I was thrilled by the prospect of Matthew Welch’s new book, A New Compleat Theory for the Highland Bagpipe immediately I read about it. Having been familiar with Matt’s playing for some years, and with his innovative work both as a composer and in collaboration with some of the US’ leading composers, the prospect of a new Compleat Theory written from his point of view was something to anticipate eagerly.
Welch sets out his premise in the Introduction, beginning with an account of what is known about Joseph MacDonald, the author of the original Compleat Theory in c1760. The parallels with Welch’s own journey in music are evident. MacDonald was trained in piping, contemporary classical music performance and composition. With his metaphorical foot in two musical worlds, he was well placed to carry out his groundbreaking work. Likewise, Matthew Welch has his feet firmly planted in the contemporary expressions of these two musical worlds. He is an active classical composer with a doctorate from the prestigious Yale School of Music, and a traditionally taught piper who competed for a while with Simon Fraser University Pipe Band (including for two World Championship wins). He also studied with the likes of Colin MacLellan, Mike Cusack, Jack Lee and others.
The boldness of positioning a book as A New Compleat Theory… will be well understood by pipers, and perhaps some may be irked by it. Joseph MacDonald’s work is essential reading for anyone interested in the art of piobaireachd, whether as a player, or as a listener. Its discussion of other aspects of piping and its distinction as the first book of its kind, should earn it a place on any piper’s bookshelf. In simply borrowing MacDonald’s archaic spelling of “compleat”, Matthew pays tribute to young Joseph’s groundbreaking work, and at the same time confidently challenges the reader (and piping in general) to consider this new book as offering a similar resource for pipers and composers in the modern context – in his own words, “… a broad, comprehensive, insightful yet succinct account of the Highland Bagpipe repertoire”.
The intention for the book to appeal not only to pipers as performers, and to those who are also composers of pipe music, but to composers of e.g. art-music, is laid out early on. This is something I expect any piper who has worked with a composer (whether art-music, film or television, or other context) will understand the value of. The world of piping can seem opaque to outsiders but the instrument presents a unique puzzle that often proves fascinating for composers.
Since MacDonald’s time, art-music has in a sense caught up with the pipes, with the popularity of drones, music with fixed tonal centres, pieces based on harmonic overtones, minimalism, and the like predisposing audiences to be better able to respect and appreciate what piping, and piobaireachd in particular, is. In MacDonald’s day, European art-music was heavily influences by contrapuntal music, much of it with Italian roots. In Scotland at the time, this was generally understood as “Italian musick”, and as Welch notes MacDonald considered this Italian-derived music inappropriate to the pipes as a drone instrument. In the intervening 260 years, and particularly within the last 80 or so, this landscape has changed (possibly for the better, from the point of view of pipers). “The world of art music (is) ready for the bagpipe”, writes Welch.
For the complexity of both the instrument and its music, which is sometimes unexpected or under-appreciated by those seeking to write for the pipes, to be laid out clearly and with musical examples of the quality given here is something that elevates our instrument and our art in the eyes of the wider musical world. This includes work by renowned composers Philip Glass, who has endorsed Welch’s interpretations of his work, and Anthony Braxton, who has composed work for the pipes in collaboration with him. Future collaborations and new works written for the pipes by composers who choose to rely on this book will have the opportunity to be deeper, more effective, and more meaningful in relating not only to the contexts these works are developed for, but potentially for the continually unfolding story of piping itself.
The book begins with a thorough ‘Organoligical Overview of the Highland Bagpipe’. Beginning with the straightforwardly factual (bag, drones, reeds etc), this progresses to outline some basic ideas relating to drone harmonics (discussed in more detail later in the book), and makes reference to the difference between the chanter’s intonation and that of equal tempered instruments. It’s already easy by this point to imagine many pipers who would benefit from reading and understanding this section, as basic as it may at first appear. The subject of pentatonic scales and modes is introduced, with examples given as part of a discussion on the use of these scales in Highland music.
The remainder of the first chapter comprises a brief discussion of the forms and role of gracenotes, which may not contain much that’s new to the piper. The next two chapters cover a thorough dissection of the main traditional forms of ceòl beag. In Chapter Four – ‘New Directions in New Millennium Piping’ – Welch discusses recent developments in ceòl beag, including asymmetric meters, the use of alternate scale intervals (like C nat), slides between notes, the use of round vs. dotted rhythms, ties over the bar and so on. The chapter also discusses recent piobaireachd compositions, and looks at some of the ideas introduced in these pieces, before closing with a discussion of ensemble playing with a couple of examples of music composed by Michael Grey, Toronto.
Welch could’ve gone into more detail here but he is clear at the outset that he intends to be succinct. In this respect he is taking a cue from young Joseph MacDonald. From our point of view, though, a deeper investigation into this by a writer of Welch’s qualifications would be worth a read.
The section titled “Drones” is very interesting, and includes reference to the effect of movement as a way of interacting acoustically with a performance space, shaping the sound in different way simply by moving from place to place. This can have a pronounced effect on what is heard, for example, by foregrounding different overtones. Similarly detailed discussions of the particulars of the strike-in sound and a discussion of alternate chanter techniques, both examining portions of Julia Wolfe’s piece LAD (a performance of which, in the Barbican in London, led to my own first conversation with Welch). You might be into this kind of “extended technique” like me but even if the approaches described in these sections would represent radical departures for you, the following section “new Linear Techniques” could be an eye-opener. The excerpts examined here from works by Julia Wolfe, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Michael O’Neill and Anthony Braxton offer a fascinating glimpse into the sheer enormity of unexplored territory that the deceptive simplicity of the chanter still conceals. This is stimulating and inspiring reading for any composer for the pipes.
Chapter Six is where the ‘meat’ of the book is from a piper’s point of view. It continues with an extensive examination of Michael O’Neill’s Horse of a Different Colour begun in the previous chapter, leading on to a further discussion of Julia Wolfe’s LAD, and concluding with a closer look into Sir Peter Maxwell Davies Orkney Wedding with Sunrise. All three discussions deal, as the chapter title indicates, with process and texture and may take the piper-composer quite deep into unfamiliar territory. The conclusion, which follows this chapter, once again makes the link between Joseph MacDonald’s original work and status as both a baroque musician and piper, and Matthew’s parallel investigations in the present day. In both the introduction and this conclusion, these comparisons are made with a clear sense of respect, admiration and understanding for MacDonald and for what his work represents.
The conclusion that follows is one of the most interesting and thought provoking portions of the text and raises as many ideas and routes for further exploration. A glossary of piping terms, both Gaelic and English follows. It might also be of use if a second glossary could also be added to illuminate the various art-musical and other theoretical terms used in the text. Part I of the book concludes with a bibliography and discography, following which the reader can move on to browse Part II, the Music Collection.
I’d like to talk now about the sheet music that accompanies the book (available via Bandcamp or as a download to purchasers of the book). Suffice to say, there are 47 new pieces of music included, 13 new piobaireachd, three marches, six reels, seven jigs, six hornpipes and 13 pieces of what Welch has termed “Ceol Nua” (new music). There is some really interesting stuff in here that I’m going to enjoy working my way through in the coming weeks and months of desert island isolation. The Ceol Nua in particular is going to be fun; there aren’t many visual scores being published for the pipes.
The album that accompanies and illustrates A New Compleat Theory for the Highland Bagpipe interleaves compositions specifically made for the pipes by composers Anthony Braxton, Lainie Fefferman and Matthew Schickele, with three of Welch’s new piobaireachd, and one “Ceol Nua” sequence, Traversing Mad-hatten.
The first track is an adaptation of themes from Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach and begins with a direct and passionate adaptation of the organ cadenza from Bed in Act IV. Welch’s exploration then progresses through an additive process of the kind that characterises Glass’ work, based on a theme carried by the electric organ, violin and others through the opera’s Bed and Trial. The additive progression perhaps most strongly resembles the electric organ prelude of Bed although the tonal power of Welch’s pipes foregrounds the whole sequence, with each addition directly confronting the listener in uncompromising fashion, and the whole continually sizzling on the hob of his high A.
One of the things I thoroughly enjoy about Matthew Welch’s playing is his willingness to allow the pipe to growl, croak, sizzle, and generally call up the elemental, wizardly power that the Great Highland Bagpipe is surely designed to call forth. Bed/Trial dies in the throes of an intense, sudden fit with a plaintive and touching cry of C sinking into the darkness. Rising again with a straining shimmer into Welch’s own piobaireachd, For Fear That My Shadow May Enter The World, the pipes’ sound has softened a little and the intensity of the repetitious cycles of Bed/Trial give way to a tender, lingering ground, light and melodic siubhal, followed by a fresh and breezy thumb variation and doubling.
The final resolution to D, a note tolerant of, but never fully at peace with the drones (the ever-present shadow here), seems assertively optimistic, in the face of the uncertainty implied by the title – although there’s an ominous quality to the R-L bounce of the drone echo after the pipes cut out. Having struck this uneasy peace, we’re almost immediately swept away again with a fade-in, for a yellow cab ride and a stroll around Matt’s old stomping ground of Mad-hatten. A lazy cruise one-way down 4th Street gives way to the to and fro and chatter of 2nd Street, breaking up into rattling typewriters on 3rd Avenue, before pausing to listen to a crying baby on 1st Avenue. I lost my bearings for a bit on a very colourful 5th Avenue, before catching up with Matt again on 6th Street for an intense mix and match volley of jig-style triplets. Whichever street it was he dropped us off on after that, I think it was back on 5th Avenue, he hopped into the cab once more and faded out again round a corner.
Matthew Shickele’s Over a Bottle of Wine, conjures an image of two friends enjoying a bottle of what seems like it would be red wine, while reclining in comfortable leather armchairs, listening to what can only be piobaireachd. Schickele’s response to piobaireachd (for that’s what it surely must be) is warm, melodic, adventurous and thoughtful. A wildly ascetic, improvisational-seeming crunluath gives way at the end to a restatement of his brief and beautifully still ùrlar, lingering to a finish on Welch’s crisp and colourful high A.
His second self-penned piobaireachd, Looking at Loch Fyne, enters on an immense fade of colourfully resolving, recently-struck drones. I wish I could hear the raw strike-in that must have preceded the cut for the fade-in there. The melody of the ùrlar is strong, memorable and song-like, to the point I’ve caught myself humming it. Listening to Matt playing F and E, C and B off against each other, like tidal currents pulling down the centre of the deep grey loch, eddying around sandbanks and drawing the water back from glistening round weed-covered stones on the foreshore.
The deep stillness of Loch Fyne fades to a softly burbling strike-in for Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 247. Steadily progressing over the course of the following 10 minutes, Welch articulates Anthony’s questing and inquisitive exploration of what feels like an almost completely novel world within the pipes. Purposefully rotating and angular at first (if it’s even possible to be both those things at once), the colours blink past like a clicking slideshow projector, running just fast enough to deny the viewer the opportunity to rationalise what they’re seeing, but slow enough to form the impression of steady and purposeful progress. After about a minute and a half to two minutes, bursts of darker, rippling notes intrude to interrupt the journey. The pipes are held on the spot for a moment here and there, now trapped in a swirling chaotic waterfall, now emerging with a victorious-seeming swagger, struggling to negotiate the new obstacles and continue their kaleidoscopic progress. After a final struggle, without a clear victor, the kaleidoscope rotator picks up their step for a moment or two more, before the journey concludes with an ambiguous, trilling E.
Teasing the drone-gurgle lovers one more time with a cut and fade-in, Welch’s third and final self-penned piobaireachd Lament for Grandfather Donald enters with the keening chere-de on a smoothly effervescent-sounding pipe. A heartfelt and stately ùrlar sets the scene, contemplations on E, B and C interrupted here and there by interjections of grief on a beautiful and sometimes-fracturing high A. These granular, plaintive cries continue through a steadily unhurried siubhal, before the doubling leads into a passionate second rendition of the ùrlar as a 12/8 rowing tune. Gathering pace through a brisk and rhythmic second siubhal, the blistering crunluath erupts into what feels like a celebration of life before settling down again to briefly re-state the ùrlar.
As Welch cuts out, a surprisingly strong reverb tail (presumably belonging to the performance hall itself) gives way to a sudden burst of applause and a quiet “yeah” at the end of Lament for Grandfather Donald, revealing a live audience probably unprepared for what follows. Almost immediately after the applause fades, a mysterious and smooth-toned horn sounds a haunting three-note cadence. After a pause, the horn repeats, and is joined by a strained, banshee-like screech. Velvet tones from the horn mingle freely with this unquiet spirit for a couple of minutes, before a group of pipe chanters enter, sustaining a rising and falling pitch together. A widening soundscape is created, as new chanters emerge, alternating out of step with patterns of increasing complexity. All of a sudden, everything drops into silence, before a chanter reprises (slightly more abruptly) the horn motif from the start of the piece, while a gentler whisper replaces the banshee screech of the intro. Distant wind-like noises begin to emerge on all sides, an echo of the earlier chanter-scape. Within this new landscape a piper strikes in drones, holding an abrasive, intermittent high A, as the wind dies away. The chanter goes quiet, leaving the drones phasing. Its disembodied voice returns, here and there around and above the undulating drones, screeching and calling out, now near, now far away. Mysterious voices call out amongst the chanter-birds, as the drones finally collapse into themselves with an exhausted gasp.