Hollis Easter - Watson Fellowship Project Summary

Monday March 17, 2003 Watson Summary

Auld Tunes and New: the Bagpipe Music of Scotland

To the make of a piper go seven years ... At the end of his seven years one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and leaning a fond ear to the drone he may have parley with old folks of old affairs. Playing the tune of the "Fairy Harp", he can hear his fore folk, plaided in skins, towsy-headed and terrible, grunting at the oars and snoring in the caves, he has his own whittle and club in "The Desperate Battle" ... where the white-haired sea-rovers are on the shore, and a stain's on the edge of the tide; or, trying his art on Laments, he can stand by the cairn of kings, ken the colour of Fingal's hair, and see the moon-glint on the hook of the Druids.
- Neil Munro

After four years of study on the Highland bagpipes at home in northern New York, and just across the border in Canada, the time has come for something bigger. Primary source research is the important thing, and it is with that in mind that I submit this, my proposal for a Watson Fellowship:

I want to go to Scotland. I want to eat, drink, and live bagpipes for a year. I want to immerse myself in their music and culture. What is it like to meet the people whose names you've known for years from battered CDs and LPs in your collection, to talk with them, learn their stories and their tunes? I want to know. I would walk the paths the MacCrimmons walked in the 1500s when they set up their school of piobaireachd, and I would learn their tunes, as well as the Gaelic style of singing them, canntaireachd. I want to go to the Highlands and islands, to the Borders, and search out the best piping masters, and when I have found them, to study and improve my own music through close contact with theirs.

In Scotland, as with Canada and the United States, the pipers play individually or in bands, and they still play dance music--jigs, reels, hornpipes, and the like--as well as marches, airs, and piobaireachd, the classical music of the Highland pipes. The difference comes in the length of time the instrument has been studied. Some of the world's best bagpipers are to be found in Canada, but there aren't so many of them. In Scotland, bagpipes have been studied and played for all kinds of occasions, by people from all walks of life, since the 1400s. There is a living tradition of music that runs through the pipers there, and I want to tap into it.

This past summer, I attended the Kingston School of Scottish Music and Dance, in Kingston, Ontario, a weeklong summer bagpipe program sponsored by the Rob Roy Pipe Band. I talked and studied with some of the very best bagpipers Canada has to offer--indeed, my teachers won many of the worldwide piping competitions in their day. I spent my days in classes on music, history, and instrument maintenance, and my nights at my desk, practice chanter in hand and music in front of me. I learned many new tunes, and the improvement in my technique amazed me. At the beginning of the summer, I was a decent player--at the end of it, I was a medalist in a competition grade higher than the one I'd expected to play.

I loved it. The opportunity for unfettered time to practice, to sit with my instrument and commune with it, was priceless. I made some dear friends, too--pipers are a friendly lot, and we stayed up late talking about this and that every night--but the improvement in my piping was the chief marvel of my time there. I never got tired of playing so much; if anything, I was sad that the days were so short, that time didn't allow a more thorough investigation of the music and technique.

It is for that more thorough investigation that I ask your approval of my application for a year abroad. There is no school that teaches the things I want to learn--many of them teach a few subjects, but I want to take the music and carry it in my heart and blood, meet the people and never forget them, learn some of the language and the way of life. I went to Scotland in January for a week of study in Plockton, up by Skye, and the things I learned cannot be written in books. Long before I went there, I learned the tune "Round About Our Peat Fire Flame". No piece of inscribed paper could have told me what it smelled like to walk over the hills at night, gazing up at the clear northern stars in the blackness that comes when electricity is expensive while coal and peat are cheap. Peat fires are low and quiet, and they produce a smell that is completely unlike any other. It never leaves you, I'm told; it certainly got into my blood. No foreign study at Strathclyde University or the Piping Centre would teach me that.

So, I will go to Scotland, set myself up with a group apartment in Edinburgh or Glasgow, and study bagpipes privately with the best teachers I can find. My teachers from January, Dougie Pincock and Iain MacFadyen, are good friends now, and have already given me some pointers on which pipers to look up for study. Here are some names of people from whom I hope to learn: Dougie and Iain, at the Centre for Excellence in Traditional Music in Plockton. Ian Duncan, who lives near Perth, and was the Pipe Major of the Vale of Atholl pipe band. Simon McKerrell, who lives in Glasgow and teaches smallpipes and Highland pipes at the Piping Centre there. Dr. Allan MacDonald, a major exponent of the Gaelic piping style, whose research focuses on the relationships between folk songs and the grounds of piobaireachd. The availability of these various players for teaching lessons will doubtless shift, and so my schedule throughout the year will be flexible to accommodate their needs, but I am sure that I will be able to find excellent teachers wherever I happen to be living at the time, be it Edinburgh, Glasgow, or Skye.

A few definitions are probably in order, and this seems a good place to include them. Scottish music, and piping music in particular, divides itself into a number of different categories. First, ceol beag, light music, is mostly dance tunes and marches. Jigs, reels, strathspeys, hornpipes, slides, 4/4 marches, 2/4 competition marches, and 6/8 marches all find their homes here, as do certain kinds of slow airs. This area of music enjoys the most overlap with other musical traditions, be they Irish, Cape Breton, Breton, or Qubecois. Next is ceol meadhonach, middle music, which isn't played much these days; so little, in fact, that I can't even find out what it is. Perhaps they know in Scotland. Finally, we have ceol mr, piobaireachd, big music or great music, the classical music of the Highland bagpipe. Ceol mr, or ceol mhor or ceol mor, is idiomatic to Scotland, although it bears some resemblance to the theme-and-variations style of musical composition that was prevalent in continental Europe. A piobaireachd begins with an urlar, or ground, which is the theme, or tune, on which the piece is based. It is typically slow and emotive, though the grounds vary based on whether a given piobaireachd is a salute, a lament, or something else. The tune continues with a series of prescribed variations, each more difficult than the last, until finally the tune circles back to its starting point, with repetition of the urlar. The problem with piobaireachd is that it cannot be written down. Western musical notation is insufficient to the task of notating the music. The flow of the music, its pulse and heartbeat, cannot be translated to ink on paper.it must be assimilated aurally. It is this sort of learning that interests me so much.

While in Scotland, I will study bagpipes, practice bagpipes, and delve into the archives of music and recordings at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, the School of Scottish Studies, and the Piping Centre. During the days, I will practice bagpipes, alone or in lessons, and I will study the music, be it in archive recordings, old tunebooks, or oral history. Nights will likely include Scottish country dancing, a hobby of mine, and playing sessions with other musicians. My time in Scotland will thus expose me to a wide variety of tunes--the oldest music of the culture, as well as the cutting-edge music of the pubs and living rooms. I would like, in addition, to attend a few tutorials at Sabhl Mr Ostaig, the school of Scottish music that is held on Skye. I will learn as many tunes as I can, in their authentic versions, and I will learn the stories behind them.

I want to sit in a pub playing session tunes with the great musicians, and I want to find the people behind the names. I want to go to the places whose names I've read, and come home with new stories to tell. In the end, though, it all comes back to the music. I've listened to it for most of my life, wanted to play the bagpipes since I was a year old. The love of music is, perhaps, the most central fact of my being. I want to be part of the living tradition.

See also the Personal Statement.

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