Bagpipes have been in the news this autumn, with the authorities at the Rugby World Cup preventing Scottish supporters from bringing their national instrument into the games, and with Bob Dylan apparently availing himself of a set of R. G. Hardie pipes from Glasgow’s National Piping Centre (well, it surely beats that God-awful harmonica). In both cases the press got in touch with me, your Publicity Officer, to coax out a sound-bite and, with the Dylan story, a bagpipe rendition of ‘All around the watchtower’. Perhaps mercifully, I was unable to assist in either case owing to the rather last minute nature of the requests (media people just don’t seem to understand that not everyone lives in London, nor are we able to drop everything for 30 seconds in the broadcaster’s pillory) but it’s gratifying to know that the new website is doing what we hoped it would and generating some serious interest. We are on the map.
To add to this, International Bagpipe
Day (March 10th 2012) looks like becoming a
soaraway success. What began as a fancy, born in a traffic jam on the M40, looks like it has caught the imagination of pipers around the world. It’s gone viral. Already we have a range of events from the small and local to the large and international. For instance, Tom Hughes is organising an exciting range of school events up in Cheshire. The Northumbrian Pipers Society are looking to put on something, most probably in association with the Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum. The Lowland and Border Pipers Society are onboard, as is the aforementioned National Piping Centre, and I’ve even heard back from a group of pipers in Minnesota who are planning something there. The committee of Saint Chartier festival have been informed as have the British folk press. With a bit of luck we might even get some coverage on ‘Late Junction.’
It’s not too late for you to organise something yourselves. It could be a talk or a demonstration, a school visit, a concert or a dance. Why not take your pipes into work or post a video of you playing your favourite tune on Youtube or Facebook? If you’re a collector, you could exhibit your pipes at a local museum, or if you’re a maker, you might arrange an open day at your workshop. Whatever you do, be sure to let your local papers and radio stations know. The more events we have, the better it’ll be. You can advertise events free of charge on the Bagpipe Society website, or share facebook events on our dedicated page (www.facebook.com/internationalbagpipeday).
But especial thanks are due to Cassandre Balosso-Bardin, a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London where she is studying for a PhD in the Ethnomusicology of the Mallorcan bagpipe. Cassandre has single-handedly put together our flagship event, an International Piping Conference (to be held at SOAS). The call for papers has only just been published so the exact line-up won’t be finalised for a while, but with her address book brimming with contacts it’s looking like the day will attract players and makers from Scandinavia to Gallicia and everywhere in between. Alongside lectures on pipes and piping traditions, there’ll be concerts (featuring Jon Swayne’s bagpipe orchestra, Zephyrus – a better exposition of contemporary English bagpiping you’d be hard pushed to find) and a folk bal, featuring the ever-popular Angles. For those within travelling distance of London, it’s shaping up to be an unmissable event.
If I’ve learned one thing about publicity over the years it’s that journalists don’t actually have time to write their articles – they simply cut and paste the material you give them – so a good press release will be full of little facts and juicy nuggets to catch the imagination. And so it was that while I was working away on the official announcement for IBD my wife casually asked whether I knew that Socrates had played the aulos, the double reedpipe of Antiquity? No, I had absolutely no idea! The father of Western philosophy played the ancestor of the bagpipes? Surely not? We checked the book she was reading, a 1950s translation of Plato’s Symposium, and there it was plain to see. As well as turning categories of high and low culture on their head, what a gift for our publicity!
Well, I went to the library to double check with other, better, translations and found, sadly, that this was nothing more than a piece of rhetorical badinage. In the Symposium a group of Athenian noblemen and philosophers are lying around, drinking, and musing on the nature of love. One of them, the young Alcibiades cheekily compares Socrates to Marsyas, the mythological satyr: just as Marsyas enchants people with his piping, so Socrates enchants people with his oratory and wisdom. It’s not an actual reference to Socrates’ musical habits, just a bit of double-edged praise. Ah well.
But this led me to follow up the myth of Marsyas, and I found it fascinating. The aulos was apparently invented by Athene, the goddess of wisdom and civilization, but she cast the instrument aside when the gods mocked her bulging cheeks. Impudent Marsyas picked up the aulos and received a clip round the ear from Athena for his insolence. Nevertheless, because of its divine origin his instrument had the power to enchant and inflame.
What these Classical stories reveal is that reed pipes and bagpipes have long been regarded as problematic. The high-minded toss them aside with disdain or regard them as a joke, while enthusiasts think their sound and music divine. It’s a problem we still face.
The truth is that new websites or campaigns like International Bagpipe Day will probably do little to persuade the unconverted. But what we can do is encourage the would-be satyrs amongst us to pick the instrument up and give it a try. The fact that our message is beginning to reach a wider audience suggests that in this regard we are well on the way to success. And it’s gratifying to see that so many pipers around the world agree it is a worthy cause.