Harmony Writing Part Seven.

Piping Today #91, 2018.

If you’ve ever heard a world-class uilleann piper, you’ll have experienced both the thrill of a magnificent instrument as well as the accompanying harmonies played on the regulators.  Uilleann pipes are similar to Scottish-style bagpipes in that they have a melodic pipe (the chanter, of course) and simple drones.  But in many ways, they are also very different instruments, in part because the uilleann variety features extra pipes, called regulators, which allow players to accompany themselves using both held and staccato1 harmonies and chords.  When all is going well with both the piper and the instrument — no simple feat! — the result is utterly rapturous.  (When things are going less well, the commotion could be mistaken for a goose being strangled in a traffic jam.)

1. The Italian word ‘staccato’ (literally “detached”) is a common musical term that refers to notes that are often very short in duration, distinctly and sharply separated from other notes by moments of silence (rests).  They are often represented in written music by little dots placed directly above the affected note heads.

For this round of exploring harmony writing, I thought I’d borrow from a sublime recording by Jerry O’Sullivan.  Jerry, as you may already know, is a New Yorker most famous for his exceptional uilleann piping, but he also happens to be a very accomplished player of Scottish-style pipes.  A track from his 2005 O’Sullivan Meets O’Farrell album caught my ear recently, and I thought it might provide a useful exercise in exploring an unusual approach to harmony writing for Scottish-style pipers.

My goal here is to adapt Jerry’s ‘orchestration’ of the jig, The Old Hagg in the Corner, in a way that can be played on two or more Scottish pipes.  This requires a multi-step process: transcribing the tune from Jerry’s recording, transposing it from the original key (G) into a key that’s suitable for Scottish chanters (D)2, ‘compressing’ the highest notes to fit the range of Scottish chanters, transcribing his regulator harmonies, and lastly, similarly transposing and compressing the regulator harmonies to fit on a Scottish chanter.  

2. If you were to play the Scottish adaptation on a D-chanter (e.g. some smallpipes), it will sound in the same key as the original.

If that all seems frightful, fear not!  I have already done this round for you.  And the idea is that two or more Scottish-style pipers can play the melody and regulator harmonies together on their bagpipes, and by doing so, produce both a harmony that’s reminiscent of Irish piping, and a style of harmony rarely heard in Scottish circles.  You may be the judge as to whether or not this approach warrants further exploration.

Listen to this 70-second excerpt of Jerry playing The Old Hagg in the Corner

Did you enjoy the delicious music!  Listen again, paying attention to the harmonies produced by the regulators and the qualities that make the music so characteristically ‘Irish’.  Now listen one more time, following along with the written transcription below.

(Incidentally, The Old Hagg in the Corner may be familiar to many of you.  Once you get into the second [B] part, you may realise this tune is in the same family as Snug in the Blanket.  Also worth mentioning is the fact that most Irish players tend not to play the same thing twice — instead they enjoy the freedom and challenge of improvising variations to both melody and harmony.)

•Thanks to Jerry O’Sullivan for permission to use his recordings and photo. Graphic created from an original photo by Cat Dwyer

You’ll notice that on the transcription, the regulator line has funny little symbols here and there, wee squiggles where there ought to be notes.  If those little markings are alien to you, I can offer a quick explanation: they are symbols that designate ‘rests’, or moments when no sound is being produced.  Different symbols denote different lengths of time.  We Scottish-style pipers tend not to be terribly well-acquainted with them because our sound is always continuous, with no silences other than the occasional, unintended, sometimes disastrous ‘choke’.

You may have also noticed, both in the recording and on the written score, that Jerry makes great use of ‘pedal tones’, or long, held notes in the regulator part.  As discussed in greater detail in Piping Today issue 85, these act as temporary drones, providing moments of tension and release against various notes of the melody.  Pedal tones are a common feature in the regulator playing of many uilleann pipers.

Please now listen to, and look at, the adaption for Scottish-style pipes below, as heard on some overdubbed Border pipes played by yours truly.  Because rests are not typically part of the Scottish-style performance practice, I created the effect of rests by having the harmony part double the melody notes in those moments.  It’s not quite the same effect as full-on rests, but it’s close, and most of the syncopated rhythms heard on the uilleann piping track are preserved.  (These moments are marked with mini rest symbols above the harmony part.)

An important note: it is not necessary to go through the sometimes-dizzying process of transcribing — and possibly transposing and compressing — an uilleann pipe tune in order to achieve this style of harmony writing.  Rather, I would encourage you to simply listen to a number of good recordings of uilleann pipers and try to absorb the general style and effect of the regulators.  Then try to craft your own original harmony part to a chosen tune, imitating notes both held and staccato.  (It may help to base your harmony notes on the chords implied by the melody, as discussed in the previous four issues of this series.)

I’d be very curious to know what you think of this approach.  Does the adaptation for Scottish-style pipes succeed in reproducing the ‘Irish’ feel?  Does the transcribed regulator part succeed simply as a harmony part in its own right?  Does this style of harmony writing have a place in the Scottish piping world?  It’s perfectly OK if you answer ‘no’ to any and all of those questions.  The main point, as ever, is to explore ideas and offer some dialogue in the process. 

Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Theory Top-Up series ran in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.

Theory Top-Up articles published on Bagpipe.News so far:

  1. Tunes in the key of D-Major
  2. Tunes in the key of A-Mixolydian
  3. Tunes in the key of A-Major
  4. Tunes based on a ‘gapped’ A scale
  5. Tunes based in A-pentatonic major
  6. Tunes in B-minor
  7. Double Tonic Tunes
  8. Tunes in the Dorian mode
  9. Tunes in G-Major
  10. Exotic tunes and tunes that change key
  11. Compressing tunes with low F-sharp notes
  12. Compressing tunes with high-B notes
  13. Theory Top-Up Harmonics: an introduction to the mysterious overtones in our music
  14. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 2: continuing the discussion on overtones
  15. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 3: using harmonics to fine-tune our pipes
  16. Theory Top-Up: An introduction to writing harmony for ensembles
  17. Theory Top-Up: writing harmonies of thirds
  18. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 1 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  19. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 2 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  20. Theory Top-Up: Elaborating on chord based harmonies
  21. Theory Top-Up: writing chord-based harmonies for slow airs
  22. Theory Top Up: harmonies that imitate uilleann pipe regulators