 14 years later.
Since that debut recording there have been two E.P.s and two full albums, all of which are available here from John on BandCamp.
The second album, Pipes, was released in 2018 and is John’s modern take on a classic piping album. It’s not only the tunes that were the focus for John when creating this album, but he wanted to faithfully capture the sound of the pipes and the environment where the recording was made. There is an interview below about the Pipes album, and the interviewer, Dr. Andrew Bova, does a great job of capturing the essence of the album’s atmosphere and music.
The Pipe Factory is John’s most recent album which will be recreated on stage at Celtic Connections 2024. This was released in April of 2020, only two months after lockdown, and John feels it went out into the aether and was missed by the piping public – while all of our attention was being taken up by watching Boris Johnston press conferences and worrying about facemasks and hand sanitiser.
So this concert is John’s opportunity to re-present the album to the Celtic Connection’s audience. All of the original recording was done by John himself in The Pipe Factory building which is in Glasgow’s Calton area. The building’s original use was for making clay pipes for smoking, but now has been restored as a creative hub, and it provided an atmospheric location for recording the Highland pipes.
For the Celtic Connections concert John is working with Alan Bryden who will provide the electronic instrumentation and Iain Sandilands the percussion. The challenge for the trio at Celtic Connections is how to best recreate the sonic environs of the building and the Calton, which had a big bearing on the original recording, into a live concert setting.
John Mulhearn could be viewed as a nodal point for the development of pipe music at this point in history. He carries the tradition as one of the top, young-ish, solo pipers on the competition boards, but also with a music making experience and vision going back at least to the Celtic Fusion Electronica genre.
The Pipe Factory honours the tradition by putting the sound and tunes of the Highland pipes front and centre, with the electronica and percussion underpinning the music. The coming together of all these elements takes the music to new places and spaces.
The concert is surely a must see for any piper wondering where the music can go, or any music lover looking to follow a path in the development of Scottish traditional music.
Depending on the vantage point
By DR. ANDREW BOVA.
Piping Today #92.
What happened to solo piping albums? It used to mark the success of great pipers, the release of a solo piping album featuring fine MSRs, hornpipes and jigs, and piobaireachd. Simple albums that didn’t have anything extra, just a solo piper playing tunes. We seem to have foregone these albums for pipe bands (although I’d make the argument that the pipe band album scene also suffers a shortage), traditional music ensembles, and avant-garde ‘solo’ piping featuring extra instruments. There’s nothing wrong with these types of albums, and they’re often great, but where are our World’s Greatest Pipers, Dan Reid Solo Competition, and Piping Live! Recital Series?
Enter John Mulhearn, and his new album, Pipes.
Pipes is, as its name suggests, a solo piping album. And it’s a simple piping album at heart. Good pipes, good playing, good tunes. It’s your grandpa’s piping album, assuming your grandpa wears Converse, drinks craft beer, and listens to Snarky Puppy. This album highlights the tonal quality of the pipes themselves, placing the sound of the instrument at the heart of the listening experience. One might argue that this is not a piping album, but rather an album about the pipes. To that end, when you listen to this album, please do your best to do so on high definition speakers, if at all possible. After that, feel free to listen on your phone or your computer, but for the full experience, you really do need something a little better than average. And when you do listen, you may be reminded of the past, taken back to when top pipers regularly released albums.
John explained: “People stopped making solo piping records, maybe about 10 years ago. Because it felt like they were a fairly regular occurrence with Lismore and KRL and these labels that used to regularly put out solo piping records, which my generation grew up with to an extent.
“I suppose that the problem that I always have listening back to lots of these things is that they’re all just on one level. They don’t really explore or fully embrace the sound of the instrument, for starters.
And therefore, you kind of end up with this one-level dynamic the whole way through, which unless you’re really really into it, it’s quite boring.”
So John went back to the drawing board to make a solo piping album that wasn’t just solo pipes at a single dynamic playing through classic piping repertoire. He wanted to make a solo piping album that was accessible, original, and, most importantly, made a solo Highland bagpipe accessible and something exciting to listen to on its own.
John said: “Part of the early genesis of the idea for it was Finlay MacDonald and I had been chatting about Pipe Major Angus MacDonald, in particular his Ceol Beag from the Castle album, and that was quite influential for me as a kid. The thing about Ceol Beag from the Castle was that there’s quite a raw recording of it in Edinburgh Castle so the way the pipes sound in the room is really captured. And that’s the thing with the pipes – it’s about filling the space. It’s such a loud instrument, it kind of fills every little nook and cranny in the space that it plays. And it sounds different in all the different spots around about the room as well.”
John found an intimate little church-turned-recording studio called St Mary’s Space. This venue is located in the woods up in Appin, between Oban and Fort William, and the quality of this place, much like Edinburgh Castle on Ceol Beag from the Castle, shines through on this album.
“The space was really, really important, I guess, from the original conception of the idea,” said John. “It was never a question of doing it in a conventional recording studio, so the space was going to be key to it. I wanted the listener to be able to visualise where it was made. That was the key to it, really.”
When you listen to the album, you can almost hear the church. There is no reverb or artificial delay, everything that you hear is the sound of the pipes reacting to the space in which they were recorded. But John took this idea one step further, waking up at 5am on the second day of recording and going for a walk in the wilderness around the church, recording the ambient sounds of the area. This ambient sound features prominently throughout the album, taking the listener beyond the walls of the church and into the wider area, giving the album an incredible sense of place.
Focusing on the sound of the pipes meant careful consideration had to be given to the recording technology used on this album. John used 11 microphones in the recording of Pipes, including a contact mic affixed to his pipe bag. These microphones, placed all around the church and his instrument, are mixed together to produce an incredible quality of sound that, when listened to on good speakers, make it seem like he’s sitting in the room with you, having a tune on his pipes.
Beyond the quality of recording, John shows off his ingenuity and talent for mixing, creating sounds and effects, but always staying true to the purity of the space and the pipes. John explained: “I didn’t use any artificial reverb or delays or anything. In fact, there’s no artificial effects or anything at all. But I’ve simulated a delay effect on a few spots in the album by using alternate takes and using microphones that were the least directly positioned to the pipes, and lying them beneath the main take, so you kind of have this slight thing going where it’s the same tune going but it’s not bang on in time.” Additionally, he gives the effect of listening to an old cassette tape on a couple of tracks by recording the track on to a physical tape recorder, then using that analog recording as the final product.
To create ambience, and the aforementioned change in dynamics, John took a 10-minute sample of his drones, ran them through a sampler, and used this sound to add harmonic layers to his recordings. Said John: “The drone thing, I guess that’s the most manipulated aspect of the record, or the most artificial if you like. Although it’s not, because it comes from the sound of the pipes from the recording session. It’s still tonally at home within that sound world. And it just felt right to do it. So it’s really just in a couple of places, using an extra octave below, covering one octave below the bass drone. And a couple of other places adding a fifth, and one or two other places just using very, very minimal bass lines.”
Special appreciation should be given here to co-producer Finlay MacDonald, who came along to the recording session as a second pair of ears, and who John thanks as being a great help in the inception and creation of this album.
With all the thought given to the space and recording techniques, equal thought had to be given to the pipes he used for this album. Pipers are frequently burdened by choice concerning their instruments, with synthetic bags; boxes and tubes therein; synthetic drone reeds of all make and size, designed to help with moisture and strike-ins; and all the other gizmos and gadgets available on the market today. There’s obviously scope for most of these things, but John went back to basics for this album, opting for a simple sheepskin and full cane set-up. He used drones made by his father, at Ayrshire Bagpipe Company, and modelled on the Henderson pipes played by Pipe Major Angus. To get a deeper, richer sound he used a Shepherd Orchestral chanter, pitched in B-flat, but for all you sound snobs out there, the pipes don’t sound flat at all. They are full, bright, and booming.
Rather than rehashing the classics, John has opted to use original compositions on this album, and there are some cracking tunes A personal favourite is The Squirrel Herder, written for National Piping Centre co-worker Wilson Brown, which I’ve folded into my own recital repertoire. If you ever catch John out and about, be sure to get the tale of this tune from him! John flexes his compositional muscles with marches, strathspeys, hornpipes and jigs, all expertly crafted and dripping with musical melodies. The album ends with a piobaireachd, again composed by John, entitled A Lament for Hope. John’s tunes are well constructed and melodic, and with any luck he’ll be releasing this repertoire in printed form.
John picked an ideal venue, nailed the recording, had a fantastic instrument, and brought all his own music to the party. But these things alone do not a great piping album make, and what good is it if these things aren’t brought together with technique and talent? In this respect, John delivers. He is a successful solo competitor, although retired, and a talented traditional musician. This shines through in his playing, which has all the precise technique and attention to detail that one expects of a competing piper, but also oozes with classy, jazzy musicality. It’s impressive piping that gets the foot tapping and creates a total package that will leave none wanting.
As fantastic as Pipes is, it’s only a small piece of John’s current musical portfolio, and there are plenty of opportunities to hear him live in the coming weeks. John is a founding member of The Big Music Society, which aims to create new performance contexts for piobaireachd, making it accessible to a wider audience. As a part of this, the Big Music Society recently staged a contemporary retelling of the story of A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick, collaborating with storyteller David Francis from Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland. Dave brought the story into the present day and provided music support, drawing inspiration from both the tale and the tune. This performance is being restaged during Piping Live! Additionally, John is collaborating with storyteller Martin MacIntyre to present The Lost Pibroch, a story by Neil Munro, famous for the Para Handy Stories. This will occur in October as a part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. These two projects demonstrate John’s desire to bring piobaireachd to a wider audience.
Paying homage to those who came before, The Big Music Society will be performing at the Blas festival in Stornoway and Ullapool in September. These shows will be a celebration of Donald MacLeod’s music, entitled Crossing The Minch. John will also be playing with the Grit Orchestra when they perform Martyn Bennett’s Bothy Culture at the Edinburgh International Festival in August, and there are plans in the works to record an album with the piping ensemble Tryst, as well as Finlay MacDonald.
Pipes will keep you plenty occupied before and between these opportunities to hear John live. This album is straightforward on the surface, a solo piping album for a new era. But there is thought, care and attention to detail that separates this album from any other I’ve heard. Good pipes, good playing, good tunes. Pipes is a simple thing done well.