I’ve just been reading Andy Letcher’s piece in Chanter about gurning bagpipers,
which coincidentally was something I’d been thinking about earlier in the day. I’m cur- rently trying to get myself to make more of the second octave on my pipes and have no- ticed that I do pull faces whilst doing this. I’d likened it to the melodramatic face pulling most rock guitarists do as they make their way up the fretboard, perhaps also subcon- sciously emphasing the higher notes.
Perhaps pipers have good faces for these expressions. A friend recently gave me the compliment that she could see why I would be good at storytelling to children as I have a very expressive face. I interpret ‘expressive’ as funny-looking. I’m sure my face has got more rubbery since I’ve been blowing into the pipes, and I’ve read various quotes of kings and lords employing bagpipers to play for them rather than play themselves and display this unflattering look. Perhaps it’s time to start using bellows. I’m also given to wonder whether this might by why so many bagpipers sport beards, hmm…
All best wishes, TomHughes
This is a comment on George Swallow’s letter headed Tuning and Tempera-
ments in the Spring 2011 edition of Chanter.
It was fascinating to read Dave van Doorn’s story in the Winter 2010 edition of
End Drone, a story leading up to the founding of our society, and without which the pre- sent correspondence would not exist. It led George Swallow in his letter in the Spring 2011 edition to comment on Dave’s remarks about bagpipes and tuning. (Aside to Dave - I have in fact written in Chanter about tunings and temperaments in some detail. Perhaps the Editor could remind us where?)
I am willing to accept that George may be exaggerating to prove a point in his reference to the practices of Bulgarian shepherds, but I can’t help feeling that he goes somewhat further than is polite, and I would like to redress the balance a little, and also expand on the question of bagpipe tuning and equal temperament.
Laurence Picken in his magisterial ‘Folk Musical Instruments of Turkey’ (OUP 1975) describes watching a folk woodwind being made by just such a process suggested by George. Having bored the piece of wood and turned and finished the outside, the maker places his hands on the instrument in playing position, marks their positions, and drills the fingerholes accordingly. While the instrument would not necessarily be des- tined to play in a western scale at concert pitch, I would suggest that there is nothing random or haphazard about such a process. On the contrary the maker’s practice is re- fined by a lifetime’s work and that of his forebears and the tradition within which he works.
In that sense his prescription for the instrument is just as precise as that for, say, a Boehm flute.
It’s certainly easy to find field recordings of pipes where the tuning is wild to say the least. On the other hand, as far as the choice of Bulgaria is concerned, I would have thought it to be generally accepted that Bulgaria has one of the most highly devel- oped folk musics in the world. Part of the reason for this was the money and encourage- ment poured into folk music by the communist party since the second world war, one result of which was the creation of music schools, the formation of folk orchestras, and the commissioning of formal arrangements from composers such as Philip Koutev. Once groups and orchestras come into the picture, the question of tuning and temperaments had to be addressed and it would be fascinating to know how they approached this in practice.
But for any particular piece of music, unless a traditional scale having specific tunings deviating from the western diatonic scale was involved, I would suggest that they would have taken the same approach as any modern European music group (playing without a keyboard), and that is that they would have aimed for maximum consonance from moment to moment within the context of the music.
On the question of equal temperament, George says ‘After 1850, the piano- makers took a hold and it quickly spread to other instruments’. Well, we know that mod- ern keyboard instruments are now normally tuned to equal temperament because it gives the same relative tuning in all keys, enabling complete freedom of modulation from one key to another. We have come to accept the tuning compromises, particularly of thirds and sixths, because of the greater convenience in relation to the question of modulation. (It was because of the reluctance to accept such compromises that such instruments as the 84 keys to the octave harmonium to which George refers were built). It probably spread too to the design of modern woodwind instruments, but in this case it cannot be emphasised too strongly that this was not so that they could be played in equal tempera- ment but because it allows the player an equal and predictable division of the octave from which to humour each note from moment to moment in search of perfect tuning. Surely no-one, whether soloist, string quartet or orchestra ever intentionally plays in equal temperament unless they are trying to play in tune with a keyboard instrument thus tuned.
With a few notable exceptions I would suggest that most modern bagpipes are tuned such that each note of the scale is in a fixed relationship to the drone as defined by the harmonic structure of the two tones. Such a scale is usually referred to as just intona- tion, and in relation to the drone it gives a beautiful and physiologically satisfying result, a result which I would hesitate to describe as ‘full strident for-sheep-only Bulgarian style’.
The idea of designing an equal temperament chanter for playing with fixed pitch instruments is an attractive one (of course it would be tiresome to try to play such a chanter in tune with the drone), but many of us play a lot with accordions both diatonic and chromatic and in practice it is seldom impossible to produce a pleasing result. Cer- tainly the tuning of a chanter is not as flexible as a regular woodwind instrument, but a lot can be done with playing pressure, shading, vibrato and special fingerings. A similar problem arises in relation to the practice of tuning your drones up by one tone and play- ing in the minor scale of that tone (for example, A minor on a G pipe). The A drone at once reveals several notes which are not in a comfortable relationship with it.
Did George have his tongue firmly in his cheek? Am I being too pompous about all this? Perhaps, but it’s a fascinating and complicated subject, worth thinking about and not easily revealing its nuances. The bagpipe gets a bad enough general press; let’s not make things sound worse than they are!
Ed: There is an article in Newsletter 14, January 1989, under the title of Uncle Octa- vius, Piper’s Problem Page, which covers the subject of Just intonation quite well. A further article by myself (Starting drone, Chanter, Spring 2007) covers how Just intona- tion bagpipes of different keys play together and also how the scale can be adjusted to allow 5 finger tonic minor tunes to be played. I also looked up Just intonation on Wiki- paedia - but found the article almost incomprehensible…
Last Chanter (Spring 2011) Andy Letcher wrote about how difficult it is to play
the bagpipe without one’s face also playing the ‘hurdy-gurny’.
This reminded me of when I first played bellows pipes. My legs just had to
walk at high speed, propelling me round the room like some drone-driven automaton. It felt like dancing a galliard on steroids and it took me a while to develop sufficient con- trol to play standing still, not to mention sitting down.
I do not think the left/right side of the brain issue has much bearing here. As a left-hander in a right-hander’s world I have had to make many accommodations, negoti- ating scissors, pen nibs, power tool safety triggers (fortunately I’m still here) etc. I play the lute right-handedly (a hangover from teenage guitar) and cittern left-handedly (so I can hold the plectrum). This is evidently more of a headache for those watching me than for me playing.
Having tried to speak or sing while playing bellows pipes (bellows left arm, bag under my right), it struck me how using my voice a) worked my diaphragm, upsetting the pressure in the bag wedged against my side and b) how tricky it was to hear my voice and keep the chanter and drone in tune.
It was enlightening therefore to meet Albin Paulus from Vienna at the piping convention at last year’s Warwick Folk Festival. (Incidentally, only a good half dozen enthusiasts there, not all players and only one other Bag Soc member). Albin,as you may know, is an authority on central European bagpiping. He played Bock bagpipes gurn- free while singing and……yodelling. Wunderbar! He kindly let us try playing the Bock and two things struck me. The bag pressure remained stable while I spoke (I resisted the urge to attempt even a modest yodel). Secondly, those big curly horns on the chanter and drone focused their respective soft sounds just above my right ear, facilitating tuning.
So, a bagpiper’s involuntary mute gurning may not entirely be his/her own fault. It may to some degree be born of bagpipe design.
As for other anatomical problems associated with the bagpipe, I have yet to hear anyone confirm what Shakespeare has to say on the subject in The Merchant of Venice Act 4 Scene 1: ‘…others, when the bagpipe sings i’ the nose, cannot contain their urine…’ That really would make you pull a face.
Best wishes - John Peel