Droning On

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When it comes to bagpipe ornamentation, the options of what physically to do with your fingers aren’t great. You can lift a finger off and put it down again, as with the cut or the trill. You can put a finger down and lift it off again, as with the strike or vibrato. You can slide fingers off rather than lifting them. Or you can put lots of fingers down, usually on the tonic, to give the impression of a staccato – in France, the rappel. Each of the world’s bagpiping traditions make use, pretty much, of the same physical building blocks to build up more complex ornaments. A crann is simply a succession of cuts; a roll, of cuts and strikes, and so on. What’s extraordinary is how different those ornaments then go on to sound. Where they’re placed, and the rhythm with which they’re executed makes a crann sound like a crann and a roll like roll. But I can’t help wondering if there’s something else, some intangible quality of ornamentation that makes every bagpipe music sound distinctive.

Obviously, the physics of each particular bagpipe dictates the way it can be played. If an ornament consistently tips the reed into some dreadful squealing harmonic, people probably aren’t going to use it. Simply changing your reed can affect how ornaments work and sound. Ornaments that sound great on one instrument sound rubbish on another.

Local musical tastes also have a massive effect on the development of ornamentation. If the way you emphasise rhythm trips up dancers, then there’s a pretty strong incentive to change what you’re playing.

But I’m getting at something else. I’m talking about the actual physical quality of movement, the exact way the finger arrives and departs from the chanter. I once heard a Swedish fiddle-player (I’m sorry, I don’t remember his name) describe the distinctiveness of regional folk music as its ‘chroma’ or colour. Learning the chroma of another musical culture does seem to be extremely difficult. For as well as having different languages, we have different ways of moving too, habits that are culturally engrained and that feed into how the music sounds.

By way of example, I recently discovered the Japanese concept of atari. Now, if you’re like me, the word probably conjures up the Japanese computer giant, famous for its arcade games. Back in the early nineties, like so many of my peers, I had an Atari computer, a cracked copy of Cubase, and as much electronic gear as my limited budget could muster. Not yet a bagpiper, I set about making electronic dance music in my bedroom (I should add, with limited success). We all used Ataris because for some strange reason they came with built in MIDI ports. It never occurred to me to ask what the company name meant and when I eventually sold all my gear I forgot all about it.

Then about a year ago we moved from our dark, damp, Dartmoor cottage into the attic flat of a large family house. It belongs to a couple who are respectively a psychologist and a puppeteer. Todd, the puppeteer, has worked for the Muppets and on movies like Labyrinth and the Never Ending Story. As I’m sure you can imagine, their house is constantly filled with interesting and unusual people, and that’s how I met the composer Hilary Tann, Todd’s cousin.

Hilary plays and has studied shakuhachi, the Japanese flute, and before long we were deep in conversation about drones, modes, temperament and ornaments. And in shakuhachi playing, it transpires, there is an ornament called ‘atari’.

Atari, I learnt, means ‘hitting the target’, which made it the perfect name for a dynamic computer company. I suppose the word has its origins in Japanese archery. In shakuhachi playing, atari is an ornament very like our strike, where the finger hits and bounces off an open hole. But this being Japan, the word encompasses so much more: buried within it is a whole philosophy of life. Atari conveys intentionality, the skilled yet effortless release of directed power, performed with unwavering commitment. It is something constantly to be strived for, through diligent hours of listening and practice. All that contained within one small finger movement.

I’ve found, when teaching ornamentation to beginners, that while the cut is usually easily mastered, the strike takes a lot more practice. It’s difficult to convey the exact quality of movement required. For if the movement is too strong then the note you’re striking speaks, and that sounds awkward and ugly. If it’s too weak, then you get hardly any ornament at all. What’s required is atari. I can see how the concept fits the bill perfectly.

The question that I’m pondering though, is whether atari is something any of us can master, or whether, actually, there remains something intrinsically Japanese about the implied quality of movement. It’s clearly very difficult, though not impossible, to escape the confines of one’s musical enculturation. It takes years of practice and, probably, a willingness to spend time living in that other culture. Not having done that, I can’t really answer my own question. I’d be interested to hear from those who have.

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