The National Piping Centre. Friday, August 13.
As compère, Fergus Muirhead noted, Piping Live! has always showcased the huge diversity of bagpipe music. This concert was a great example of that.
Funding was received from the PRS Foundation Open Fund to commission five Scottish composers to make new pieces for the Highland pipe. The catch … the composers weren’t pipers.
Writing for an instrument you don’t play is commonplace, but when the instrument is as idiosyncratic as this one, it’s a challenge. It’s also a challenge for the performers, who have to adapt the composers’ ideas into something workable on the instrument.
There is no ensemble better equipped that Tryst to take on this challenge. A group of pipers whose achievements in establishing the pipes in Scottish music spans 20 years, they undoubtedly possess the skill set required to make this ambitious project work – and they did.
The big challenge for a reviewer of a project like this is to decide whether they’re reviewing the music or the performance. In this case, both were of a very high quality. It’s worth adding here that I watched this concert online through the festival’s live stream, and that the technical aspects of that, especially the sound, were first class.
Much of the music was very complex, and contained a number of challenges for pipers – complex rhythms, long melodic lines, intricate harmonies, and entries and exits which had to be managed very carefully. It’s very unusual to see pipers reading music during their performances, and keeping the pipes in tune over the length of a performance like this is also tough going. Tryst employed the tried and trusted pipe band technique of ‘drone guys’ to help here.
While this is most definitely not a pipe band, it’s very interesting to see Pipe Major-style responsibility move around the band, and each member is more than capable of stepping up to the mark. In addition, the presentation was first class.
After settling the pipes with a run through Ali Hutton’s modern classic, Gran’s Tune, the band embarked on the journey through the commissioned pieces. The first was by harper, Rachel Newton. A cousin of Tryst member Mairearad Green, Rachel knows the sound of multiple pipes well, and her piece, entitled Held Fast, showed clearly that she had taken advice from the pipers and allied that to her own experience to produce a piece which was open and simple harmonically, with a lot of emphasis on the rhythmic aspects of pipe music. This was not the only piece of the night to carry some strong piobaireachd influences, and the opening moments were redolent of a ceòl mòr urlar. Some tasteful harmonies were introduced, with the playing very tight given the slow tempo of the music. After a nice transition to a well harmonised jig with carefully thought-out cross-rhythms, there was another nod to piobaireachd in the return to the urlar feel at the end.
Fiddler Patsy Reid is no stranger to pipe music. Her Walking Happy was introduced as having been written with the stereo image of the band in mind, with complex lines moving quickly against and across each other, and cross-rhythms based on a 2/4 quickstep-style being used very effectively. Some very interesting use of embellishments, and what must have been a pretty tricky job of allocating the parts, suggested good dialogue between the composer and the pipers during the creative process. Some strong influences from piobaireachd variation styles brought the piece to a very satisfying conclusion.
The third of the pieces was introduced as the most challenging to play, and was certainly the most challenging to listen to! Martin Green is probably best known for his work with Lau, and this piece was taken from his work, The Portal. I may be wrong, but this suggests to me that it wasn’t specifically written for pipes, and that thought was reinforced by the amount of chanter taping that was going on during the introduction. This piece was certainly the furthest away from what pipers are used to hearing, and felt to me like interesting music that would probably work better in another medium, with a greater range of notes available than the pipe chanter can provide.
Each of the tunes in Donald Shaw’s medley was inspired by a European dance tradition, and featured a range of time signatures and tempos from a slow 3 /4 at the start, through an up-tempo Breton style, a mazurka feel, a slip jig, and finally a polka. This piece was the one that was most clearly a set of tunes rather than a single, developed piece, and therefore sounded very comfortable on pipes.
The performance was rounded off with Hot Water Music, composed by multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass after some short stories by the American author, Charles Bukowski. This one had another elegant, slow start, moving smoothly into a hornpipe style with some tricky ornamentation and tension from harmonies reflecting Bukowski’s darker side, complemented with great release into the subsequent melodies. A return to a slower end once again lent that flavour of ceòl mòr.
For me, one of the major problems with new commissions in traditional music is that they often receive very few performances. It’s not reasonable to expect brand new music to bed in with audiences on a single hearing, and a lot of the music that was presented here tonight will need to be heard again to be done full justice. It’s certainly an experience I would be happy to repeat.
Kinnaris Quintet draw on a wide range of musical styles, and their opening number was more reminiscent to me of pop music than anything else, based as it was on a two-chord riff with interlocking fiddle lines over it.
All five members of the band are extremely capable musicians who clearly relish each other’s company and feed off the diversity of musical experience each brings to the party. Having three of the same instrument in any band is always a challenge, but multi-fiddle lineups are nothing new in Scottish music, and Kinnaris use their resources well. I did, however, occasionally find myself yearning for a little more in the way of harmonic rhythm, and reminding myself that there is nothing wrong with repetition if you regard what’s being repeated as worth repeating.
All new developments in art divide opinion, and the older the art, the greater the division. Kinnaris Quintet and their contemporaries will not appeal to everyone, but there is no denying their musical ability, and they are building a following which is taking Scottish music in new directions and to new places. That is always to be admired.
- Since 2000, Dougie Pincock has been the Director of the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music in May 2000. Prior to this, we taught piping at the National Piping Centre, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the Easterhouse Arts Project. Dougie has played on countless albums and was a member of the famous Battlefield Band for many years.