Uilleann Piper Dirk Mewes, Making Irish Traditional Pipes in the Rocky Mountains
Dirk Mewes has been playing the Irish uilleann pipes for 18 years. In 2006, he began building a workshop at his home, and learning to make the instruments from some of the top uilleann pipe makers in the world. In 2010, he began to sell uilleann pipes of his own making, and this March he decided to go full-time making and performing on the uilleann pipes. He teaches piping lessons from his workshop, and teaches pipe players in the art of reed-making at various music festivals throughout the year. He lives in Berthoud Colorado, and he can be reached through his website at dirkmewes.com, Instagram, or Facebook. Dirk recently answered some questions from the Celtic Connection in Denver.
CC: What/who inspired you to play the pipes – musical heroes? Instructors?
DM: The music background is important to me, and I have many heroes. It takes a village! I grew up playing clarinet in school, and my parents exposed me to a huge world of music, which included classical, Jazz, Irish traditional, bluegrass, and lots of popular music of several time periods and genres. I spent a lot of time listening to Irish pipers, especially the Chieftains, with uilleann pipe player Paddy Moloney, and I also loved the traditional Irish and Scottish music from the band, Silly Wizard. When in college, the uilleann pipes were being used in popular music, and I was really drawn-in by Liam O’Flynn’s beautiful piping on Kate Bush’s album, “The Hounds of Love.” He was featured in a song called “Jig of Life,” which has a lot of the traditional sound in it.
Also in college, I started really getting into jazz, and I later learned to play the baritone and tenor saxophones, with the Colorado Jazz Workshop, and playing gigs with a quartet or quintet in coffee shops and wine bars around Boulder and Denver. I love the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and Branford and Wynton Marsalis. My saxophone teacher Fred Hess taught me a lot.
When I started playing pipes, there were many new heroes and instructors, from pipemaker Kirk Lynch, who made my first set, to all the pipers who came through the Boulder area and taught workshops. Many of the visiting pipers were hosted for house concerts and workshops by Anne-Marie and James Kennedy. I was a huge fan of the Irish band Siucra, with Matt and Shannon Heaton, and Beth Gadbaw. When they were on stage, Shannon would invite people from the audience to their Irish tune-learning. Later, when learning to make pipes, I would visit with pipemaker Tim Britton for a week at a time, and took classes in Ireland from the master pipemakers David Quinn, and Bill Haneman. I would visit Cillian O’Briain in his workshop in Dingle, Ireland to learn reed making. There would be music festivals around the country, where I could get instruction from great pipers, like Cillian Vallely from “Lunasa,” Mick O’Brien, Jerry O’Sullivan, Paddy Keenan of the “Bothy Band,” and many others.
CC: Recently you were the guest soloist to perform the Brendan Voyage ,Shaun Davey’s major orchestral suite, composed for uilleann pipes. Tell our reader just a little about the suite and your general experience?
DM: The Brendan Voyage was perhaps the first suite to feature the uilleann pipes in concert with a full symphony orchestra, and it is still a very popular piece both in Ireland and around the world. Mr. Davey wrote the suite to commemorate the incredible death-defying journey that Tim Severin and his crew of adventurers took sailing across the North Atlantic ocean from Ireland to America in ancient kind of sailboat with merely a leather-skin hull. They did it to prove that it is feasible that the ancient Irish monk St. Brendan could have made the same journey in his leather boat, nine-hundred years before Columbus.
Shaun Davey is a living composer, so he still enjoys conducting performances in Ireland. Remember Liam O’Flynn, who played uilleann pipes on Kate Bush’s album? Well, he turned out to be a real musical hero to me. He was the solo piper who first performed with Shaun Davey’s orchestra, even performing the Brendan Voyage for the president of Ireland, and being nationally broadcast.
I was honored to perform with the Denver Philharmonic as the uilleann pipes soloist for the performance of “Brendan Voyage” this March. It was a daunting task for me to learn this music, but I was fortunate to have had seven months to prepare for it. I love this piece, and I’m a great admirer of Liam O’Flynn, so I accepted the task. Maybe Liam might have done it, but he had been ill for some time. Conductor Lawrence Golan had originally invited several other uilleann pipers from Ireland and the US to be their guest soloist, but none of them would accept. You see, when you have a set of these pipes that is not acclimated to Colorado, the instrument can behave badly in this thin, dry air. The instrument might even require repair upon returning to its home. When the piece is as technically difficult as this one, the climate difference becomes a non-starter, a show-stopper. Since I make my pipes here in Colorado, they work well here, so Lawrence found me, and I was thrilled to do it. Our performance went very well in Denver on March 2. It was a dream come true for me. Sadly, our hero Liam O’Flynn passed-away in Ireland only a week or so after our performance. Mr. O’Flynn’s death was a devastating loss to all of us uilleann piping fans in Ireland and the world over.
CC: What do folks say when you tell them that you live in Colorado and are a full time uilleann pipe maker?
DM: Hah! There are all kinds of responses! Many people are curious about what kinds of tools I use to make them. It requires a lot of wood boring, turning on the lathe, carving cane reeds, metal work for the keys, and leather work for bags and bellows. I once told a man from the Irish County Clare that I played uilleann pipes at the depot at the Cheyenne Celtic Festival. He said with a very mystified looking face, “So were you really out there at the depot, playing Irish music on the pipes, for a crowd of cowboys and Indians?” I also get a lot of very encouraging responses. The best response is from people who always wanted to learn this instrument, but couldn’t see a way to get into it, but now I can help them! There were good people who helped me get started, and now it’s time to hand it on.
CC: Are there a lot of people who play the pipes in Colorado or in our Rocky Mountain Region?
DM: I wouldn’t say there are a lot of people who even are aware of this very rare instrument, still. There are maybe only a handful of people living in Colorado who play the instrument in public, and maybe a dozen or two people who are students learning to play the instrument. However, I am always encountering more people in Colorado and other nearby Western states who have an interest in learning to play them. When we have workshops and gatherings of uilleann pipers in Colorado, we typically have as many as ten in attendance.
CC: Where do you get your clients?
DM: So far, most of my clients have been people from Colorado and New Mexico who want help getting started playing uilleann pipes. Many of them want help with reeds that are made to play well here. While working my full time job before as an engineer, the local business kept me more than busy, and I worked lots of late hours in the shop trying to keep up on those orders. Now, I’m full-time making uilleann pipes, so suddenly I find myself marketing to a larger world, using the web and social media. Still, most of the people who buy my pipes are people who talk to me at performances, or music festivals around the country, or who come recommended by word of mouth. It’s a real niche profession.
CC: What are the challenges of playing and making pipes in our high altitude and arid climate?
DM: The main problem with this instrument in Colorado is that the reeds made in other climates often don’t travel here very well. The dry air can cause the cane reeds to dry-out and close-up, rendering them much more difficult, or even impossible to play. The opposite problem can occur when the pipes to return to their home environment. The remedy is for the player to learn how to make reeds. What I found is that the reeds for the pipes can be made using the same technique anywhere, and they can be made to play well here. After a few years, it became apparent that some styles of reeds will travel better than others. Cillian O’Briain in particular made a cane reed in his shop in Dingle Ireland that would play pretty well, even in Vail Colorado. So, I ended-up learning his method of reed-making. Many pipemakers these days are using woods like spruce, which tend to be more environmentally stable than cane, and I have been working with that, too. Now I can make reeds that play well here, and they travel pretty well to places like New Orleans, too.
The other problem is that Colorado is a piping outpost, and we didn’t have many players with much uilleann piping experience here when I started. Fortunately, we had visiting pipers who had good instruments, and who were able to demonstrate how the instrument and good reeds should sound. The reeds would generally last a couple of days before starting to develop problems. These days, it seems there are more pipers travelling through Colorado, and generally doing better with their reeds than the pipers who used to come here twenty years ago.
To learn pipemaking, that was another story. The only thing for me to do was to travel to remote places and spend time with master pipemakers in their shops. Though the internet is a great resource, much of the quality of the material published was suspect. Even so, the ability to consult quickly with experts over the internet has been a great benefit. These days, the general availability of quality information on the internet about the uilleann pipes is improving.
CC: Have you/or what advice would you give pipers coming to our area to teach/perform?
DM: First of all, we absolutely love to have visiting pipers. Many of the aspiring pipers out here don’t have the resources to travel to remote festivals to hear the pipes, and it’s very good for a student to get as much exposure to a variety of master players as possible. Don’t be too much of a perfectionist, and don’t worry excessively about your pipes and reeds. They won’t be perfect, but we are hungry listeners, and don’t mind a few squeaks and such.
Colorado has developed a terrible reputation among travelling pipers for our climate being harsh on the uilleann pipes. Some people who have come here have been so despondent that they have vowed never to return. However, we have seen many visiting pipers in recent years. Several uilleann pipers travel a lot, and they seem to have far fewer problems playing in Colorado than some others have reported. It seems that those who know how to make reeds generally do best.
That being said, if you want to avoid any heartache as a piper performing in Colorado, then do your homework. Learn to make reeds, and learn everything you can about how to efficiently tune and maintain your instrument. Professional oboe players are expected to know how to make reeds, and it’s now getting to the point where the modern uilleann piper is too.
CC: You will teach and perform at the Piping Retreat at Spanish Peaks International Celtic Music Fest in Colorado September 20-23. Tell us a little about the event.
DM: Yes, I’ll teach another reed-making workshop there this year, and enjoy some playing, as well! This festival is becoming one of my favorite events every year. The community in La Veta is extremely supportive, and they love getting some of the top musicians out to ranch country to share with music concerts and workshops for aspiring musicians. They bring in some of the best talent from these Celtic genres, with Irish bands like Altan, the amazing Carlos Nunez, and legends like Paddy Keenan and Kevin Burke.
In recent years, the festival has invited a guest uilleann piper to teach at the piper’s retreat. This year, the retreat is hosting Joey Abarta, a very accomplished American uilleann piper and teacher. As many know the uilleann pipes are a special kind of bagpipe, which allows the player to play accompaniment to the melody using the drones and the keyed-regulators. The regulators can be used like the left hand of a piano. In addition to his virtuosso chanter playing, Joey happens to be a real master of regulator playing, and I look forward to all of us learning a great many things from him!
CC: Why it is so important to support the folk traditions?
DM: I’m thinking of the quote that was attributed by some to Winston Churchill when asked whether funding to the arts should be cut during the World War II, and he supposedly said, “Then, what are we fighting for?” Unfortunately, in this age of fake news, it turns out that this quote was totally bogus. Maybe he said nothing of the sort during war time. Did Britain continue funding for the arts during that poor time? Nevertheless, it’s something that I wish to be true. Folk traditions are the backbone of all our traditions of dance and music. We have been living with music since prehistoric times, from before the time of the Egyptians. All of the original instruments emerged from this same fog, and all of the dance moves had to be learned from somebody. Classical music and modern popular music rely on the folk traditions.
Music is part of life, and many of us are willing to value that kind of life over having material wealth. I suppose that without more public support, the traditions will live on, because it comes from the heart, and is a basic part of our humanity. However, when you support this kind of life, there ends up being less of a struggle for the artists. If you support it, there’s a lot more of the good music, and it gives back to you in spades, and you will find that every aspect of life will be the better for it.
(editor’s note: See Dirk and other great traditional performers/teachers at Spanish Peaks Celtic Fest September 20-23 www.celticmusicfest.com. To learn more about Dirk and uilleann pipes go to www dirkmewes.com)