Ballet Fantastique is so excited to have Eliot Grasso, widely considered to be among the greatest living players of traditional Irish music, providing live musical accompaniment for our upcoming show: Dragon & the Night Queen: Celtic Stories! Eliot will play several instruments unique to Ireland in the show, including the Uilleann pipe.
The Uilleann pipe, pronounced “illin,” is the earliest type of bagpipe from Ireland. The origination of the name is from the Irish word for elbow. This is a rather fitting name, as the uilleann pipes are not like the traditional Scottish bagpipes. The traditional Scottish bagpipe that many of us have seen differs from the Irish version in that the Scottish pipes are blown into with the mouth. There is a larger sack, or “hide bag,” that is slung over the shoulder and has a blowpipe protruding from the top, and a pipe, or “chanter,” on the underside of the hide sack. One would blow into the blowpipe and fill up the sac, and as the air escapes, simultaneously play the pipe to alter the sound, much like a clarinet. This video gives a good demonstration on the basics of a Scottish bagpipe. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgbTh1BCciA. On the other hand, the Uilleann pipes are played sitting down and the elbows and fingers are the main navigators as opposed to the mouth. The right elbow is placed on the “bellow”, the sack that gathers air, and then the left elbow is placed above the “bag,” which then feeds that air to the pipe. The pipe, or chanter, has holes which can be covered and uncovered to create a sound, much like a recorder or flute. This is a video showing the intricate methods of playing this pipe, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fl0OObBWCe8.
There is much speculation of the origin of bagpipes. However, there is convincing evidence proving that the area of origination is the Middle East, specifically Turkey (dating back to 10,000 BC!). The bagpipes were played all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean by artists, emperors, and scholars alike. This versatile wind instrument eventually made its way over to the British Isles during the Roman rule. Once the bagpipes were brought over to these parts, the Irish did not have a positive initial reaction, taking them a few decades to warm up to this new instrument; the earliest recorded use was around 1206. Around the late 1500s is when the Irish decided to customize the pipes and diverged away from the traditional bagpipe that we know of today, thus the Uilleann pipes were born. The Irish pipes were played for multiple occasions, mainly for religious or social events. Many armies across countries use the bagpipes as their official instruments to supplement their ceremonies, which could have been influenced by the ancient Celtic peoples. The Celts would use their bagpipes during times of war to help muster up courage and strength in their troops, while instilling fear in their enemies. Around the mid-20th century, the United States picked up on this and ever since the bagpipes have been present in many military related events.