The Familiar Fused with the Unfamiliar: An Interview with Samara Musician Ivan Goff

Ivan Goff is a musician from Dublin, Ireland. He plays the uilleann pipes, Irish wooden concert flute, and pennywhistles and is currently a member of Irish traditional band Danú. Over the years he has performed worldwide in duets and ensembles with many household names of Irish music including Iarla Ó Lionáird, Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh, Martin Hayes, Cormac Breatnach, Eileen Ivers Band, Dervish, and Lúnasa. With credits that range from film and theater to appearances with the New York Philharmonic, and with collaborations that cross genres with new music, electroacoustic, and jazz, Ivan’s music has also featured in several well-known productions such as Riverdance and Sting’s The Last Ship on Broadway. Ivan recently finished his PhD at NYU. His dissertation, Aurality and the Image: Irish Perspectives on Listening and Non-Listening in the Twentieth Century, examines interrelationships between the aural, audiovisual, visual, and textual, across several sites of Irish art and popular culture in the twentieth century: from silent and sound film, to stage and radio theater, Irish traditional vocal and instrumental music, photography, and literature. Ivan is playing the uilleann pipes along with the low whistle for Samara. Uilleann (Irish word for elbow) pipes are the national pipes of Ireland. Developed in the mid 18th century, this instrument is played by pushing air into a bag using the elbow, as opposed to the mouth-blown Scottish highland bagpipes, for example. Ivan took the time to speak about his process on Samara with our Literary Intern, Anna Woodruff.

What first got you interested in uilleann pipes? Is that the first instrument you learned to play?

IG: I started when I was about 8 years old on the tin whistle, or what people over here call the pennywhistle. It’s a starter instrument in Irish music. Typically, with kids learning music they graduate on to another instrument when they are a little older. So, I guess when I was 9 or 10 years old, I tried the pipes. A neighbor of ours had a starter set for the uilleann pipes and I tried them but my fingers were too small so I had to wait another year. Not many people played the pipes at that time, in the early eighties. So, after a few months grappling with them, my parents decided to take me to classes and began to learn from there.

Can you talk a bit about your collaboration with Steve Earle, the composer on Samara? How do you two create music together?

IG: Well we met last year in person on this project called The People Speak. He happened to be doing a slot, and I happened to be doing a slot. We got to talking backstage; I always had an interest in theatre and he said “I have this project, are you interested?” and I said yes. He gave me a call before they had the music workshop last August for Samara and I happened to be in town. So, I spent a week with Steve, Sarah [Benson, Director of the play and Artistic Director of Soho Rep.], and Rich [Maxwell, playwright]. Steve had the musical ideas and it was just a question of me trying to fit them for the pipes, trying to find what fit the piece. It was pretty straightforward, Steve was working on the keyboard with some melodic ideas, and I would play it back to him to see how it felt to him. It was kind of a back and forth like that, what would work on the pipes, what would work for him and the melodies, what worked for the piece overall.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

When you first read the play, how did you figure your music would fit in? Or did your ideas spark more from conversations with Steve?

IG: It was more about working with Steve’s ideas. The setting of the play doesn’t exactly lend itself to think of uilleann pipes right off the bat. So, I think that was more of Steve’s idea to bring into the piece. But the more we talked about the piece and when I understood more about where Rich is going with the text, I could hear resonances with my instrument. I think people will recognize the sound of the sound of the chanter from 90s Hollywood film scores. People often “hear” landscape when they hear the chanter but I think what people hear is something that we might call the “near other”. It’s as if we recognize the sound, but we don’t know exactly what it is. The uilleann pipes also have a drone which, for me, has a very grounding quality to it. In the piece, we hear about getting down into the ground. All bagpipes have a drone; but the low pitch of the uilleann pipes’ drone, I think, makes it even more grounding. It’s like a living, breathing kind of sound. A kind of ever-present organism. Sonically, it absolutely works with the piece.

And in terms of grounding, it’s fascinating that the uilleann pipes are played with the arm and not with the mouth. Using the breath to play an instrument places the sound in the air, above us. But using the arm to make sound, there’s something more visceral about that.  

IG: I never thought of that before. It’s interesting; the pipes are a very physical instrument. Since I’ve been playing them for over thirty years, it might not look very physical, but it is. Some other bagpipes are pretty physical too. But yeah, there are a lot of limbs involved! I play the flute a lot, and there’s a more direct connection using your breath. With the pipes, you’re almost inside the thing but there’s also a bit of distance. That’s an interesting dynamic.

That sounds a lot like the play.

IG: Ha! Exactly.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Many of your collaborations seem to fuse classical instruments like the uilleann pipes and more contemporary forms like jazz, improv-based, and electroacoustic. Has this blending of forms influenced your work on Samara?

IG: When I started to play this music, I was very much into the tradition: I had a purist approach. I guess at this point in my career, after years of various collaborations, it’s safe to say I’m not married to a purist approach. I can bring what is needed for a production as opposed to what I think the tradition should sound like. But I am still very much tethered to my tradition. Its sound. Its feel. It’s an important source that I constantly go back to. And, I think the more I’ve learned and experienced in other genres, the more richness and depth I hear in my own tradition – the more I have to learn about it. But to move between genres is really more about the collaboration, the meeting of minds, exploring stuff, and, for me, exploring sound. All these collaborations for me are really about finding ways to connect with people on a purely human level. That fascinates me. I guess that’s the influence those experiences bring to a project like Samara.

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