The tonal colours of the tune

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In part 2 of his discussion on drone tuning and harmonics, John Dally uses Scotish smallpipes to explain how pipers can understand drones and the intricacies of tuning.

By John Dally

Now that we have established that the drones provide a harmonic background, it is easy to understand why different modes, or pentatonic scales, still produce a pleasant sound with the drones even when the key of the tune is not that of the drones. For example, Paddy’s Leather Breeches in B minor still resonates well with the drones, even though the drones are tuned to A, a step below the fundamental note of the tune. In fact, the sound of the drones will seem to change when the key of the tune being played changes. You can hear this if you play Paddy’s Leather Breeches in A followed immediately by the same tune in B minor, This is one reason why so many pipe tunes are made using a double tonic structure, and why so many tunes sound blasé without drones. Well-tuned, warm drones reflect the tonal colours of the tune being played on the chanter.

Frequencies of the Scottish smallpipe (chanter in A).

The design of the bore of the chanter determines which harmonics are stronger than others, giving the chanter its particular character or timbre. Pipers usually refer to this quality as tone. Generally speaking, a conically bored chanter has a loud, bright, brassy tone, while a cylindrically bored chanter has a quiet, mellow, smooth sound. The cylindrically bored chanters of the Northumbrian smallpipe and its sibling, the modern Scottish smallpipe, lend themselves to a variety of drone tunings.

Northumbrian smallpipe makers began making drones that could be tuned to a variety of musical keys, called complicated drones, when they put keys on the chanter to extend the range. The addition of keys to the chanter took place around 1800. Robert Reid of Northumberland made a seven key set for Henry Clough in around 1810.

Several years ago I had the idea for a Scottish smallpipe that would allow a similarly wide variety of drone tunings in combination with chanters pitched in different keys. My experience playing Scottish smallpipes for ten years, and Northumbrian smallpipes for 20, pointed me in this direction. With the help of Jim McGillivray, I found Ray Sloan, pipe maker in Wark, Northumberland. Ray understood what I wanted and agreed to make the instrument with an ingenious sliding pin system on the drones.

Ray’s efforts resulted in a Scottish smallpipe with five permanent drones and three interchangeable chanters [pictured].

The chanters are in A, C and D. The drones play three notes each, shown below:

The range of drone tunings on the A chanter are shown here (the ‘5″” indicates where the baritone drone is tuned). The keys indicate modes rather than true keys and are based on pentatonic scales:

Only three different, basic drone tunings are completely satisfying for each chanter playing traditional tunes. At least, this is my experience. ‘They are, using the A chanter as our basis, A, B minor and D. The first time I played a tune in D with D drones on an A chanter was an amazing experience. D. A. Fraser, writing in 1907, disliked tunes in D because he felt they clashed with the drones in A. He suspected tunes in D were the result of composers working on the practice chanter rather than the pipes themselves. There are too many older tunes in D, however, to support his suspicion, even if many of these tunes came from the fiddle and song repertoires.

Here is a contemporary tune made by Chris Ormston. It goes very well on the Scottish smallpipe with drones in D.

When playing tunes that begin in A but resolve in D, I have found, with tenor and bass in A, tuning the baritone drone to the fourth (D) rather than the fifth (E) to be attractive. Tunes in D that take to this tuning as well as a straight D drone tuning are The Glen Where the Deer Is, Lindisfarne by Matt Seattles, and Joan’s Jig by Henry Clough.

The simplest octave drone tuning of tenor and bass is the best when playing a raft of tunes that progress through a series of key changes. Playing medleys of tunes that progress through key changes through key changes is a modern and not a traditional practice among Scottish folk musicians. If you play a raft of tunes in the same key then using complicated drones tuned to that key will enhance your performance.

Pipe tunes often use a double tonic, starting with a phrase in A major, for example, then repeating it in G or B minor, then returning to repeat the phrase in A major before concluding with a resolving phrase. Drones tuned to the fundamental note of the first phrase heighten the tension between the phrases, increasing the contrast that is finally resolved in the concluding phrase. Examples of tunes that feature the double tonic are The Edinburgh Volunteers, The Braw Lads of Jedhart and Peacock’s Highland Laddie.

‘You can tune the tenor and bass to the fundamental note of the first mode, and add another drone or two tuned to the pitch shared by the two contrasting modes. In Cabar Feidh, for example, you find phrases in G and A. Tuning the bass and tenor to A and the baritone to D, which is the fourth of the A phrase and the fifth of the D phrase, works well. With five drones to work with, other elements can be added to achieve more layers of tone color. But as painters know, too many colors mixed together make mud. Usually, less is more.

The potential for traditional and non-traditional drone-based music is greatly expanded with an instrument like the one Ray made for me. The combinations of tones and potential harmonic affects are numerous with five drones. Ray’s reeds are very stable at each pitch of the drone. They do not take tremendous amounts of air, and are not too loud even with all five drones going at the same time. The smooth tone characteristic of Ray’s pipes is crucial to the balance.

Here are a few different drone tunings for the A chanter that I have experimented with:

Experimenting and playing with specialized tunings is a solo affair. The bagpipe in its essence is a solo instrument. When playing with guitars, pianos or other back up, chording instruments, the accompanying instruments bury the subtleties of even the simplest drone under layers of modulating chords. I use two drones set up on the octave of the fundamental note or no drones at all when playing with accompanying instruments.

The drones alone are very effective when accompanying a singer. The harmonic qualities of the human voice act upon the background of the drones in much the same way as the pipe chanter. The result can be spine tingling. I suppose this comes as no surprise. We call the melody pipe a chanter, after all.

Jock Agnew.

Jock Agnew has a favourite tuning technique you may wish to try, and it does not require a battery of drones. It works especially well on the Border pipe with two tenors and a bass. After you have tuned all three drones with painstaking perfection to the chanter, then take one of the tenors slightly out of tune, listening to the beats that come from the clash of slightly out of tune frequencies. This can produce a gentle undulation in the sound of the drones very similar to that characteristic of a tamboura in classical Indian music [as the pan-pipers do in the Andes to thicken the sound – Editor]. This works on the Highland pipe as well, but don’t try it in competition.

In the last few decades forward thinking pipers invested a lot of energy in pairing traditional bagpipes with electronic instruments and modern idioms in the pursuit of a contemporary, commercial sound. As exciting as this movement is, drones suffered neglect in the process. The bagpipe will only be heard to its full potential in the wider world if the drone element is developed. A chanter treated with synthesised chords in an attempt to make the bagpipe palatable to a wide audience becomes a primitive oboe.

Composers working at the cutting edge of ambient and environmental music today understand drones and the intricacies of tuning. These cutting edge artists have as much interest in game theory, bioacoustics, mantras, myth and physics as they do melody and rhythm. Brian Eno’s Neroli and Phill Niblock’s Early Winter are two accessible examples.

Jon Hassell, another avant garde composer, told David Toop in an interview (Oceans of Sound, Serpent’s Tail, London, 1995): “If you have a constant background like a drone, you can project your own nervous system against the background. You become aware of listening high, listening low, listening foreground, listening background.” That was the beginning from which Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and the whole minimalist thing came from. Terry Riley, who studied classical Indian music, said, “In the coming years, the frontier will be tunings.”

Bagpipes have always thrived on the frontier. I hope the coming years will see the unique qualities inherent in our distinguished and pleasing instrument fully realised by pipers and non-pipers alike.

• Part 1 – Harmonics and drone tuning.

The pyramids, fractals, Stonehenge, Paisley shawls, natural forms such as shells, leaves and human bodies, have the same proportion as the harmonic series.