by Stuart Robertson.
Piping Today
#41 2009.

Chris Djuritschek is a piper and composer many of you will not be aware of. Originally from Motherwell in Lanarkshire, he was taught by local piper Alex Martin. Chris took up the pipes aged 10 and quickly set forth on his musical journey. 

He explained: “At around 13 I started becoming quite passionate about the music I was hearing. For a long time I had been subjected only to military band music, but when I found the Victoria Police everything changed. From then on I was always in pursuit of finding new tunes, and my time was spent learning and listening to any pipe music I could lay my hands on.” 

Chris Djuritschek

The different styles of music I was learning had improved my finger dexterity to the point where I was becoming confident at improvising when I was playing.

Seeing that the tunes he was enjoying all seemed to follow specific chord progressions, and that certain note patterns and combinations popped up regularly, Chris began to consider if he could try his hand at writing himself.  He said:  “At that point learning tunes had become a relentless obsession, and there wasn’t enough new music to keep feeding my desire to learn; I needed some other outlet to focus my enthusiasm. The different styles of music I was learning had improved my finger dexterity to the point where I was becoming confident at improvising when I was playing. Sitting down to compose my own tune seemed to be the natural progression.

“In the early days, the stuff I was writing was reminiscent of the style at the time. Being naive, I thought if you wanted to turn out a good tune, then it had to sound like what was already out there, and being inspired by the Worlds 95 CD, I deliberately set out to compose another Calypso Piper or Shovel Tongue

“Sometimes I’ll look back at those early tunes and cringe, but it’s good to remind yourself how far you’ve come, and subsequently how far you still have to go. Incidentally, I would say that Worlds 1995 CD is probably still my favourite pipe band CD. Anyone who has it is spoiled for choice, great tunes, and great composers, all with their own individual flair — Robert Mathieson, Mark Saul, Roddy MacDonald, and the inimitable Gordon Duncan. They made it look easy, and after that it seemed everyone got on board and started having a go.”

Chris began to expand his musical influences to both mainstream and more obscure music. “In my teens I was listening to a lot of piping music, but to move the music forward I needed to get away from those piping influences,” he admitted. “I had a phase where I listened almost exclusively to hip hop music — I loved the fact a genre driven mainly by rhythm was so melodic as well. I listen to a lot of music that has psychedelic themes and undertones, and I’ve developed a fondness for music and sounds which are a bit more ambient, where the listener’s mind is doing a lot of the work, not their ear. You can’t like everything, but at the very least I’ll give everything a listen, even if it’s only to try to understand where the composer is coming from, but usually there’s always something useful to pick up. I’m finding inspiration in the literary world as well, the Beat Generation writers and guys from that era, Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe and Ken Kesey. The travelling and wild lifestyles they led capture my imagination, and I feel an affinity with their philosophy that you can have nothing but at the same time have everything. It’s a very romantic way to live, and I almost always end up writing something after a bit of reading now.”

Chris and I had collaborated on many tunes during our time at Torphichen and Bathgate Pipe Band and I always found him to be slightly guarded about his tunes. He said: “When I was much younger I would pass on my music to see what others thought, but it wasn’t original enough to be given any sort of credibility. I feel silly when I think that I used to give Robert Mathieson piles of music which were essentially rip-offs of his own compositions. Naturally I didn’t get the response I was hoping for, but I realised where I was going wrong, and I had to start again from scratch and find my own way of doing things. I think my reluctance to put my music out stems from those early setbacks. Fortunately Robert Mathieson wanted to include some of my stuff in his books, and that gave me some reassurance that I had some capability. My style has changed completely since then and continues to evolve, and I feel like I can actually call myself an original composer now, but generally the only people who still get to hear my music are the people in the band.

“In a way, I like always to be in control of the music I produce, so it suits me to keep it within the band. That way I can put across exactly how I want it played, which — given the styles I write in — I think is important. Having the final product sound exactly as I heard it in my head when I wrote it is important to me.

“I think the piping population in general are supercritical of new music, and it seems there’s no middle ground, it’s either brilliant or rubbish. With the pipe band medley driving composition, there’s this need for the content to be instantly accessible to the judges and spectators. In other forms of music though, there are pieces that on first listen don’t appeal much, but which reveal much more after a few listens and end up growing on you. The Beatles had their fair share of slow burners too. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of music, and with having the benefit of being able to go back and listen to performances several times on the CDs or on YouTube, we should be exploring that kind of tune. The mindset of having to hit the mark first time is so ingrained now, that we would miss the point of a subversive listening experience in pipe bands. 

“Being an unknown composer writing in that way, it’s harder to be accepted, than it would be for Mark Saul to write that way — he’d be given a fairer hearing and people would make the effort to try understand because of his reputation. Even if they couldn’t, he’d still probably get the benefit of the doubt. Sure it makes it harder for your music to get out there, but you should always have the courage of your convictions when you think you have a good idea. You will never please everyone, and I personally don’t want to go down the path of writing only to please or to conform to what provides instant gratification to the listener.

“I have certainly written those tunes, and will again in the future, but there’s no enjoyment or satisfaction in that for me now. While it would be nice for my music to be out into the open, I kind of like the idea that only a handful of people are in on my music. I’m like that with bands I listen to; when they’re unknowns you have them all to yourself to enjoy — your own little secret. When they become mainstream you lose that special connection and it all starts to get a little diluted. We are playing a 3/4 march by Allan MacDonald at Torphichen just now and it’s a beauty. I’ve only heard a handful of Allan’s tunes being played and they’re all brilliant, but if suddenly lots of his music was getting played, that style would become too familiar and maybe lose its appeal.” 

But what does he think of modern day compositions? “There are lots of talented composers out there; composing good music too,” said Chris. “But as I said earlier, there’s this tendency to be drawn to writing music that can fit into the pipe band medley — the driven hornpipe, the slow air, the big finishing tune — and whilst very good, it’s led to a lot of the stuff being derivative of other tunes we’ve already heard, and it’s stifling the creativity.”

I am a sound-colour synesthete, which means I experience colours visually as a response to different musical keys.

Although Chris has written volumes of tunes, he’s no longer as prolific as he used to be and believes it’s very much quality over quantity these days.  “Sometimes an idea will pop into my head, and if I still remember it the next day, there is usually something worthwhile spending a little time on there, but I’ll let it manifest in my mind for some time before I will sit down to work on it further,” he explained. “If I can’t remember it the next day then it obviously wasn’t up to much. Normally I will tell myself I am going to write a tune. I am a sound-colour synesthete, which means I experience colours visually as a response to different musical keys. So there will be something that has given me inspiration, which will convey a mood and a colour, which is where I’ll take the key of the tune from. Everything else in the process is pretty haphazard to be honest — it’ll just change and grow until I am satisfied with it, which sometimes never happens. Quite often I’ll pick up the drum sticks and have a rattle to help find the correct rhythm for certain elements of the tune, but there’s the danger then that you start thinking in drumming terms, and you start taking things out the pipe melody to accommodate a drum effect you’d like to hear. Knowing what not to play is just as important as knowing what to play.

“More and more, I’m writing all my music late at night when I’m fighting to keep my eyes open. I find my mind and senses are infinitely more open to creativity at that point. You could compare it to a boxer coming into the last round of his fight. His body is spent and he can’t do any more, but his mind and senses take control, and it’s then when he’ll make his best moves of the fight.”

Being so involved in pipe music — from both a player’s and a composer’s perspective — it’s interesting to find out what sort of tunes really stand out for Chris. He said: “There have been loads over the years and all for different reasons but recently I came across an old tape I’ve had for a long time of some guys from the David Urquhart Travel band on their practice chanters. The last tune on it is a Dougie Campbell suite called Learning to Fly. I’ve always loved it, and it still sounds as fresh today as it did the first time I heard it over 10 years ago. It’s just a beautiful suite — a slow air, followed by a waltz and a short interlude, finishing with a reel/hornpipe, with some sublime harmony to top it off. It’s the level of musicianship I’m going for, and it’s inspiring me all over again to up my game.”

It’s clear that Chris is passionate about writing music and he’s agreed to share one of his tunes with us and reveal how it came about.  “The 2/4 march The Pingat Jasa Malaysia was written for my ex-girlfriend’s father Sandy Henderson, who was awarded The Pingat Jasa medal by the Malaysian government for his service in Malaysia,” he said. “It was a memorable occasion and it deserved a tune. I was reading about the war in Malaysia and about Borneo in particular, and the Rajang River, which is the longest river in Malaysia, caught my eye. It’s a navigable river for large parts, but can turn into a tumbling fast flowing river with rapids, and I really wanted to try emulating that in the tune. I didn’t want to create a Balmoral Highlanders-type tune that is quite rigid and spiky, but I did want to add elements of that to create the feeling of tension in the rapids. To give a softer fast-flowing feel, I tried to keep the notes close together, and this was broken up by some question and answer phrases to create a lull, before it picks up and is off again. I started with the first and last parts and was really quite happy; they came quickly enough, and to me represented the more peaceful parts of the river.

“The other parts took a bit longer, and despite giving myself the time for them to form naturally in my head, I ended up having to force them out, but I think this helped in giving them more tension which I was looking for. It was apt for a 2/4 march to commemorate this kind of event, but it reflects the pipe band music trend now of returning to traditional style music. It’s accessible for bands and it stands well on its own. As much as I enjoy the challenge of creating something new, it’s liberating to come back to writing something simple in the traditional idiom.”

He added: “I’m inspired by the things around me, by things people have done, or by things I’ve read. The feelings, mood and colours they invoke are the trigger for me to go and write. I don’t favour writing in any style, I just write in whatever mood I’m in at that time. Every tune I write is very much indicative of how I’m feeling or the place I’m in at that particular moment in time.”

Chris writes in a way that would be akin to a method actor — method composing perhaps. His music comes from deep inspiration and before writing, he will study the inspiration to gain a deep understanding of where the music will take him… and us.