rob moore

Uilleann and Northumbrian pipes, Hurdy Gurdy, Lira Organizzata, Eclectic Instruments

Random Synapse Firings

On Bellows, Air, Dreams, Poems Good and Bad, Philosophy, The Arts, Sciences, and damn near Everything.

There was a young piper named Bruce,

Whose bellow’s connection came loose.

He tried playing a slow air,

But it just wasn’t there,

It sounded like – juice through a goose!

None of us would doubt the worth of air; on this planet we are all addicted to its use!  Centuries ago we have learned to control it.  Pipers first learn to control the air before they are able to make any music at all, and it is the bellows that is such a big part of the formula.

Bellows have often been named for the jobs they do, be it musical, medical, mechanical, or maniacal.  Some of these names are: feeders, reservoirs, accumulators, dampening devices, shock absorber, pumps, pressure switches, pressure sensors, vibration dampeners, volume compensators, and on and on.

The importance of the bellows goes far beyond piping, and as a matter of fact we owe our very existence to its invention.  This might be a little of an over statement, but it was the bellows that enabled us to venture from the confines of our caves and venture fourth into the world and do what we as humans are best at, changing the world.  After we learned to keep the home fires burning via the use of various animal parts, to construct the first bellows, we never looked back.  On our path of change, the power of this invention has led us to, among other things, the making and working of metal.  That in itself has led us to both good and bad, both plow and sword.  If swords scare you, how about nobler deeds of mankind, like healing the sick, or healing those of us that had been wounded by the sword.

 Paracelsus 1493-1541 was renowned in the fields of alchemy, surgery, and medicine.  He is credited with the introduction of opium and mercury into the arsenal of medicine.  Well all his ideas weren’t that great!  As a surgeon he is credited with the first form of mechanical assisted ventilation, when he connected a tube to a fireplace bellows, and inserted it into a patient’s mouth.  Some say he was the most original medical thinker of the sixteen-century.  In 1543Vesalius performed ventilation via a tracheotomy in a pig, using a bellows.  Oh the good old days of surgery!

John Hunter developed double bellows for resuscitation in 1775 – one for blowing air in and the other for drawing bad air out.  This concept was later adapted to a machine that was used by police forces and fire departments and it is credited in saved many lives.

Another important Medical use of the bellows came into play with the invention of the anesthesia machine.  If you have ever undergone an amputation without anesthetics you will understand its importance.

In Dentistry the bellows was used not only to pump up the chair to enable the dentist to position you in the best possible place for your tooth to be drilled or pulled, but the bellows was also employed as a saliva ejector.  You don’t have to be a drooler to appreciate the applications of the bellows.

Does she like photography, wink wink,  say no more,  say no more, wink, wink know what I mean, know what I mean?   Camera bellows don’t pump air, however they are sill classified as a bellows.  Its use in photography goes back to1895, when Harry Glanvill, a man who saw the need for bellows for in the newly formed photographic industry, founded a company in Birmingham, England.  Harry ran the company with his wife – Florence – an expert maker of fire bellows, who turned her skills to the photographic trade.

Some lesser known uses of the bellows

In 1907 E.C. Davies patented an apparatus for testing miners’ safety lamps Thus making it safer for underground miners.  And the bellows was clearly an important feature of his invention.

Now on the home front, where would we have been without a maid to suck up all our dust?  I am sorry I don’t know whom to credit for this great, if not dangerous, invention.

Facts on File Encyclopedia of Science, vol. 3, p. 1093

Facts on File Encyclopedia of Science, vol. 3, p. 1093

Some bellows blow air.  Others suck.

Art and the bellows

Artists and crafts people working with glass and metal, for over a thousand years, have used the blowlamp.  The blowlamp works on the simple idea of forcing air over a flame to increase its temperature and by doing so give the operator the ability to melt glass or form metals.

The workers seemed to be putting themselves into a state of hyperventilation with the constant blowing of air through the tube.  A hand operated bellows improved their dizziness, however it would be a lot better for them to be able to use both hands for the work, so when someone came up with the idea of a foot operated bellows placed under the work bench, the workers put their hands together in gratitude.  Take note Dick Hensold.


A detail from “Dream” (Albrecht Dürer) 1497

The bellows is often used to signify a dream, for it was conventionally supposed that dreams were injected into the ear by good or evil agencies.  Thus explaining how a righteous and pious gentleman of the 15th century could possible has had such a naughty nocturnal event.  I hope the image is clear enough to show the evil demon filling this poor innocent via a bellows with such unholy dreams.

Music or the making of sounds covers a wide spectrum.  What put the cuckoo in the clock?  —The bellows.  Many musical instruments use bellows; one that jumps to mind is the accordion with all its relatives.  The instrument that managed to use the bellows to the ultimate degree is the Organ, especially in the days before the invention of electricity.

Bellows where used not only to supply air to sound the pipes via bellows, known as Feeders and Reservoirs, they were also used for strange devices like the Draw-Stop Action, the Tremolant, The Pneumatic Ventil Wind-Chest, Pneumatic Couplers and The Concussion-Bellows designed to take care of a sudden pressure change to the wind-chest.  Bellows were even used to open the shutters of the Swell-Box.  When the shutters opened, it increases the dynamic range of the pipes held in expression.  This added effect, when coupled to the force of a rank of 16 or 32 footers was indeed formidable.  The sounds not only played with ones emotions, it could be felt through the entire body.  In the old days when the church ruled, the organ was a force to be reckoned with.  The church was well aware of the power of the organ in winning converts.  With the bible in one hand, a sword in the other, and an organ blasting out the vibes, the sky was the limit.  But nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition!

Martial Arts

 “The bellows soon took on a new life.  Master Han put a foam pad on each end of the bellows and created an isometric exercise unit.  Combined with ki-kong breathing, Master Han developed a warm-up system for his students that helped to reduce injuries while refining the mind-body relationship.  Master Han’s method includes breathing techniques, meditation, and isometric exercises that prepares a student’s mind and body for a vigorous work out.  The method also helps to refine internal power and the external application of internal power.”

As a part time pipe-maker, when things are not going right, I sometimes find it best to put down what is giving me so much trouble and make a bellows.  It is very therapeutic!              By far the most trying event I have encountered in the making of uilleann pipes has been the tuning of the chanter to where it is stable on every note in both octaves, in varying conditions.  I am getting better at it thanks to the written word of those like Creg Fisher, the physical presence of chanters that had been made by makers like David Quinn, and the communicated advice from makers like David Daye.  However doubts and frustrations creep in.  At that point in time, there are few options that came to mind.  So before letting it get to a point where the only honorable way out would be to commit the rarely used Irish ritual of ‘Harry O’ Karri’, the practice of impaling oneself on a tapered reamer, I opted to forego the ritual, forego all other forms of pain and frustrations, put down the chanter, make a cup of tea and start making a bellows.  I love the things, and no two need be the same.  They never need ironing, never need tuning, but they are habit forming.

I will only deal with the ins and outs of the bellows.  After all this is Random Synapse Firings, so the ins in this case are ‘Intake valves’ and the out are ‘Blow Pipe Connectors’, or whatever you wish to call them.  I have tried numerous methods of connecting the bellows to the bag, quick disconnect – hose couplers,  ‘O’ ring connectors, etc. etc.  I found that the best connector for me was to use no obvious connector at all.  The old Chinese finger trap trick is my current favorite method.  A medium soft plastic (Tygon®) tube from the bellows outlet goes directly onto the blowpipe.  The blowpipe does not need to be wrapped with thread, although a slight taper on the blowpipe end helps.  Now, if you are called on to play a solo and you wish to expand your chest to impart that dramatic inflection of emotion, you need not worry about becoming disconnected, and get left holding the bag.  I can’t recall a situation where I was actually asked to play a solo, but prior to this improvement I had often been disconnected.

One fear of playing I had, resulted from a near accident which occurred while playing Northumbrian Small Pipes in a group with our local pipers, ‘The Northumbumbrians’.  I had recently finished an intake valve; it featured a pinned hinge, a leather faced composite flap valve, a shielded intake to stop small birds from being sucked in, and it was made from a special bronze alloy which I had been hoarding under my bench for years.  Now here lies the rub, because this alloy looked so much like gold, I thought it prudent to used lots of it, and as a result its weight was considerable.  Now imagine if you will, four pipers playing away, all on the same part of the tune.  It’s hard to hear yourself from the others, and I was unconsciously increasing my playing pressure, and probably using the bellows and not the bag to regulate the pressure, a nervous habit that I should have over come long ago.  When, like a shot from an air gun, the intake valve became a projectile, narrowly missing a seated spectator.   On this occasion I was negligent for not making sure the valve was tight enough to take the pressure, and secondly I was amiss for using too much pressure.  When you play with excessive pressure your pipes play sharp.  This makes it easier to hear yourself play but it makes it harder for others to listen.

The first photo shows the errant projectile, while the second photo shows the solution I came up with.  It is a caged, free- floating leather disk mounted on the inside of the bellows.  Out of sight, out of mind.  On the outside of the bellows there is a shielded intake as with the other bellows, but this one is attached firmly in place.

I had made a fireplace/wood furnace bellows about ten years ago using a similar arrangement, which is being used regularly, and it has given no trouble.

Although this current bellows works great, if the next one is for a customer it will sport an externally accessible valve.


The Host of the Air

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

 O’Driscoll drove with a song

The wild duck and the drake

From the tall and the tufted reeds

Of the drear Hart Lake.

And he saw how the reeds grew dark

At the coming of night-tide,

And dreamed of the long dim hair

Of Bridget his bride.

 He heard while he sang and dreamed

A piper piping away,

And never was piping so sad,

And never was piping so gay.

 And he saw young men and young girls

Who danced on a level place,

And Bridget his bride among them,

With a sad and a gay face.

 The dancers crowded about him

And many a sweet thing said,

And a young man brought him red wine

And a young girl white bread.

 But Bridget drew him by the sleeve

Away from the merry bands,

To old men playing at cards

With a twinkling of ancient hands.

 The bread and the wine had a doom,

For these were the host of the air;

He sat and played in a dream

Of her long dim hair.

 He played with the merry old men

And thought not of evil chance,

Until one bore Bridget his bride

Away from the merry dance.

 He bore her away in his arms,

The handsomest young man there,

And his neck and his breast and his arms

Were drowned in her long dim hair.

 O’Driscoll scattered the cards

And out of his dream awoke:

Old men and young men and young girls

Were gone like a drifting smoke;

 But he heard high up in the air

A piper piping away,

And never was piping so sad,

And never was piping so gay.

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