Donald WG Lindsay will be a familiar name to many readers of bagpipe.news from his blogs written from Ascension Island, to previous readers of Piping Today magazine, and to members of the Lowland and Borders’ Piping Society where Donald was Convenor and an active member before leaving on his travels to live in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 2019.
Within the next two weeks Donald and his family are leaving Ascension Island to come home to Scotland. They first plan to spend a couple of weeks with family on the Isle of Cumbrae and then go to live and work on the Orkney Islands from June 10. He also plans to visit Piping Live! and he is booked to play a gig in the Acoustic Music Centre at the Edinburgh Fringe on August 11.
I’m sure we will hear much more from Donald about his instrument-making, playing and recording once he returns to Scotland, but as the next chapter of his travels is about to begin, we take a look back to his first article in Piping Today magazine from 2018, when he introduced the Lindsay System chanter to the readers.
by ELIZABETH FORD
Instrument-making and design is an evolutionary process. Makers have always used a combination of time-honed skills, while also embracing new technologies in terms of design and craft. Yet experimentation has often been time consuming. The research and design phases, including measurements and custom-made tools, are in themselves something of a moving target. The rise of 3D printing has revolutionised instrument-making, allowing a new level of design and problem-solving. The technology has been available since the 1980s and is now becoming more widespread.
The process of 3D printing starts using Computer Assisted Design (CAD) to create a model which is then refined and finally printed in thin layers of a plastic. The final product can then be finished by hand. This technology has wide-ranging implications for medical research, the automotive industry and art and music history.
In addition to the benefits of enabling historical reproduction and more experimentation in design, 3D printed instruments can be comparatively inexpensive and print-at-home designs are also available for those who have access to the technology.
Glasgow-based musician and inventor Donald W. G. Lindsay has embraced this technology to explore possibilities of instrument design, especially with regard to the smallpipes.
At the annual Lowland and Border Pipes Society Collogue in November 2017, the main concern of the pipe makers’ forum was how to reconcile modern technology in instrument-making to time-honed hand craft. Julian Goodacre mentioned the many challenges in copying old instruments, the other option being to design from scratch. The concerns of all the makers at the forum were historical accuracy, playability, acoustics, sound and an attention to the historical aesthetics. There was an overriding concern among the makers that technology could supersede handcrafts, causing pipe-making to become a lost art. Because children are now taught to use computers, rather than machines, the craft aspect is at risk. The makers agreed that there was a pressing need to embrace new technologies but also maintain the old skills.
Donald offers an interesting perspective on this relationship between old and new technologies. He is not a trained instrument-maker, nor is he an artist or an engineer. He is a musician who wanted his instrument – the smallpipes – to do more. He explained at the forum that by using a combination of old and new skills, and by embracing the increasing availability of 3D printing, pipe-making will only go forward. He is part of a historical tradition of musicians and instrument-makers who have also had to be creative problem-solvers. This historical awareness, that evolution in instrument design happens through consensus, influences his work.
Donald started designing instruments to extend the range of the smallpipes in 2005. Having grown up around Scottish music, there was a wealth of tunes he knew and loved that were not possible on the smallpipes. As the instrument has always been something of a reinvention from historical models based on the desires of musicians active in the folk revival, this is not in the least unusual. The unconscious design requirements he had for his chanter were that it would look sufficiently like a chanter; encompass the range D-B and maintain original pipe chanter range in the exact same way; have no keys; and provide as many half steps as possible with at least a C natural, and preferably with the same five semitones as a Border pipe. These design requirements were repertoire driven: he wanted to play specific tunes, such as The Belly Dancer by Gordon Duncan, The Dirty Bee by Ross Ainslie, classic session tunes such as The Merry Blacksmith, and Scots fiddle standards like Bovaglie’s Plaid.
Donald also sings with the smallpipes, but the range of the smallpipes was not conducive to accompanying voice.
The perhaps obvious solution, if the instrument in question was inadequate for the desired music, would have been to switch instruments. Donald tried the Border pipes and uilleann pipes, but neither instrument satisfied him musically. He also tried playing Northumbrian pipes, and although he could listen to them all day, playing them was a different story. The same is true of the Highland pipes, which he plays in a pipe band. He loves the loudness and edginess of the sound and prefers them to Border pipes, but for him, nothing else is the smallpipes. He simply needed them to do more. In essence, Donald is a curious musician who enjoys a challenge.
Other makers have tried to extend the range of the smallpipes, but not to the extent nor in the way that Donald needed. Discussions with these traditional makers such as Julian Goodacre and Nigel Richards were positive, but ultimately the outcome was that what Donald wanted could not be achieved.
The Hungarian duda, with 12 steps in an octave in A, theoretically does some of what Donald wanted, but the fingering system did not lend itself to Scottish repertoire, especially because it lacks low G. The duda, did, however, influence his design in that in he incorporated the flea hole to facilitate elevating the pitch in the second register. Duda-makers in Budapest told Donald that adding a flea hole to the smallpipes would not work and he says that they were correct because of the way they were thinking and working.
After years of experimentation, Donald began working with 3D printing in the Glasgow Maklab to develop his extended chanter. This was a successful experiment but ultimately required more refinement. To develop the prototype further, he began a Kickstarter campaign called Dreaming Pipes. Over three years, which included fabricating a prototype and three versions of the instrument, learning to play it and the birth of his third child, he recruited pipers for Beta testing. By October 2015, he had a version of the chanter he now plays.
Although it is possible to print a complete set of smallpipes – where everything that is usually wood is made from plastic – it is not necessary. All he needs to print for the Lindsay System is the chanter, though Donald has made a few complete sets.
The chanter has no keys and retains the typical fingering and intonation for a Scottish Smallpipe chanter in the key of A. The additional notes above A4 and below G3 are obtained by the addition of a double hole for the right hand thumb and a hole for the left hand pinkie. These holes are open when at rest, so these fingers are free while playing within the nine note range. They are only needed in the extended range. The chanter is nominally pitched in A, and provides a range of two octaves beginning on D. The full range is: D3, E3, F-sharp3, G3, A3, (Bb3), B3, (C4), D4, (D-sharp4), E4, F4, F-sharp4, G4, G-sharp4, A4, B4, C-sharp5, D5, E5, F-sharp5. The notes shown in brackets are reached using the flea hole borrowed from the duda.
This instrument has been very well received by pipers, generally well by makers, and has provoked a great deal of curiosity. The response has been very positive from non-pipers as well. Paul Baran, an improviser with whom Donald frequently collaborates, likes the different possibilities it offers. Paul believes that the melodic and harmonic possibilities Donald’s chanter offers to his own work would not have been possible with any other instrument. Because the range goes beyond the standard smallpipe range, Donald has many new chances to experiment and collaborate. The musical implications are that it does much more than the standard smallpipes. It is well-calculated for playing in traditional music session, especially Irish repertoire. It plays well in D and G against a D drone. It also works well for fiddle music that avoids the bottom string, as it has the same range as the keyless flute and whistle. In essence, it is the instrument Donald always wanted, designed to play the repertoire he loves playing.
The next step is to do exactly that. For a project that began because he was frustrated by the limitations of the smallpipes, he had no idea he would end up selling chanters, but the results were such that he could give it to someone else.
It is too soon to comment upon how influential the design may be. He suspects it has given some ideas to makers and players, and there could be other pipe-makers assuming the design at some point. As with all major adoptions of innovation, universal acceptance of the extended range will be a communal decision.
For Donald, the important part is that he gets to play it. It has had a great deal of success in sessions, one of Donald’s preferred musical contexts. Martin Hunter, who formerly organised the Glad Café sessions in the Shawlands area of Glasgow’s southside, said: “My first impression of the pipes was the bright colours – unique. I really enjoyed playing along with them. They have a really nice tone and are pretty quiet compared to Border pipes which tend overpower other instruments. They sound great with button box. The sound seems to blend really well.”
Donald’s old friend and frequent collaborator, Alasdair Roberts, reflected on Donald and the possibilities offered by his pipe chanter and his approach to music-making. He said: “I’ve known Donald since we were both teenagers – when he was mainly playing guitar, singing and writing songs. Even in those early pre-piping days, he was a fearlessly idiosyncratic musician. It’s always fun, and a learning experience, to accompany Donald’s piping with guitar, as I frequently do – enjoyable because he’s relatively hands-off about how I might choose to accompany a tune, and patient too… and educational because it’s a great chance for me to draw on his huge knowledge of various piping traditions and repertoires.
“I’d say that Donald has a great combination of deep respect for, and knowledge of, those various traditions he explores, and a willingness to experiment and adapt in all kinds of ways. He’s keen to bring the pipes into new and unorthodox musical settings – for example, free improvisation, electronic manipulation and so on… and enjoys very much the chance to collaborate with musicians from all kinds of different backgrounds. His LED electronic pipe innovations are one particularly obvious case where his respect for piping orthodoxies and his experimental tendencies, not to mention his technological know-how, find great fruition. I can’t claim to understand how it all works technically speaking, but I sense that it opens up possibilities for the instrument which will hopefully appeal to pipers of all backgrounds.”
Realising that the greater public was interested in his work led to the formation of Lindstruments, where he sells the Qwistle (a pennywhistle), a low whistle and print-your-own-instrument kits. Donald believes that 3D printing will become so mainstream that a 3D printer will become a household object.
Donald’s other projects include an electric pipe chanter which uses an LED optical signal to capture the sound of the reed using light, and which plugs into his usual set of smallpipes. This chanter has led to fruitful collaborations with Shane Connolly’s From Taiko to Txalaparta at Celtic Connections 2017 and electronic artists Richard Youngs and Paul Baran. Donald is also involved with researching the design for a 400-year-old flute painted on a ceiling in Crathes Castle, Banchory, which may, or may not, have existed.
At this point, however, Donald’s primary focus is on making music with his new instrument, with the aim of recording an album in 2018.
•Donald was photographed in Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre in Trongate, Glasgow. Sharmanka was founded by sculptor-mechanic Eduard Bersudsky and theatre director Tatyana Jakovskaya in St.Petersburg, Russia, in 1989. Audiences in many countries have been fascinated by its magic, and based in Glasgow since 1996, it has gained a reputation as one of the city’s hidden treasures. http://www.sharmanka.com