In the Bag - Jon Swayne

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Jon originally trained as a lawyer and worked as such for twelve years before seeing the light, and turning to his first love, music. Studied Early Woodwind Technology 1977-80, subsequently setting up his workshop in Somerset specialising in bagpipes, whistles and flutes. Founder member of Blowzabella in 1978. Introduced his English Border Pipe which forms the foundation of his work in 1986, and in the same year was elected Honorary President of the Bagpipe Society. Founded the trio Moebius (CD: Moebius August) in 1994, and the bagpipe and percussion ensemble Zephyrus in 1998 (CDs: The Halfe Hannikin Variations and The English Suite) and plays in an occasional duo with accordionist Becky Price (CD: Love and a Bottle).

What bagpipes do you play?

Mostly I play the ones I make, ie English Border Pipes, at various pitches, usually G or D. With Zephyrus I play high C pipes, and with Moebius I used to play low C. Recently with Blowzabella we’ve started to play a piece on F pipes, which is going down well. As everyone knows, F is the new G. Apart from that I have a very nice Swedish sackpipa by Mike York, which comes out occasionally. When I started playing pipes, I was besotted with Balkan pipes, especially Macedonian and Bulgarian gaidas. I got up to a certain standard, but eventually decided it was more important to concentrate on English music. I’m also the owner of an old zampogna and various other European pipes, but would hardly claim to ‘play’ them.

What led you to take up piping?

That’s a very long story which I will try to make brief. My musical background was in classical music and a bit of jazz and big-band stuff. When I began to study instrument making, I met people playing traditional/folk music, and came across various kinds of bagpipe. At the same time I read a couple of books, Music, Education, Society by Christopher Small and another I’ve forgotten the name of, which opened my eyes to music outside the Western tradition; as a result I found myself literally unable to listen to any classical music for a period of a year or so. During that time I was drawn to drone music, and Bill O’Toole made me a set of pipes and we started playing together.

Which pipers do you most admire?

Too many to list, but I recently heard a lovely concert from Philippe Prieur, whose playing embodies some of my ideals as stated below, and of course one takes different influences – lyricism, rhythmic precision, improvisational freedom and so on – from different players. But I would like to name three young pipers who have achieved virtuosity in different ways and whose playing shows that European piping is bursting with energy – Remy Villeneuve (Radical Strapontin and the Patrick Bouffard Trio), Julien Cartonnet (Mister Klof, Topette), and Callum Armstrong – all of whom have won prizes at Chateau d’Ars.

Brahms was considered old-fashioned by Wagner and his followers, but I love him for his combination of intellectual rigour and passionate lyricism. Two music teachers who taught me so much and opened my ears to lots of music, Joy and John Kemp, when I was around twelve. And Humphrey Lyttleton; his was the first jazz I heard when I was around sixteen; I’d never heard anything like it and he has remained a favourite; he was more or less self taught, never learnt to read music, always ploughed his own furrow regardless of fashion, and was very funny.

What album is top of your playlist right now?

It’s not new, but I’m still listening with delight to Vent de Galerne, and that other band from the stable of La Chavanée, Fublene – such great playing, beautiful songs and arrangements. Then for scintillating but subtle Auvergne fiddle playing, the duo Les Poufes à Cordes with Clémence Cognet and Noëllie Nioulou.

If you had your life again, what instrument would you play?

Every time I hear an instrument being really well played, I think, I’d like to do that. Julian Bream makes me want to play classical guitar; Richard Galliano ditto with chromatic button accordion; but the violin must be the most expressive instrument, so it would probably have to be that.

Name your favourite music festival.

It doesn’t necessarily have the best music, or the best sessions, or the best dancing, but St Chartier (now Le Son Continu at Chateau d’Ars) was where it all started for me, and it has had an incalculable influence on my life and career.

What three words describe your piping style?

What I aim for is musicality, clarity and melodic richness.

What tune would you have played at your funeral and why?

I don’t think that’s for me to say. The organisers will be the best choosers.

Bellows or mouth-blown?

Both, though not usually at the same time.

Cats or dogs?

Winston Churchill was supposed to have said that dogs look up to you, cats look down on you while pigs treat you as an equal. I don’t think I could live with a pig, though I do like to eat pork sometimes.

Do you prefer playing, dancing or both?

I love doing both, and I’m sure they enhance each other.

Cane or plastic reeds?

Early on I made a decision to master plastic reeds for the border pipes and I have stuck with it. Listeners occasionally ask me which I use, which shows that plastic sounds good enough. There is a difference but it is small if the reeds are well made. If I made cane reeds I would be spending infinitely more time reed-making. For pastoral pipes on the other hand cane reeds are at the moment essential for the quality of tone.

What’s your greatest musical achievement?

I’m proud of the work I’ve done with Moebius and Zephyrus, but if I had to pick a moment, it might be playing with Blowzabella for the main stage bal at St Chartier in 2003.

What’s your most embarrassing bagpiping moment?

In the early days of Blowzabella, the vicar of a Roman Catholic Parish in White Hart Lane saw us busking in Covent Garden, and invited us to play for a parish social dance. We duly turned up and played. Nothing we played could induce a single couple onto the dance floor. Eventually someone asked if we could play a waltz. We obliged, but still no response. Finally the late great Dave Robert’s launched into ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’. Instantly the floor was full. We figured that they recognised the tune. But sadly we could not keep that up for long …………

What’s the most annoying question you get asked about the bagpipes?

Question: Is that a bagpipe? Answer: Yes. Response: But it’s not The Bagpipe. Answer: No, but it’s still a bagpipe…. and so on.

What advice would you give a novice?

Listen. Get lessons from a good teacher. Listen to good pipers that you like. Practice every day. Record yourself. Listen.

I love bagpipes because…

The varying tension between the melody and the drone is constantly fascinating, and there is an endless challenge in learning how to generate the maximum expression.

Interviewed by Andy Letcher

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