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The Bagpipe Society

Blowout 2015 review

This is an abridged version of George’s review of Blowout 2015. Read the full article on the website.

Since I’ve reported on the Blowout many times our perceptive Editor said, “Why not tell those who don’t go what they’re missing?” So here goes!

First, it’s FUN. We often start the weekend with a competition, and this year we were invited to get up and perform a piece of music from stage and screen – not often bagpipe hotspots. But it was clear that Society members are an ingenious bunch. Apart from the Heath Robertson clapometer worked by John Goodacre, the tunes were staggering. No room to list them all, but Jon Swayne and Becky Price’s Nessun Dorma looked a winner until we saw and heard Peter and Kate perform selections from “Andy Pandy” of beloved TV memory – in costume! As Julian said, anyone who went to those lengths surely deserved the prize.

Next, naturally the Blowout is primarily about bagpipes. And it’s the best place in the country to see a lot of them and of different types. We don’t see so many Highland, Northumbrian or Irish regularly as they have their own support networks and their habitat is a bit more specialised. In fact, though we’ve covered aspects of all three in the Society’s nearly 30 years, we’re more generalist in outlook, and the Blowout is the place to see and hear an incredibly wide variety of types. Not only that, but you can get close up and personal. You can ask the owners about them, you can talk to the makers, and have a play on that type you haven’t tried before – and perhaps even order a set. For that the Blowout is a very exciting place with so many of Britain’s top makers displaying their wares. Jon Swayne, Julian Goodacre and Sean Jones are regulars, but I hadn’t seen Jim Parr before, although he’s been a maker for a long time. I was impressed with his neat Zampogna, the classic Italian pipe. Phil Bleazey’s whistles were a reminder that if your budget is limited and you don’t play anything yet, a whistle or recorder is a good start. This year we also had pipes and hautbois (shawms) from guests Robert Matta and Pierre Rouch, whose work concentrates on a surprisingly wide range of pipes and shawms from the Pyrenean regions of France and Spain. These areas are part of a wide historic Occitan and Basque culture which runs from Aragon and Catalonia to Provence and the north east of Italy. Their presence at the Blowout was also an important part of what the Society is about: we’re not tied to a nationalistic agenda, but enjoy pipe music from all over the world and of all types. It’s a lot of years since I heard Occitan music and I’ve tended to play more Central French in the years since, but this year reminded me how much I enjoyed the sort of stuff that Robert and Pierre were playing with Jonas Gimeno as part of “Trio Matta Rouch”.

The Blowout is also about playing with other pipers, not always possible for some of us at home. So it’s a real pleasure to join in the sessions last thing. The noisy pipes play for dancing in the hall, normally, and the quieter ones, usually in D, have the dining room to themselves. I usually play in the noisy brigade, but the quiet players make a fantastic sound.

It’s all very well to have your set of pipes and play them – but are you doing that as well, as effectively, as you could? And so the Blowout has its talks and workshops on technique, on possible repertoires, and on the history of piping. In that recent BBC Scotland two-part programme on bagpipes, the great Liam O’Flynn said that in piping you’re part of a tradition, and that’s a comfortable place to be. Workshops over the weekend came from Paul Martin on border pipes and tunes, Dave Rowlands looking at Irish music, Andy Letcher running a piper’s surgery for those needing help with their piping and Trio Matta Rouch took people through various Occitan tunes. Meanwhile, Chris Allen ran workshops for the hurdy gurdy players in attendance.

Although as pipers we respect tradition, we are not slavishly bound to it, as quite a few presentations in past Blowouts have shown. Rohan Kriwaczek took us back to the basics of what we are about. He explained how his own long academic study of music and composition has left him dissatisfied. Looking at primitive music, he argues that humans seem to find that with five notes is a minimum because with them we can begin to tell a story. People have been doing that for a long time; “proper” flutes have been found going back 45,000 years. And dance may well be as old; we’re creatures that evolved to run long distances – rhythmically. He sees pipes as a way forward as drone music is the basis of so much modern music, and pipes are the ideal instrument for that. He felt that ornamentation was as vital as consonants are to speech, but we shouldn’t be too hung up on the exact system. Nor did he want simply to trot out traditional tunes as he had his own things to say. In the same way, he didn’t want to saddle himself with a nationalistic baggage, so he has invented his “own” country. And if you want to hear the results, you can buy his CD!

Other guests paying a fleeting visit were Balazs Istvanfi and Andras Nemeth from Hungary. Central European pipes can look primitive, but the music is complex and beautiful. As we know, pipes pair well with hurdy-gurdies, and Hungarians have found this out as well as the French. Their hurdy-gurdy is big, but has a small wheel as it needs to be able to articulate some very fast music.

AGM’s are not considered fun, but are necessary. Further, the tone was very positive. Membership is increasing, the Blowout is well- attended and the profile of bagpipes is greater than it was. But we need to raise it more, and there is still money for special events to do that. Showcases and workshops at festivals to come and try a bagpipe often do well - could you do that at your regular festival given the chance? Further, in these days of widespread mobile phone filming, could more piping “footage” be sent in to be spread via the net? A final point ‐ next year is our 30th anniversary – any suggestions?

We’ve been lucky over the years to have a church for our Saturday formal concert as they’re ideal for our instrument. As usual, several members joined a workshop for a band presentation as the opening spot, and this year it was a treat to hear a piece conducted by our own John Tose, and written by his daughter Mickey, who is studying music. It was a lovely reflective piece, and fitted the church setting perfectly.

Next were the Hungarians. What struck me on this second hearing was that this is not sound bite music. It’s probably not familiar to most of us, but it’s inaccessible either and it’s full of drive, power and passion. Third were the Occitans with their amazing variety of pipes and shawms. We ended Saturday with the dance. One of the good things about BagSoc is that we don’t forget that a lot of piping, indeed folk playing generally is about dance, a fact that has been forgotten in the many “sessions” where it’s played today. There were two “official” bands, the first being duo Jon Swayne and Becky Price on pipes, accordion and keyboards. They know exactly how to play effectively for dancing, and it struck me that their music is classy. It’s original, with good melodies, it’s good to listen to as well as dance to, and there’s always a sense of warmth in their playing. And the second band was Trio Matta Rouch. It was a great performance with a fandango and a sept-sauts joining the more familiar French dances. Then it was down to everyone else to play for those who wished to dance!

Sunday contained more workshops and presentations and concluded with a final concert from all those taking part throughout the Blowout. I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, but I can’t end without mentioning all those that make it possible – Ian Clabburn, Robert and Ruth Bramley and the team with the kind cooperation of the vicar and his congregation. And the excellent food provided by Vanessa and her team. (I look forward to it almost as much as anything else!) Without them all the event wouldn’t be the same, and I doubt if it would even be possible. So three cheers to them all!

I hope this has given those who have not attended the Blowout before a flavour of the event. So see you all there in 2016?

To get a full flavour of the Blowout, then do take 10 minutes out with a brew to watch a video made by Jeremy Cooper. He really managed to capture the event brilliantly. Thanks Jeremy! Here’s a link Also check out recordings of the groups in concert on the Society’s YouTube channel - see next article for the address.