The Bagpipe Society

Instrument Maker or Musician? In conversation with Olle Geris

Images to follow

On the Facebook page of l’Atelier d’un Souffle à l’autre, run by Remy Dubois and Olle Geris, you can regularly see detailed photos with the title: “Ce matin à l’atelier …” “This morning in the workshop…” Through these photographs, you can more or less follow the painstakingly precise way in which bagpipes are made. Intriguing, all that fine turning, drilling and cutting work by skilled instrument makers who are clearly working with heart and soul, to please musicians with their exquisite wind instruments. There aren’t many female pipe makers, but alongside her teacher, the talented and determined Remy, Olle quietly carved her own way to the pinnacle of folk instrument making.

How did that passion for folk actually enter your life?

“When I was nine years old, I went to the Summer School in Galmaarden for the very first time, together with my dad. A new world opened up for us! That whole folk music event, set in motion by performances of ’t Kliekske in our village, has had a great influence on our family. We came to every workshop or session with the whole family. When I was old enough to leave the children’s workshops, I was allowed to study bagpipes with Bart de Cock. My father had also been playing for several years and we decided to go to Brussels with a friend every week to take lessons with Jean-Pierre Van Hees.

At that time, Jean-Pierre Van Hees had the idea of ​​opening a bagpipe department at the Lemmens Institute. That idea became reality, and the bagpipe department has already produced many fantastic musicians. I spent a long time thinking of studying there and becoming a professional musician, but fate or chance decided otherwise. The bagpipe has remained my great passion and love and that has certainly been reinforced by building and collaborating with Remy!”

What attracted you to making instruments?

The “artisanal” was already present early on in my life as both my parents are very artistic people. My father is a sculptor and has a great passion for wooden puppets, he carves the dolls and my mother, who is a seamstress, provides them with the most wonderful clothes. So we were brought up in a very creative environment. I knew early on that I wanted to use my hands to create things. From year nine in high school, I attended the art school in Hasselt and I was particularly interested in sculpting and three-dimensional work.

But then I happened to get the chance to experience a whole week in Remy Dubois’ studio, that was the key moment! I started as an apprentice at the age of eighteen. The official training lasted three years, but as a Laureate from the Belgian Vocation Foundation, I was given two more years. After that I was lucky that I could work together with the great master for another twenty years!

Remy Dubois has enjoyed a well-deserved retirement since 2009, luckily his passion for bagpipes is even more alive than ever before and he puts his entire knowledge and skills at the service of this instrument. He travels to many museums to measure unique instruments and then make copies of them to better understand the history and evolution of the bagpipes. His research is collected in our non-profit association “1681 à Wislez”.

He has played a very large role in the development of our current bagpipe, but also has a great reputation as a builder of the baroque bagpipe. Bart Van Troyen has been coming to Remy regularly for a number of years to learn how to build this instrument. Each bagpipe type has its own shape and reed and that makes it almost impossible to master making multiple and different bagpipe types at the same time, which is why builders specialize in one type, and that is difficult enough!

Bagpipe types and decorations

“The Farmer’s Wedding” by Pieter Breughel the Elder, is probably the most famous painting with a “Flemish” bagpipe. Unfortunately, a tangible copy of this “Flemish Breughel type” has never been found. Because it is absolutely impossible to be able to determine the bores based on a painting, let alone to reconstruct a reed, we cannot know what these pipes sounded like! In Vienna in the Kunsthistorisches Museum there is an instrument that looks very much like a Flemish one, but this instrument comes from Germany, a Schäferspfeiffe, this bagpipe model was played in a large part of Central Europe in a certain period, not only in Flanders. Today, everyone here plays a bagpipe that is internally the same as those from Central-France but one that is turned and mounted as a Flemish instrument. There is however also a Belgian bagpipe, unique in its kind! Three original copies of it, now on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels, were found in Hainaut, near Arc Aisnières. The Moselle Bag / Muchosa / Pipasso … was not only played around our language border, but in a much larger area that included Flanders, Wallonia and French Picardy.

Which types of bagpipes do you make more specifically?

“As a student colleague of Remy Dubois and due to the fact that we developed different keys together as a team, I make both his and our models. The solo bagpipe is his life’s work, it takes fifty years of sleepless nights to fine-tune such a model …!

A bagpipe is essentially an air reservoir with a chanter that has a cylindrical or conical bore, a double reed or a single reed: all possible combinations are possible herein. In every tradition, the evolution of an instrument goes hand in hand with the music people want to play on it. Today they want to use the bagpipe in all possible formations and music genres. The evolution of the bagpipe since the folk revival is moving towards a standardized bagpipe that is, as it were, universal.”

Are the instruments tuned the same as standard?

“Yes, the instruments from the same builder have the same tuning as standard. The differences that can sometimes be observed have to do with the fact that it is still manual labour, impossible to make the same thing 100 times “exactly”. The fact that one instrument was built in a different period than the other, or that a different type of wood was used, also plays a part in the sound and the “intonation” of the instrument. The same is true for the reed, so there are an abundance of small factors that can make a big difference. Every time the instrument gets a new reed, it must be adjusted accordingly; making holes slightly smaller or larger … that’s normal and the musicians know this, luckily they won’t do this themselves!”

I saw a series of photos of broken chanters on your Facebook page…

“Yes, you only need one careless moment to have an accident and wood remains fragile material.”

Which types of wood are the most loved, or which are more difficult than others to work with?

It is generally thought that wood for musical instruments “must be able to vibrate well” to produce a good sound, which is indeed the case for all string instruments that have a sound box. For wind instruments however you mainly need a smooth wall, the air that is brought into vibration must find the exit of your air column quickly and without much opposition from wood pores. That is why “hard and dense” woods are used. The hardest homegrown wood, boxwood, produces the most beautiful sound. But the very slow growth of the wood and the fact that even after a long time drying (minimum 10 years) it still reacts and can warp makes this wood difficult to commercialize. Other fruit wood such as sorb or plum tree also have a wonderful result and of course exotic wood is used such as rosewood and ebony, but that will become increasingly difficult due to better protection against logging in the tropical forests.”

How do you rank the status of the bagpipes in Flanders and Wallonia?

“The bagpipe remains the odd one out here. The instrument is now well known and sometimes there is a surge in popularity, with more people wanting to play it, but that often has to do with a popular melody in a movie or something. It is however fantastic that people can now also learn this instrument at music academies, not just at summer schools, but we will for example never be able to match Galicia or Ireland where this instrument is almost a national pride.”

In what other ways are you still active in the folk environment?

“I regularly teach workshops at home and abroad, and since September also weekly at the music academy in Genk. Now that the children are getting older, I’m hoping that I will have more time to make music myself.

The combination with family life is, as it is for every self-employed person, a difficult balance. When I built with Remy, we had a waiting period of six years. On the day he retired, the waiting time doubled to twelve years. I worked from early in the morning until late at night, so I got a serious burnout three or four years ago and had to reorganize everything. A difficult step, but it has paid off, the waiting times have been reduced to three years, for study instruments up to one year. That is fantastic, both for myself and for the customers

Are your children also becoming mini bagpipe players?

“Every day, customers come here … and of course they all play bagpipes, so my children think the bagpipe is a very banal instrument and they are more attracted to special instruments that nobody plays … such as an electric guitar or something!”

And: what about electronic bagpipes?

“I compare it with the difference between an acoustic and an electric guitar: what’s possible on one isn’t possible on the other, but certainly neither can replace the other! Now it is still seen as a bagpipe with which you will never have reed problems, which is always in tune and which is appreciated even by the neighbours, but in my opinion, it is much more than that, an instrument that offers an incredible number of possibilities that are still waiting to be discovered … " Interviewed by Jos Tilley

Translation by An Croenen Brutsaert

To see a video of Olle playing the ‘Muchosac’

All photographs in this article have been taken from the Facebook page of ‘Rémy Dubois & Olle Geris - Atelier d’un Souffle à l’autre’.