Experiments with Composing for a Bagpipe Duo


Over the last few years I have enjoyed experimenting with bagpipes. My piping philosophy has been to always try to stick to what the bagpipe wants to do naturally, and then push the boundaries in all directions. Moreover, to ask myself what can a bagpipe do that other instruments cannot do so well. With this in mind, I decided to start a bagpipe duo, in order to experiment with the possibilities that two bagpipes could offer over just one solo bagpipe.
I was fortunate enough to meet the piper and pipe maker Matthias Branschke in 2016, having ordered a chanter from him. We both agreed that it would be interesting to start a duo to explore the possibilities of duo pipe music, and with Matthias being an excellent piper, it meant that I would be able to push the compositions in many directions. Together we formed the Branschke Armstrong Duo.

I had initially thought about the combination of a D chanter and a G chanter in consort together. However, Matthias proposed two D chanters, and we both agreed that this would be a preferable option in order to explore the possibilities of two chanters at the same pitch. This we believed would allow us to play more equal duo parts and more easily break away from a more conventional ‘tune and accompaniment’ setting, where the G chanter takes the melody most of the time and the D chanter accompanies it. Therefore, I began to write a series of compositions, using a number of techniques that I thought would work well on the pipes. My first thoughts were on drones.

Given the fully chromatic nature of Matthias’s D chanter over an octave and a half as well as its remarkable inbuilt stability. I decided that I could tune our drones to different tunings and modulate between different keys. I first took note of the drone combinations that we have between us:

My drones are made by Jon Swayne, and are in A/ D or B/E or D and Matthias’ are made by himself, and cover G/D and in another set G/C.

I use a multi combination drone stop switch made by Thorsten Tetz that allow me to change my drones whilst playing. Matthias has two separate drone systems that allow him to either operate G/C drones on one set or G/D drones on the other. On the G/C drone system he has a switch that enables him to either play the G/C drones together, a stopped rotating ring on the end of his C drone that allow him to turn off the C drone and to just play the G drones and, a secondary switch that allows him to switch off air to the G drones and just play the C drone. Matthias’ D/G set works in the same way, with the G drone taking the place of the C drone and the D drones the place G drones.

Having worked out the logistics of turning on and off the drones on both sets, I worked out the best way to use each drone stop combination in a way that suited them the best. I decided that I could use the drones in two ways in a duo that were much easier to utilise than in a solo setting. Firstly, one of us could create a drone riff whilst the other was playing a solo melody, by switching on and off different combinations of drones, or secondly, that we could both set our drones to different combinations, allowing me to arrange key changes so that one of use could drop out very briefly from harmonising a piece and switch drone settings whilst the other modulated away from the previous key on the chanter to match the key that the drones had moved to.

Here Matthias harmonises my line in 3rds before dropping out of the melody by use of the stop key and adding his G drones over the top of my D drones, whilst I add an F sharp and E flat into the mix thereby propelling the tune from D minor into G minor.

Having worked out how to successfully shift tonal centre with the drones I turned my attention to the chanter.

I was keen to explore the use of the stop key for articulated effects. I discovered that using the stop key for the articulation of just one note sounded rather comical and was probably best left out for now. However, I discovered that using the stop key to begin and end short musical patterns was very effective Moreover, this allowed you to more easily start and end a musical phrase cleanly without the risk of the chanter note tailing off in a downward glissando to finish, or with an explosive exclamation to begin. See fig 2 below

In this figure Matthias and I start with the stop keys depressed, allowing us to start at the right pressure to tune the chords. We then release the keys in unison to start the phrase and then depress then again at the end of the phrase without easing off the bag pressure to ensure a clean finish.

After some thought I decided that it would be nice to use the two previously discussed ideas together and try and form a tune distributed between the two pipes (In Mediaeval music this is called hocket) whilst forming a moving base pattern in the drones.

In figure 3, above, I achieve this by giving the two pipes three note patterns which when played correctly in hocket form a tune, I then placed instructions above the score in order to show what drone note to select in the rests. We both discovered after some practice that this effect worked best if enough air was maintained in the bag so that when pressure was applied to the bag the drones and chanter of either of our pipes came in together without the chanter entering later than the drones. This and much subsequent rehearsal resulted in the desired effect being achieved.

Having experimented with some more unusual effects I then decided to compose a more traditional sounding piece, and decided to write a more ‘tune and accompaniment’ based piece. In order to prevent the tune being obscured by the harmony, I deliberately picked the tonal centre of G, which is nicely positioned in the D chanter’s gamut. This allowed me comfortably to write a melody that would not overlap with the harmony and therefore not be obscured. As well as having enough space to compose contrasting sections in other parts of the gamut. See Fig 4 below.

I found that the faster repeated pattern in the second voice works best when the tune above has less movement in it. If there is too much motion happening over the faster accompaniment pattern the effect is too chaotic to be of much effect.

For faster melodies I found it to be more useful to make the harmonic voice run around in 3rds below the tune or sometimes, for the second voice to run around in unison with the first voice and at select points to break away and create a harmony for a few beats in order to create an emphasis. However, one effect that did prove to be quite useful was to create an overlapping hocket effect based around arpeggios see Fig 5 below I discovered this effect to be quite pleasant as it gives a shimmering antiphonal or stereo effect, without sounding too busy.

Unison suddenly became an effect in itself too. Having written something with quite complex polyphony, I found it was of great relief to the ear to have a section in unison afterwards. Unison also had the added effect of allowing the voices to cover a greater range as there was no longer any worry of overlapping harmonic lines in the wrong places. Here I can transfer easily from a relatively step wise melody in a small area of the chanter to a more arppegiated one covering a greater range as there is no countermelody or harmony in the way to obscure the musical shape.
In general I found that it is very important to take great care when organising harmony for two pipes at the same pitch which, is not as true for two pipes at significantly different pitches for example, a chanter in D playing with a chanter in G. Here there is more room for two lines of music to move without interfering with each other. When exploring harmony on two pipes of the same pitch, you can risk creating a very chaotic effect if the harmonic lines cross each other in an illogical way, or if you end up with too many unprepared dissonances in close intervals. This is very noticeable at slower and mid-range tempos, and is probably due to the constant sound that a bagpipe produces over other wind instruments where the sound is normally briefly stopped by articulations made by the tongue.

There is still a great deal I would like to explore with this duo, and I hope to compose many more pieces for it in an ever increasingly bagpipe-able way. It has been very enjoyable to work with Matthias, to experiment with polyphony and to try to find creative ways in dealing with the overall ‘perceived limitations’ of the bagpipes. I find in this duo as I always do with bagpipes that, although by modern standards limited, you can still cut the bagpipe pie into an infinite number of slices.

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