Piper John Mulhearn creates a new kind of factory record

Robert Garioch, a too often under-appreciated figure in the Scots literary revival of the mid-20th century, is best known for his pawkily subversive poems such as “Embro to the Ploy,” but he was also a perceptive observer of the human condition – and he appreciated good piping. In “The Big Music” he evokes, marvellously, the unique sonic world of the great Highland bagpipe… “the big rowtan pipe itsel, that can mak its ain conditions, / as the blaw-torch brenns under water in its ain oxygen-bell / sae the piper blaws his ain warld.”
John Mulhearn recorded his new album in the Pipe Factory, close to his home in GlasgowJohn Mulhearn recorded his new album in the Pipe Factory, close to his home in Glasgow
John Mulhearn recorded his new album in the Pipe Factory, close to his home in Glasgow

Garioch’s lines come to mind listening to the latest album by piper John Mulhearn, The Pipe Factory. Mulhearn, 36, is a player who has been exploring the nature and possibilities of his instrument: reviewing his last album, Pipes, I was prompted to describe it as “an almost forensic examination of the instrument’s sonic character” for the way the recording dwelled on drones and harmonics as much as the chanter melody. In The Pipe Factory, Mulhearn has gone further in manipulating the raw material of his piping, recording in what was indeed William White & Son’s pipe (of the clay, smokeable sort) factory, an ornately Italianate brick building dating back to the 1870s off Glasgow’s Gallowgate, now only partly occupied by studios and gallery spaces.

“After the last album, recorded in Argyll, I was looking to do something a bit nearer to home,” says Mulhearn, who lives just beside Glasgow Green, five minutes’ walk from the building, “not for convenience but more from an artistic point of view, wanting to explore the sound world around me.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

His wife, Kelly, suggested the Pipe Factory, having visited exhibitions there, and Mulhearn became intrigued: “It’s a listed building, an interesting place and where it sits in the Calton area, just behind the Barras, is one of the oldest parts of Glasgow, with a long history going back to the early Industrial Revolution. Over the last 150 to 200 years, I guess it’s become not the most salubrious part of the city. I wanted to put myself in a place just on my doorstep and explore the sound world round there.”

Accordingly, aiming to capture both sound and place, he and producer Andrea Gobbi mic’d up a floor of the Victorian factory extensively: “We had mics all over the shop – on the floors, above and below us, contact microphones on the windows and out on the little balcony.”

What Mulhearn acknowledges as “a paradox at the centre of the album” is that it “could only have been created using electronic production techniques, yet the source of all of the sounds is purely organic.”

Pipe tunes cut crisply through the spacious acoustic, sampled drones growling like synths or guitar distortion. Voices echo indistinctly – Barras banter or old, bickering ghosts of the workplace? – while a fire engine’s siren swoops through one track, adding to the sonic mayhem before fading, to allow a pipe march to continue pacing its stately way.

Now that the album is out on a downloadable or stream-only basis (although he may put it on vinyl if sales look promising), Mulhearn doesn’t think he can take this total-acoustic-immersion approach much further. Also, The Pipe Factory defies live performance, at least not without levels of electronic equipment which he wouldn’t relish having on stage.

He won’t be idle, however. He teaches full time at the National Piping Centre and is still doing his performance Masters, frustratingly, at a time when Covid-19 has eliminated all live performance. He is also co-founder, with fellow-piper Calum MacCrimmon, of the ongoing Big Music Society, which creates adventurous new platforms and arrangements for piobaireachd or Ceòl Mòr – “the big music” – and is a member of the ten-strong piping collective The Tryst, all activities which are helping push the envelope in Highland piping. Thus the piper “blaws his ain warld” in more ways than one.

The Pipe Factory can be streamed or downloaded from www.johnmulhearn.com and from Bandcamp

A message from the Editor:

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.

Joy Yates, Editorial Director

Related topics: