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Promoting the Bagpipe Revival since 1986

The Bagpipe Society

In Conversation with François Lazarevitch

AK: You’ve done a lot of work in what you could call it the archaeology of sound. On the one hand we find traces in written sources, like the treatises of Quantz and Hotteterre… on the other hand recordings of the last generation of cabrette players.

But can you apply what’s written in classical/early music texts to traditional music? And do you find the same kinds of articulation, ornamentation and phrasing in early 20th century traditional music that you do in the music of the baroque?

FL: Every kind of music is a separate language and you have to understand all the elements of its vocabulary (phrasing, ornaments, sound production, tuning…) to master it and express a coherent, convincing musical argument. When I learn a new musical style, I always want to speak the language without a foreign accent!*

During my studies, traditional music helped me make an important discovery: the cadence. This is a term that was used and defined by authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionary of Music, and it describes that particular quality in music which makes you want to dance. Nowadays the term cadence is almost unknown in the world of early music, but it’s still in use in traditional music - though today we tend to use an Anglicism, ‘swing’.

This dance-energy is universal and essential. It enriches the interpretation of every style of music, and you can’t learn it in books, but only through being in touch with other humans, through working with experienced musicians and dancers.

What is it made of? A ‘’tension" that the interpreter gives to the tempo - and to do this, he must already have mastered complete regularity of tempo - and a way to put into high relief the melodic and harmonic accents. This energy circulates like the blood in our veins, to the rhythm of a beating heart.

If you can feel this energy circulating when you are playing one kind of music, then you can bring it alive in another style too. So, for instance, I believe if you can play a bourrée d’Auvergne well on the cabrette, you’ll play a baroque minuet better on the musette de cour - on condition, naturally, that you take the trouble to learn the proper character of a minuet, and to understand both what the two styles and types of dance have in common, and what makes them quite distinct.

The cadence is the expression of a universal energy, and the way it’s expressed is equally universal. So, the principle of notes inégales (that is, giving the first of a pair of quavers slightly more time than the second) is found in both early music and traditional styles. Making notes inégales expressive requires a mastery of varied articulation. Of course, each style of music has its own method of articulation, but the basic principle of connecting the second quaver to the first of the next group, rather than connecting the first and second, is a common characteristic.

On the level of ornamentation, the idea of cadence also provokes interesting ideas, such as applying the profusion of ornament that typifies traditional music, even though such ornaments are not often written out in early musical manuscripts.

But I certainly don’t want to mix everything up. When a technique has been well documented, as for example the playing of the baroque musette de cour, particularly through Jacques Hotteterre’s works, then the principles should be rigorously applied. On the other hand, when it comes to playing Renaissance dances on the musette or other bagpipes, understanding traditional ornamentation is extremely useful and can add liveliness to your interpretation.

AK: Perhaps you could also talk a little about how you developed your knowledge of different traditions - the cabrette, baroque music, and Irish traditional music; for instance, the things that are very different, and the common factors. You’ve had a fascinating career, which is very interesting for those who only play in one tradition of music.

FL: It was my passion for early music which led me to traditional music. When I was studying music, my teachers - Daniel Brebbia for recorder, Antoine Geoffroy-Dechaume for harpsichord and interpretation - often referred to living, traditional music to explain various principles of interpretation in early music. That made me want to go a bit further and actually learn to play traditional music.

I started that in a typically ‘classical music’ way - by taking lessons. I started with the Irish flute, because the instrument is quite close to the baroque flute, and then the cabrette, which, as a bellows pipe has some similarities with the musette de cour. And playing a bagpipe from the Auvergne also brought me close to my mother’s family roots.

So, while I was studying at the Brussels conservatoire with Barthold Kuijken, I was also passionately engaged with the Irish flute which I learned from Michel Sikiotakis at the end of the 1990s, and cabrette with Victor Larrousinie. In a rather romantic way, I hoped to find some hidden, completely ’natural’ truth. And, in fact, it did really broaden my musical understanding. Learning to listen, and learning by ear, is essential, and I was able to use that insight to follow in the footsteps of Bouscatel and Ladonne, or Paddy Carty and Micho Russell, by imitating their playing.

I have only been able to realise this synthesis of all kinds of music thanks to the quality of teaching I received in early music. If my teachers had given me a more rigid and limited view of early music, perhaps the barriers would never have come down. I’ve also been lucky enough to meet wonderful musicians, like Philippe Bruneau (Quebec accordion player), and dancers like the Guilcher family.

My education also showed me the importance of accumulating a repertory of all kinds of musical works in your own memory, from the simplest to the most complex; in particular, a knowledge of all the little dances and songs that everyone in the eighteenth century would have known.

You find common characteristics between different folk traditions. There are some ornamentations which the Irish flute and the cabrette share - but not all! And the differences are extremely important!

But as I said, the main principles are universal. And in terms of ornamentation, it’s always about making each note sound alive, while stressing the really important notes. Ornamentation must never obscure the musical line. In folk music, the rules for playing ornaments are extremely exacting, showing an idea of the importance with which they’re treated.

AK: You’ve talked at the summer school at Mortagne and at the Rouen musette conference about articulation, whether using tonguing on the flute or silences on the musette; and then there is also ornamentation to make a melody come alive. Could you summarise the most interesting, or the most common, ornaments for our readers? And perhaps, talk a little about how you teach them?

FL: If you read Hotteterre’s treatises on playing the flute and musette, the basics are simple. After describing the player’s posture, fingerings, how to produce the sound, and to play in tune, he talks about articulation and notes d’agrément (added notes in ornamentation). It’s these which deliver full mastery of the instrument.

In the eighteenth century, agréments included all the elements that allow a player to make a phrase expressive. A sign is usually used to symbolise certain ornaments; but in some French works, such as those by Hotteterre and Couperin, all the grace notes are written out in full, and it’s important to play these to get a good idea of the style. It’s also important to learn the old method of solfa, singing only the names of the notes and not the gracing, as Indian musicians still do. When you do this, it helps you realise how the principal note is always stressed. And then there are written treaties like those by Millet and Montéclair, and recordings - old mechanical musical instruments like serinettes and barrel organs.

Improving your playing means always trying to understand the role and meaning of the notes d’agrément. So, for example, to understand where you want to place a port de voix (appoggiatura coming from below) or a coulé (apoggiatura coming from above); when you want to make the appoggiatura long, or by contrast when you want to make it very short. That will often depend on the harmonic context; creating a dissonance gives more flavour to the music. So, when the appoggiatura clashes with the bass, you play it longer; but if it’s the main note that creates the dissonance, then the ornament needs to be short.

Trills, which baroque musicians called tremblements, are fast or slow depending on the tempo of the piece being played. Mordants, called battements (‘hits’), can be simple, just flicking the finger once, or double, involving several cuts, depending on the length of the note. And finger vibrato (flattement) is used on the musette, but it’s used on all the other wind instruments, too.

At first you note down your agréments on the sheet music, but rapidly you gain the ability to add them on the fly. And you can then see that a ’naked’ note with no ornament at all is an exception, and it becomes expressive exactly because it’s not ornamented.

As for true ornamentation, it is more developed than just an agrément, and can’t be symbolised by a mere sign on the score. Fortunately, we have quite a few examples of written-out ornamentation. For instance, we have some Corelli adagios written down exactly the way he played them, and we have the ‘Methodical sonatas’ of Telemann. In these pieces, the slow movements are embellished with a mass of ornament that was usually never written down, but left to the taste of the individual musician.

AK: I found your contredanse classes very interesting, particularly the idea of music like a continuously rolling wave. You play with an articulation very different from the classic articulation with a strong, sustained note on the first beat of the bar; you make these notes shorter to pick the music up, for example. I know a lot of our readers play for dancing, so perhaps we could talk about how that influences your playing.

FL: Thanks for the compliment!

Playing for the dance has had a huge impact on my playing. Playing for good dancers, for bals or for workshops with teachers who really know how to dance, and also playing with good dance musicians. You learn by working with others. It gets into your blood and you follow in the footsteps of people who understand it.

It seems to me we might need to do some thinking about what exactly is a ‘strong beat’ or a ‘weak beat’. I don’t like to press too hard on the downbeat or to glue it to the next note. So, then I can avoid the strong beat pushing out the weak beat, and I can avoid the weaker beat being just an absence of strong beat. You have to work to find an articulation of both the strong and the weak beat independently of each other. And for the weak beat, in early music as well, I think you have to lift it up, even if you don’t accentuate that very much, to give it a little lift.

The variety of silences within the music plays an essential role in articulation. The more you want to stress a note, the more you want to surround it with silence. If I want to accentuate a particular note, I’ll shorten the note before and the note after very slightly. The silence of articulation doesn’t just make the musical phrasing clearer, putting the most important notes into relief, but it also creates suspense. This suspense is both an expression of emotion, and of doubt or uncertainty; it’s an essential part of rhetoric. Silence and suspense let you play music with a real “lift”, and to find lightness and coherence within the music.

AK: Is playing a bagpipe really different from playing other instruments? For instance, if you’re playing with a drone (except the cabrette), when you have continuity of sound, does that change things for you?

FL: Even on the cabrette you can have a drone (chanterelle), particularly in the case of higher pitched pieds (chanters). For me playing with a drone is always a rich and enjoyable experience. Each note is given its character by the presence of the drone. And that’s the unique charm of the musette de cour, which has drones but is used in tonal music, and even with modulations.

What I also love on the bagpipe is the possibility of shaping your sound with vibrato and slides, playing against the tuning with the drone, so you can give an impression of making the sound louder by changing the speed and the width of the vibrato. I think it’s important to ensure your finger, when you’re raising and lowering it to make a vibrato, stays in control of the sound at every single instant. The cabrette really teaches you that; the tonic is tuned too high, unless your index finger covers the hole very slightly. So it’s the precision of your finger placement, guided by your ears, which makes the instrument play in tune.

To answer the first part of your question, yes, playing the bagpipe is very different from playing another instrument. But there are nuances depending on the type of bagpipe and the type of fingering. In particular, the closed fingering of the musette de cour allows you to develop an articulation which is similar to some keyboard instruments, particularly the organ. That makes your phrasing expressive by controlling the length of each note - the proportion between sound and silence. (Of course, on the musette the ‘silence’ is where you hear only the note of the drone.)

AK: And finally… because I’m nosy… how many instruments do you have? And how many bagpipes?

FL: I don’t think I could tell you exactly how many instruments I have, but it’s a good few. I’m a bit of a collector. As for my pipes: I have musettes in C, D, and A, in both A=415 and A=392, made by Rémy Dubois, and my old musettes, two in ivory, one by Chédeville, sounding at A=400. Rémy Dubois also made my pipes for playing early music; 17-18c smallpipes, which I used to record For ever Fortune, The High Road to Kilkenny and more recently The Queen’s Delight, and medieval/Renaissance pipes with a single drone (used in Je voy le bon tens venir).

I have a cabrette with its pieds in different lengths, 35, 39, 42, 47, 54 (that is, centimetres); I particularly love my 35 signed Alias, from the late nineteenth century. Then the cornemuses du Centre (14, 16 and 20 pouces), the boha, chabrette in B flat, muchosa…

My flutes are just as numerous. Baroque transverse flutes of different models and at different pitches - Hotteterre, JH Rottenburgh, GA Rottenburgh, JJ Quantz, Grenser - piccolos, eight-keyed flutes by Grenser and Godefroy ainé, Renaissance flutes in different sizes and pitches, baroque recorders (alto, soprano, fourth flute…), Renaissance recorders, medieval double flutes and satara, Irish flute, tin whistles in different keys, tabor pipes and percussion (drums or stringed), frula, overtone flutes including one lovely flute with the carved head of a deer, a big fujara, double flutes, Indian bansuri flutes, neys… I could go on!

When I was younger, I wanted to play everything!

Editor’s note: I encourage you to visit to discover more about François’s music and his group. Whether your tastes are traditional music or baroque (or both) you will find music to satisfy your soul! Many thanks to Andrea Kirkby for conducting the interview and for her excellent translation – all done against the pressure of a looming deadline!