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The piping flute playing style

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    It is generally acknowledged that much of Matt Molloy's approach to playing dance music on the flute is borrowed and adapted from uilleann piping. A listen to Molloy playing alongside a piper, Liam O'Flynn (on 'The Fire Aflame', but also with Planxty) or Paddy Keenan (on 'The Bothy Band' recordings) for example, illustrates the striking similarity, even though the pipers could be said to have different piping styles (but that's another matter). A listen to Michael McGoldrick's flute playing double-tracked with his own piping is another good example.

Matt Molloy's rhythm is very subtle and allows for an unhindered use of decoration — slides, cuts, triplets, short and long rolls abound. There is also reason to believe he may have been the first to popularise cranning on the flute, a kind of punchy roll on bottom D and E, which is a standard, but tricky, decorative technique amongst pipers. Years ago a friend who was an accomplished whistle-player took a Molloy record and played it at 16 rpm on an old turntable in order to listen more closely; he reported back with despair that Molloy appeared to do something to each and every note!

Piping has its own traditions and complexities and I don't wish to explore them here. From a flute player's perspective however, pipers do not add emphasis to tunes in the way that flute players, fiddlers, box and banjo players can i.e. by varying the volume. Consequently, many pipers play very evenly with no rhythmic emphasis beyond the use of accompanying regulators. An alternative is adding a slight dotted rhythm, emphasising notes on the beat by holding them for a fraction longer than might be expected and shortening the following note.

While Molloy plays with piping decoration, he also plays very evenly, with a very subtle use of rhythm: it is noticeable that he chooses to emphasise the start or key parts of a phrase rather than a constant foot-tapping dancer's rhythm. The emphasis can take on many forms: variation in volume, strong decoration or holding a note, sometimes bending it (see below), for a part of a phrase would be the most common approach. Flute players who delight in speed tend to adopt this model for rhythm in order to help emphasise interesting parts of the tune.

Interestingly, there are some exceptions to these observations on Molloy's playing. 'Live at Matt Molloy's' features Molloy in a near-session environment playing with a more dance-like rhythm, perhaps because he is choosing to fit in with the other, more rhythmic flute players he is playing with. His recording of 'Paddy Rafferty's Favourite' on 'Shadows on Stone' with lilter Paddy Rafferty sees him employing a steady rhythmic pulse in his playing in order to match that of the lilting. I have also heard a recording of Frankie Kennedy in a session choosing to play at a more moderate pace and with more rhythm than when playing with Altan.

Blue notes

As well as speed and dexterity, Molloy's playing also features "blue" notes (for want of a better expression) -- that is, note-bending or changing the colour or tone of a note. As I understand it, Molloy was the first player to adapt this technique to playing dance music, but as bands play ever faster and some of the subtleties of the melody and rhythm become less prominant, flute players have found the use of "blue" notes very suitable for their needs. This was a strong feature of Frankie Kennedy's playing with Altan, helping create the atmosphere for which they are well known.

The playing of blue notes originally borrows from the singing and slow air traditions, although not exclusively, and generally involves holding the note a little longer than usual and flattening it by a quarter tone or semitone. To a certain degree this feature can be seen in uilleann piping, particularly in smearing or sliding into notes from below. Older fiddlers have used a similar technique, usually to slightly sharpen a note and lift a passage rather than to hold and flatten it for a more mournful effect. See the analysis of Paddy Canny's use of a 'mobile' C by Bernie Stocks on his fiddle page for more information on this.

A good example, but by no means the only one, of a flute player employing this technique is Molloy's recording of 'Jenny's Chickens' on 'Heathery Breeze', where he introduces a flattened B into a Bm/F#m reel to unexpected and startling effect.

There are different ways of doing this: the ones which offer the most control are by altering the shape of the cavity of the mouth and the back of the throat with the tongue and also by adjusting the air speed and direction. Other ways include rolling the flute in, sliding down into a half covered position below with the fingers, using the keys, altering the shape of the embouchure (the shape of the lips). These can all be used in conjunction with other techniques to great effect.

The relative ease with which notes can be bent on the flute is both a boon and a burden. The adjustments required to alter the note are so tiny that the beginner can find aspects of these methods hampering good pitch and tone as a matter of course. A fair degree of control is required and, as with other decorative techniques, employment is a matter of taste.

Recent developments

A recent development within traditional flute playing is to extend the feature of blue note playing and marry it with the jazz idiom. Brian Finnegan and Michael McGoldrick with Sarah Allen (Boehm system) in Flook!, Niall Keegan and Garry Shannon are some who are the forefront of this style. This mirrors what is happening elsewhere in Irish and Scottish traditional music (e.g. Niall Vallely and Simon Thoumire, anglo and english concertina respectively) and a general interest in other flute playing traditions, such as some of the Breton flute playing of Jean-Michel Veillon.

The bedrock for this would appear to be the piping style, with its scope for speed and fluidity and essentially melodic approach. Use of keys for dramatic chromatic runs and shifts, vocalising and chopping up time signatures are common features. The exponants of this development are undoubtedly gifted and knowlegable musicians, but in essence this can really only remain a solo or performance-related style since it depends upon accompanying musicians being aware of arrangements or directions of improvisation, much as jazz does.

Music sample

Miss McGuinness (AIFF 216k | MP3 160k 20 seconds of music) This reel can be heard on Matt Molloy's 'Stony Steps'; a more rhythmic or Sligo-type rendition can be heard on Cónal O Gráda's 'The Top of Coom'.

Flute players who play in this style include:

    Kevin Crawford
    Seamus Egan
    Niall Keegan
    Frankie Kennedy
    Michael McGoldrick
    Matt Molloy
    Garry Shannon

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Bill Fry
Bill Fry (York).

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