Blowout Report 2018

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Now we’ve been at Polesworth for so long it’s like stepping into an alternative world when you get to the Blowout. It’s all so familiar and comforting. It changes subtly though, as witness the new toilets in the Hall. The local folk who run the Hall have indeed upgraded the building significantly. More important, though, is seeing all the familiar faces, especially Vanessa working on dinner!

As is the custom, we had some light-hearted competitions after dinner to get us into the mood. First off was one for new piping words. I hope someone collected these, but I liked the idea of “baguette” as a child’s pipe! We also had “One tune to the tune of another”, which defies reporting. And one for piping films – like “Chanters of Fire”. Yes, you had to be there, but I was impressed by the sheer ingenuity all the competitors showed, as well as by their have-a-go spirit, though all pipers need some of that. And we rounded the night off with a session mostly for G pipes, and good it was.

The first workshop was with Eric Montbel, who is one of the most significant people in the French piping revival of the last few decades. We had a go at a 3/8 bourree, not just to learn the tune, but to see some of the ways of making it more interesting and authentic in a Limousin or Auvergne way. Eric mentioned “picotage” – going down to the bottom note to separate others, but pointed out that the rhythm needs study. He did get us trying the foot-tapping which is very much part of the Auvergne style. It’s not easy.

Next were the Moulders, who took us through some Renaissance tunes in ensemble. Good stuff, but I do need to brush up my sight-reading in the key of G.

I found the presentation by the trio “ZampogneriA” most impressive. As I understand it, these most Italian pipes are ultimately derived from the sordelina, possibly the most complex bagpipe invented, with two chanters and a remarkable range of keys. Like a few court instruments, it was eventually simplified and used by ordinary people. At one time Italian pipers travelled and busked across Europe, and in quite large numbers – like 800 in Ireland! They worked with street performers, but back at home were often used in local celebrations – pig killings, anyone? They were also very much a part of religious festivals, especially Christmas. We were told that usually only one child in a family would be allowed to learn – so as not to split any earnings.

Three sizes were demonstrated by the group in their talk and they all sounded beautifully rich; I’m not ashamed to say I was very moved by the tone of the medium-sized instrument.

Terry Mann’s session on Swedish pipes was entertaining as well as instructive. It might have been entitled “You bought a set of Swedish pipes? Welcome to Hell!” Like all “primitive” things, it needs dedication. With its single-reed chanter it’s very pressure sensitive, and as it uses natural materials for the reed, maintenance isn’t easy. Yet it can be done, and will certainly suit those who like playing with instruments, not just on them. That there were over half-a-dozen sets in the room showed that there are those willing to have a try. Terry got us to try different clapping exercises as the rhythms of Swedish music are special – the polska and its variants especially and he also discussed some gracing techniques.

The AGM was short and encouraging. We’re doing fine financially, membership numbers are up a little (which is good these days!), the Blowout is steady, but more committee members would help, especially to look after publicity. It would be good as well for people to be involved in running the Blowout. Ian does that so very well, but won’t want to do it for ever. And there’s still money to be had for worthwhile piping projects.

The concert in the church was as good as ever and for once, following the fine weather, the building wasn’t cold! Paul Roberts began the concert playing Border pipes. He played a selection of “Gathering” tunes from the Border region followed by some pieces from Lancashire sources. The main performance was “ZampogneriA” with special guest Eric Montbel. The tunes came from Italy, France and elsewhere - not only was the musicianship superb but the rapport between the players was beyond praise. I think we were all sorry when the concert had to end eventually.

For the Bal we had Steve Tyler on hurdy-gurdy, Katy Marchant on pipes with Terry Mann on percussion. They were on top form, and certainly got the dancers to their feet – and kept them there! The real hairs-on-the-back-of your-neck moment, though, came when Kathy began a piece with singing in a wonderfully high and sweet voice. Magic! Eric took over, and was joined later by ZampogneriA. They finished their spot with a Circassian circle danced to a tarantella. Made sense to me…

I had to miss the Sunday morning Renaissance Ensemble session, though I’m told it was very good. I was getting some minor work done on a couple of my sets. Even modern pipes need the equivalent of a car service sometimes and at the Blowout you can meet you maker. Today’s pipe makers are especially knowledgeable and experienced; it’s a pleasure to talk to them, and always good to see so many makers in the Hall. So many pipes – so little time…

Eric Montbel’s Sunday session took in some more features of French piping style, like the vibrato, which goes back to the Musette of the French court. The old pipers, he said, would always say, “Try to imagine you’re singing”. He mentioned various techniques here. When he and his friends first became interested there was no real Bourbonnais tradition, they took cabrette techniques from surviving pipers like Joseph Ruols, whose waltz we tried, and Jean Burghead, who wondered why they didn’t want to play the guitar! Finally, we had a go at a 2/4 bourree, Eric emphasising that the stress is on the first beat.

The Sunday afternoon concert saw a wide selection of music and pipes beginning with Chris Bacon playing a pibroch on Great Highland pipes. (I always forget just how powerful these are!). The Renaissance Ensemble group gave a demo of what they’d learned, and good it was, too. Next was Irish piper Cahill Brown on Uilleann and pastoral pipes, Tim Gleaves and Aisling O’ Brien playing G pipes and George Stevens who performed his own tune “Polesworth Abbey. Steve and Katy took us back to medieval times with some “Cantigas” and then Jon Swayne played a couple of song airs from Somerset collected by Cecil Sharp followed by 3/2 hornpipes. Finally we heard Eric play a slow air on low pipes, followed by two on his G set.

So, then it was sadly time to leave, and return to that other world. It might well have been the best Blowout yet, but for me it was probably the most memorable. Here’s to next year!

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