by Julian Goodacre
Bagpipes were played throughout much of Europe from the 13th century onwards with many regions still continuing their own piping traditions. Northumbria is the only region in England that has retained an unbroken bagpipe tradition, though it is clear that for centuries a wide variety of different types of pipes had been played throughout the country. With the death in the mid-19th century of the piper John Hunsley of Manton, Lincolnshire, the last of these English bagpipes fell silent. There are many early depictions, but no actual instruments survive.
Bagpipes began to fall out of favor in the south of England from the 16th century onwards and were increasingly considered to be an instrument of the north. During the 19th century, Highland pipes were adopted by the British Army and bagpipes came to be regarded as a Scottish instrument—few people in England were even aware that bagpipes had ever been part of their heritage.
The spark that rekindled interest in the English bagpiping came over a century after John Hunsley’s death. While researching in the early 1960s, Roderick Cannon found many historical references to the bagpipes being played in England and published two articles in The Folk Music Journal in the early 1970s ["The Bagpipe in Northern England", Folk Music Journal, v.2 n.2, 1971, pp. 127–147; "English Bagpipe Music", Folk Music Journal, v.2 n.3, 1972, pp. 176–219].
To revive an extinct instrument requires interest, enthusiasm, music, but above all it requires the instrument itself! The catalyst and focus for the revival was undoubtedly the band Blowzabella, formed by Bill O’Toole and Jon Swayne. They were both studying early instrument making at The London College of Furniture in the late 1970s and were experimenting with making bagpipes. Jon developed his low D Flemish pipe after the paintings of Breugel, and his "English" bagpipe in G—a mouthblown pipe with two drones and his own design of chanter. At last there were reliable bagpipes on which to play English music! Since then, Jon has gone on to develop a range of highly sophisticated bagpipes based on the Border bagpipe. Their chanters are chromatic, with an extended range.
Blowzabella’s sound was new and exciting and based firmly around the pipes and hurdy gurdy, taking much of their inspiration from the dance music of central France and adapting it to English music. They organized pipe and gurdy weekends in the 1980s which were joyous gatherings and the first chances for isolated pipers and other pipemakers to meet, compare pipes, and play together.
It was a very exciting time for me as I had begun to experiment with pipemaking in 1981 and became a professional maker in 1985. Since then I have developed a variety of different pipes. My first, developed with my brother John, was the Leicestershire smallpipe—a single drone instrument that can be mouth or bellows blown. The English Greatpipe is based on a 15th century manuscript illustration of the Miller from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I based my Cornish double-chantered bagpipes on a fine carving in the church at Alternun, Bodmin Moor dated ca. 1510. This is typical of many early carvings of double-chantered pipes to be seen in churches throughout England [see article following]. My English double pipes are based on actual measurements in the Talbot manuscripts from the 1690s.
English pipers have been looking to European piping traditions for inspiration, rather than Scotland. A focus for the revival has been the England-based Bagpipe Society formed in 1985 for those with an interest in all types of bagpipes. Many of its members play English bagpipes. Some are playing the alluring dance music of central France, which has an unbroken tradition and lends itself perfectly to the pipes. Others are facing the challenge of trying to explore ways of playing English music. So much has been lost and needs to be rediscovered—or reinvented. Although our piping tradition is broken, there has long been a strong tradition of sophisticated instrumental variations in England. With the discovery and publication of the William Dixon manuscript of 1733, we now have proof that bagpipes were part of this tradition.
Today there is a variety of different English pipes available in a range of keys. There are pipers who play these solo or in groups, with or without other pipers, for early music, dance bands, morris dancing—even the outer reaches of techno music. But what is English pipe music? After a gap of 200 years without any musical development, some pipers are looking to the past whilst others are trying to create new English music for the pipes.
Two English bagpipe trios use strikingly different musical approaches. The Goodacre Brothers were formed in 1986 to play traditional and our own dance music, using various combinations of both small and great pipes. The history of the trio’s instrumentation reflects the increasing variety of pipes that I have developed and our musical arrangements are essentially polyphonic. Jon Swayne’s trio Moebius plays his compositions. His arrangements use sumptuous and sometimes extraordinary harmonies making the whole group sound like one instrument. He has gone on to expand this approach even further in Zephrus—a six-piece bagpipe group which performs a stunning suite of Jon’s arrangements of the 17th century tune "Half Hannikin". And after all these years, Jon is still playing with Blowzabella.
The bagpipes are essentially a pastoral instrument which fell out of favour during the centuries of industrialization and urbanization. But now, in the late 20th century, we have post-industrial aspirations. The pastoral is once again desirable.
The English bagpipe revival is now well under way. For it to flourish, we must encourage the younger generation to play. I confidently expect this revival will not go the way I predict and I look forward with anticipation to the next 30 years.
by Jon Swayne
While Jon Swayne, his instruments and music are certainly not strangers to North Hero, 2001 was the first year for his ensemble, Moebius, to attend. As an introduction to the band and their music, Jon has been kind enough to discuss his approach to arranging music for multiple bagpipes.
In the early 90s, Don Ward, Judy Rockliff and myself met fairly regularly to try out stuff on three pipes. At that time we usually used two pipes in G and one in low D. Most of the harmonies were improvised, but I also began to write some simple arrangements. It all began to come together when I made a pipe in low C (a fairly uncommon pitch at that time) which gave us the interval of a fifth between the drones and was much more satisfying (see below). Then we got invited to perform at a bagpipe conference in Gijon in Asturias; we needed more repertoire in a hurry, so I started to develop some ideas I had had for some years about bagpipe harmonies. Soon after that we recorded a CD and began performing on a fairly regular basis. Judy dropped out because of illness around 5 years ago, and we were fortunate to be joined by David Faulkner, who learnt an extensive repertoire in an amazingly short time.
We often get asked what the name means. Well, August Moebius was a 19th century German mathematician who is best known for inventing a band or strip which is like a loop with a half twist. The result of the twist is that the strip only has one side and one edge. Or to put it another way, you can slide your finger over the whole of the surface without going over the edge. Such conundra appeal to the minds of me and Don, and it was just one of those ideas which came up when we were thinking of names for the group, and it stuck. If you like, you can also see some symbolic correspondence between a Moebius band and the music we play.
A large part of the reason why people like pipes is for the sound they make. (Come to think of it, if you ask people why they don’t like pipes, it’s usually because of the sound...) That might seem obvious, but especially with classical music, and to a lesser extent with other kinds, the sound, as sound, is usually supposed to be subservient to some higher cause, which is the music or the ideas which it is trying to express by means of melody, structure, etc. The fact that a bagpipe has a drone helps to give its music a timeless quality, so that what the music is trying to say is often less important than the state of mind it produces.
The result of three pipes playing in harmony together produces, I think, a kind of synthesis of both sides of the argument. On the one hand you have the feeling of timelessness induced by the drones; on the other, the harmonic possibilities offered by the three chanters against the drones enables a very powerful emotional and dramatic impact. When (as they should be) the pipes are perfectly in tune with each other, there is something immensely satisfying about the sound of the chords which can be produced, whether voluptuous or bleak.
I have been fascinated by the idea of bagpipes playing together in harmony ever since I first started playing pipes. In fact, on the very first record of Blowzabella (a band which I helped to start in 1979) there were some simple examples of tunes harmonized on 3 pipes, done by doubletracking since there were only two pipers in the group. A year or two after that I had the chance to try something slightly more adventurous with three pipes together at different pitches when with two other pipers, we improvised a three-part harmony version of some simple tunes on Galician Gaita in high D, cabrette in A, and Flemish pipe in low D.
It became clear that for a really satisfying sound and for flexibility and variety, pipes at two different pitches would give much more scope than simply two of the same. This is because the relative ranges of the instruments overlap. It also means that you have two different drone pitches happening. Assuming that the drones of both instruments are used, unless you are going for really weird effects, the choice of intervals between the two sets of drones boils down to two, the fourth and the fifth.
Both these intervals have their merits, but you only have to try it to come to the conclusion that the fifth is the more satisfying.
Except for the RWE (really weird effects) Proviso, both pipes must play in the same key. Each pipe on its own has a choice of two major keys, one based on the 6 finger note, the other on the 3 finger note. Therefore in the case of the fourth between drones, the upper pipe must play in its 6 finger key, the lower in its 3 finger key. The opposite applies when the interval between drones is the fifth. In this case the upper pipe plays in its 3 finger key, and the lower in its 6 finger key.
Fourth: Upper in A, lower in E: play in key of A.
Upper in G, lower in D: play in key of G, etc.
Fifth: Upper in A, lower in D: play in key of D.
Upper in G, lower in C: play in key of C, etc.
It’s clear that some melodic freedom must be sacrificed if, as is usually the case, the upper pipe carries the tune. With the A/E or G/D combination, the tune must be a 6 finger tune for the upper pipe. In this case it is useful if the lower pipe is able to overblow, in order to extend the shared scale up by a fourth. With the A/D or G/C combination, the tune must be a 3 finger one for the upper pipe, and here it is useful if the upper pipe can overblow. A further implication is that in the A/E or G/D combination (drones at fourth), the lower pipe, which is playing in its 3 finger key, should be able to play a flattened seventh relative to its 6 finger tonic, since this is the fourth degree of the scale in the 3 finger key. Conversely, in the A/D or G/C combination (drones at fifth), this applies to the upper pipe. Depending on the demands of the music, in the A/E or G/D combination the upper pipe may need a sharp seventh. In the A/D or G/C combination, it’s desirable for the lower instrument to be able to play a sharp seventh since it corresponds to the major third of the 6 finger scale of the upper (which becomes the sharpened leading-note of the 3 finger scale).
All the above is quite difficult to visualise from words, and there are other more complicated implications, but once you try things out in practice it becomes clear and obvious.
In order to fill out simple harmonies, or to make more advanced ones possible, you can add a third instrument. It usually seems better to double the upper one than the lower, though this is not the only possibility. You could for example use an EAE, DAD, DGD, CGC, CFC, etc combination. However, depending on its design the high pipe could be rather piercing and tiring for extended listening, and would be better balanced by a larger ensemble underneath it. AAD, GGC is more mellow.
Provided that the drone/chanter balance of each individual instrument is appropriate, there won’t be an impression of excessive drones when all instruments are playing.
Writing harmonies for any combination is really a matter of experiment to see what works best. In writing for Moebius, I use a variety of means, from the simplest — pencil, paper and head — through keyboard, computer sequencer to multi-track recorder. If you have trouble hearing harmonies internally (which I do, unless they are relatively simple ones), a keyboard is probably the quickest way to check ideas. With the left hand play a fifth or fourth as appropriate at the pitch of the bass drones, and in the right hand play the three chanter notes. (If you are using a synthesiser you can use weights or wedges to keep the drone notes down.) Of course, you can also improvise harmonies on the three pipes in real time, but in my experience it is difficult and time consuming to arrive at harmonies other than tonic, dominant and sub-dominant triads. A keyboard allows you to visualise and experiment with possibilities much more easily. As far as I am concerned, anything goes, provided that within the harmonic direction of the piece, it goes with the drones.
Everyone knows that a badly tuned bagpipe sounds horrible. This is even more true of bagpipe harmony groups, so it goes without saying that the greatest possible attention must be paid to accurate adjustment of the pipes, not only before starting, but also as the piece progresses if necessary by adjusting pressure in response to the needs of the harmony. It’s worth bearing in mind too that PA seems to exaggerate any mistuning.
I would encourage anyone who hasn’t tried bagpipe harmony playing in whatever combination to do so. It can be enormously satisfying. It’s probably best to start with pieces that are not too technically demanding, and to concentrate on accurate tuning and getting a beautiful sound.
It’s not too easy to find music which is suitable for harmonising for three pipes, which is why I decided to write all the music for Moebius. "How can this be folk music?" I hear you ask. Well, I don't see why it should be, or why it can’t be. Most of the pieces we play are based on traditional dance forms such as waltz, polka, hornpipe, bourrée, etc. On the other hand, I have taken the opportunity to do something a little more experimental from time to time, such as exploring the effect of changing harmonies without much melodic focus, or extending the structure beyond the 8 bar repeated form.
Recently I’ve been writing music for 6 pipes (at 3 different pitches) and percussion, but that’s another story.
1 Gilbert's Corner,
Glastonbury, Somerset, UK BA6 8RB
Website in preparation
Please visit the Gallery page to see pictures of English bagpipes being played.
The Pipers' Gathering, Inc. - <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Webmaster - <email@example.com>
Web Design -