The Bagpipe Society

Droning On

When I’m out walking, which is most weekends, I find it im- possible to pass a country church without popping in just to have a look. I’m not a believer, though an empty church on a summer’s afternoon has a stillness and a restfulness that, for me, borders on sanctity. And then, of course, there’s the added thrill of finding an unusual carving, a foliate head or a bag- piper, peering down from the shadows. Oxfordshire is well- stocked with pipers: Adderbury has its row of medieval musi- cians; Horspath, a double-chanterer; while Oxford has its fair share of grotesques, old and new, squeezing merry hell from an old leather bag.

Regular readers will know that we can’t be sure

whether these images point to anything beyond themselves.

There is a rather sniffy Wikipedia entry on ‘English Bag-

pipes’, which, if ever I get a wet weekend I fully intend to

revise (though don’t let me stand in your way). Its gist is that whatever pipes were played in England, back in the day, we don’t know what they were, or what they sounded like, or what was played on them, and that attempts to recreate ‘an English pipe’ are therefore rather pointless. I couldn’t disagree more. My admittedly unsupported hunch is that these carvings do indicate the one-time ubiquity of the bagpipes across England and beyond, and I like to imagine that in a few cases, at least, we’re looking at

pictures of actual players, for even the best artists occasionally use reference. So when I’m returning their gaze in the quiet of the church, I can’t help wondering what all those ghosts would make of the current pip- ing revival.

One of the founding aims of the Bagpipe Society (and one which reveals its geo- graphical origins) was to encourage the de- sign and development of a modern English pipe. In that it has succeeded admirably for, leaving aside the many different pipes being played at present, in terms of sheer popular- ity we have not one but two.

In the one corner we have Julian Goodacre’s Leicestershire Smallpipe, the sound of which now traditionally fills the refectory on the Blowout’s Saturday night, a honeyed hive of harmony that lifts the heart like no other. In the other, the somewhat louder pipe of which Messrs Swayne, Parr, Allen and Jones all make different versions. The question of what to call this second instrument remains since the demise of the cheerily nonsensical ‘half-longs’. On the new website I settled for ‘Southern’ English Border Pipe, given that the South is where this kind of instrument is made and played, though perhaps ‘English Bagpipes’ would have been more accurate.

The bigger question, of course, is why we need an ‘English’ bagpipe at all (or for that matter, a Welsh or a Cornish bagpipe), a theme I’ve written about before. The point of overlap between modern musical needs (for a keyless pipe with extended range, chromaticism, stable reeds and a volume that won’t drown out other acoustic instru- ments) and the constraints of physical acoustics is not large. That makers across Eng- land, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany have arrived at a similar solution (somewhat unkindly dubbed, the ’europipe’) is not surprising, What is, is that despite the physics, these many instruments, and the music played on them, still sound appreciably different. Without wishing in any way to invoke unpalatable nationalistic ideas, I still hold out that there is some intangible ’ness’ to our music and instruments, one that obvi- ously has to do with culture (that is, with language and tradition) but which also arises from place. Or, to put it another way, the volume and piquancy of the Great Highland Bagpipe starts to make sense when you’re standing in the majestic bowl of Glencoe or the flanks of Glen Nevis. No other instrument would quite do it.

As with many tune-writers, I often find that when I’m out and about, typically but not always walking, new tunes start to work in my head. It doesn’t happen every- where, nor can it be forced. The five valleys around Stroud have yielded a particularly good crop; three have arrived while driving home along the A303. At Pistyll Rhaeadr, the great waterfall of Powys, I started wondering what a pibgorn tune would sound like, and a strange sort of five time hornpipe worked its way through. I’m just back from a short camping and walking trip on the dramatic downland ridges of the Isle of Purbeck and I came back with a tune.

Well, with my academic hat on I’m a good post-structuralist and I know that current thinking would have these tunes, and the meanings with which I burden them, a construction, an edifice that I place upon an empty world. It’s just that I’m an unrecon- structed Romantic too. Sometimes a tune arrives with such vehemence that I don’t feel I’ve written it at all. It’s more an act of remembering, as if the tune were snagged in a hedge just waiting for me, or someone, anyone, to pick it up again.

The fact that I am imbued with the forms of a folk music tradition (jigs, schot- tisches, mazurkas, hornpipes and so on), that I play a drone instrument of limited com- pass, that I have preferences for certain wonky scales and skanky rhythms, and that my fingers move in habitual ways means the tunes I write are inseparably mine (as yours are yours). But I maintain that there is still something of the place in which they occurred to me contained within them, something necessary but intangible, like the egg that binds the cake. Whether that communicates or not I couldn’t say.

And this is how, I think, it’s possible to talk about English bagpipes and Eng- lish music and Englishness (or Welsh bagpipes and Welsh music and Welshness and so on). Whatever that ’ness’ is (and I can’t stress enough that it has nothing whatsoever to do with genetics or ‘race’ or skin colour or xenophobia), it stems from our relationship to place. We lay our music down upon the land and find that it fits.

I think the ghosts are probably smiling.