The last 30 years

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Reflections on changes in the piping world since the foundation of the Society

While browsing the archives of the Society for material for this article, I came across a review by Paul James of the 1986 edition of the Rencontres de Luthiers et Maitres-Sonneurs at St Chartier, a festival almost universally referred to, even now, simply as ‘St Chartier’ (as any fule kno). It is now of course re-located by five kilometres or so to Chateau d’Ars and under the direction of the organisation, Le Son Continu. As the festival started in 1976, this would have been its eleventh year. Paul concludes his review with the words: ‘Atmosphere is what St Chartier is all about. It is not what it was [my italics] but it still beats every other festival hands down for good times and great music’. So here we have, thirty years ago, regret for the passing of the good old days. In implying a decline, Paul was presumably relying on his memories of the ‘greater’ times of the previous years. Yet the line-up of musicians was pretty stunning and included Anita Anita, Fubu, the Ensemble Folklorique National Rodopa de Smolyan (Bulgaria) and Aurelio Porcu, the launeddas player from Sardinia. The Bulgarian group included the famous singer Valya Balkanska, accompanied by two of the best kaba gaida players. I was familiar with one of her songs from the LP Village Music of Bulgaria, one of my all-time most important records. (How I came to buy it is interesting. I was standing in Collet’s, a jazz and folk shop which used to be in Shaftesbury avenue (have a look at this website for a very fascinating archive: http://www.britishrecordshoparchive.org/collets.html), leafing through the reduced price box. As I came to Village Music, a voice beside me said: ‘That’s good; buy that’. It was the voice of Lol Coxhill, the saxophonist, who used occasionally to sit in with Blowzabella at early festivals.) To return to Valya Balkanska, I was standing at my stall talking to customers when I heard this sound coming from the main stage; instantly recognising it I rushed over and found the Bulgarian group rehearsing. I spent the next 20 minutes with tears pouring down my face overcome by the overwhelming power of her singing, completely oblivious of my customers.

In addition, in that year Nigel Eaton won the hurdy-gurdy competition hands down and I exhibited my border pipes for the first time (an important landmark for me, if no-one else). No, that was a flippant aside. In fact it was the first time that I really felt I had a bagpipe to offer which could hold its head up beside the products of the likes of Bernard Blanc and Remi Dubois.

St Chartier had started in 1976, and two seminal French bands, La Bamboche (including Jean Blanchard and Bernard Blanc) and Le Grand Rouge (including Eric Montbel), both big influences for Blowzabella, had been going since 1973 and 1974 respectively. Blowzabella started in 1978 and by 1986 were on their fourth album, Wall of Sound. No wonder, and thank goodness, by that year Judy Rockliff and Dave van Doorn decided it was time to start a bagpipe society!

To return to the late 70s for a minute, when Bill O’Toole was struggling to make his first set of pipes at London College of Furniture, there really was very little help at hand or examples of other work to go on. My bagpipe awareness started with Bill’s first set and with the similar set which he subsequently made for me, and of course my mental antennae at once became attuned to the drone world. I must have come across pipes from the living traditions, Northumbrian, Uilleann and so on, but my remembrance of what was around outside and apart from that is easily listed:

  • it was fascinating when Juan Wijngaard came into the woodwind workshop with a set of Flemish pipes in G made by Victor Nerinx. I think this was the first set of pipes I saw that weren’t Highland or Northumbrian.
  • My first sight of border pipes being played by Ian Lawther. He was then living in London, but is now in USA and runs http://www.bagpipediscs.com.
  • Graham Wells was at that time in charge of the musical instrument department at Sotheby’s. He very generously used to let us LCF students look at and measure instruments awaiting sale. Amongst others I recall examining Northumbrian smallpipes, a set of brass and ivory mounted border pipes in plumwood, two sets of zampogna and more besides.
  • A little later on we met Jean-Pierre Rasle who was playing pipes and woodwinds in the then current incarnation of the Albion Band. His pipes included a set of border pipes made by John Addison.
  • John Addison, whom I never really knew, was a maker mainly of Northumbrian smallpipes, but he also made border pipes, pastoral pipes and musettes de cour. He moved from London to South Somercotes in Lincolnshire in 1973 to make pipes full time. I knew no-one else making non-extant pipes. He tragically suffered a severe stroke at St Chartier in the late 80s, and never recovered, passing away in 2002.
  • in 1979 I made my first visit to St Chartier, where at last there were plenty of pipes other than Highland, Irish or Northumbrian.
  • in the same year there was a festival of Irish culture in London. I attended a reed-making workshop with the late great Dan O’Dowd, and went to an extraordinary concert of Uilleann piping by Seamus Ennis, with Liam O’Flynn and Paddy Keenan as the warm-up acts!

So a few years on into the 80s there was clearly a core of enthusiasts for whom a dedicated Society would provide the opportunity for chatting about such vital subjects as reeds, sandpaper, and the like. Thanks to the exposure afforded by playing in Blowzabella, my bagpipes (I made the first set in 7980) were getting useful publicity. I see that according to my records, I had made sixty sets of pipes by 1986; that’s in addition to all the other instruments I was making at the time, including recorders, flutes and whistles. So there must have been a few of my customers as potential members, plus those of Julian and his Leicestershire small pipes, as well as players of pipes from the existing traditions, gaitas, and other assorted instruments. I am only too well aware that nearly 1000 words into this article, I haven’t yet addressed the subject matter proper, in other words, what has happened since the founding of the Society. So thirty years since the passing of the good old days, where are we now? Not to put too fine a point upon it, and in a nutshell, I think the answer is ‘more and better’.

To take ‘more’ first. The Society, as I am thinking that I may have said elsewhere, is both offspring of and handmaiden to the revival in interest in bagpipes which has taken place in England over the last forty years or so. A revival which parallels that in many European countries, and indeed other parts of the world. The founders hoped the Society would provide a forum for searchers and a haven for like-minded souls. That has certainly proved to be the case, but the enormous amount of energy and expertise which has been expended by those in charge of the Society’s offices must have resulted in changes and progress greatly exceeding what they may have hoped for.

From the hardware point of view, suitable instruments are more easily available because makers have arisen to satisfy the demand – makers such as Julian Goodacre, Sean Jones, Dominic Allan, Jim Parr, Mike York, myself and others. I introduced my student model in 1986; the first one was made for Val Haines (then Woollard) who reviewed it in the Newsletter. My records say that I have since made around 260, but as I tend to make them in batches in advance of orders, I suspect it may be quite a few more. When the Society started, the problem of getting a decent instrument at a reasonable price was a real one. I think that problem has been solved, as attested by the well-populated workshops at the Blowout.

One result of the increased numbers of pipes and pipers is that there is less likelihood now of their being regarded as an oddity. The conversation which goes: “What is that?” “It’s a bagpipe.” “But it’s not the bagpipe.” etc, perhaps does not occur so much.

Within an existing tradition, the Highland piping world being the prime example, the question of maintenance and keeping pipes playing well and correctly is an accepted part of the required knowledge. In our case, the individual piper is working pretty much on his own. There is initially much more responsibility on the pipemaker to ensure that the pipes are reliable and remain so. That, at least, has been my approach. By developing satisfactory plastic chanter reeds and composite reeds for the drones, the onus on the piper is reduced. Provided he treats the instrument sensibly, he can be reasonably certain of a functioning instrument.

The question of cane versus plastic is still a valid one. In an ideal world, I think most people would agree that cane has the edge when it comes to tone quality. But there are other factors to balance, such as reliability and usability. There’s no doubt that I would have spent infinitely more time making reeds and fettling pipes, had I stuck with cane reeds. But it is also a question of horses for courses. It is lucky that what you might call the English border pipe, which we have settled on, accepts a plastic reed very happily, and I still am occasionally asked whether I use plastic or cane. If that question has to be asked then the difference cannot be that great. The same does not (yet?) apply to, for example, pastoral pipes or uilleann pipes. Then again there is the fact that cane reeds in bellows pipes are relatively reliable and long lasting; their lifetime can be measured in decades, which certainly cannot be said for cane reeds in mouth blown pipes. The first two designs of bagpipe which I made, the Flemish ‘Breughel’ pipes in D and the early English pipes in G used cane reeds. They were definitely not the ‘pick ‘em up and play ‘em’ type of pipes. The reeds needed adjustment at the start of a playing session to get them playing at their best and in tune, and occasionally thereafter. It took some experience to find the best way of doing this. By contrast, I would say that the pipes we use now can more or less be relied on to play out of the box.

Not only are there more and better pipes available, but the range of types and pitches has increased greatly. Speaking for myself, when I have introduced a pipe in a new key, it is usually been done in order to fulfil a musical need. But I generally find that what I need turns out to be needed by others, and by that means new business is generated. And as for our other member-makers, I think of Jim’s zampogna, Julian’s long list including the müsa, Cornish pipes, English Greatpipe, Sean’s shepherd pipes and Uilleann pipes, some exquisite French pipes of Dominic, Mike York’s smallpipes – this is just a sample selection and not meant to be an exhaustive index.

So to the question of ‘better’. For myself, meeting other makers at St Chartier over the years and seeing and trying their work, helped me enormously to raise my game and make better pipes. The same process has taken place on a somewhat more modest level within the Society. There’s no doubt that competition tends to drive improvement. In general I have always found my fellow makers to be very friendly and generous in their approach to sharing knowledge, provided that one is respectful. There is no doubt that the standard of instruments has risen enormously since we started. It is no longer obligatory at the start of a workshop to spend some time trying to get instruments to work properly.

This has gone hand in hand with the business of building up general knowledge on how to maintain instruments. Thanks to hands on workshops at occasions such as the Blowout, much more information has become generally available to the player regarding maintenance and keeping the pipes playing well.

If the pipes are capable of playing well, how well are they played? There has undoubtedly been an improvement in the standard of playing over the years. This is a generalisation, but I have observed that in Europe the habit when taking up pipes is to ‘go to a teacher’. Over here we don’t seem to do that; we muddle along. Here, there are not many formal opportunities for learning pipes. A few gifted individuals can manage to excel on their own, but most learners need help. The Society has helped to fill that need by providing practical workshops at the Blowout, by disseminating information to back it up, and by enabling new pipers to keep in touch with others.

Lest we get lost in the technicalities, it is good to remind ourselves that the purpose of pipes is to play music. I have written elsewhere about the very striking impression that contact with music at St Chartier made on us on our first visits. These kindled a love of French bagpipe music and made us resolve to find a way of bringing some of the aspects of the dance scene back to England. At a time when we were searching for anything at all to play on pipes, here was an enormous and very attractive resource. For a while there was probably an overbalance in the direction of France, and we were in danger of neglecting our English roots and music. In Blowzabella we sometimes used to find ourselves labelled as ‘that band that plays French music’. We did and were possibly the first to do so, which may be the reason for the label, but in actual fact the majority of our music was always English or written by ourselves. But I think any imbalance has now been safely corrected. As we know from the tribute presented to Rod Cannon in 2014, he published his first researches on English bagpipe repertoire back in 1973. There are now numerous contemporary publications derived from the 17th and 18th century collections which have made the richness of their repertoire available to us all in a modern, readily assimilated form, which merely highlights the fact that Rod was there first. But where he led, we have caught up, and now there is no shortage of English music to play and study. Indeed when I teach abroad, I generally make a point of concentrating on English repertoire, and find it much appreciated.

I am aware that what is possible in a short article is only a very personal and a very brief assessment. It is not perhaps so much of how things have changed generally in the piping world during the life of the Society, but of how the Society has been able through its efforts to bring about positive changes on behalf of its members. This has been achieved chiefly through its publications and by the guests and events at the annual Blowout. In addition, the Society has enabled a huge increase in knowledge and awareness of the pipes of other nations. Considering the healthy state of the Blowout, of membership, of the new website and of the present flourishing journal. And not forgetting the obligatory warning against resting on our laurels, perhaps this might be the place to record heartfelt thanks to all those who have enabled us to achieve this enviable state of affairs.

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