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Monday, November 30, 2015

Bagpipes: an anatomical overview

A colleague sent me a link to a Scottish comedian's performance in Sydney; said it was a good giggle. I was a bit dubious, given that he went by the name of "Danny Bhoy", which really suggested more of a Hibernian heritage, but whatever. When later he asked if I'd seen it yet and I said no, m'colleague went on to describe some of the highlights, including the intro, which was amid swirling mist, with the sound of the pipes, and Danny himself backlit in the dramatic scene, carrying what looked like a set of bagpipes. Colleague continued the narrative, including the revelation that the supposed pipes were just a bar stool with some ribbon tied to the legs, and Danny was also hold a wee tin whistle. It sounded good, right enough.

Recently I had a few minutes while waiting for a program to think about a process, so I followed the link to see what the fuss was about. Sure enough, it looked like a piper, but you you could tell it was a spoof as the camera zoomed in so you could see his left hand fluttering away at the 'whistle'; no piper, he. All was revealed a few moments later, and the intro joke concluded successfully. Now Dear Colleague, about that 'whistle'...

Colleague really should have known better, given his Irish heritage, even if their pipes are a little different. The 'whistle' turned out to be the appropriate item for the job after all: the chanter. The chanter, Peter ... chanter; from the French, 'to sing'. A slightly flared pipe of ebony or somesuch, perforated and finished in ivory, which is played as you might play the recorder, except at waist level—it being connected to the bag, not directly to the mouth.

The chanter is the part that produces the song; the melody. The twiddly stuff that either lifts the spirit and stirs the soul—simultaneously raising the hackles on the back of your neck—or irritates/scares/panics anyone within earshot. Maybe that should be ears, shot...

There are tunes, written for the pipes, that just sound right. They are often assertive, vigorous, and have a direct connection to every one of your red blood corpuscles - and, quite possibly, some of the white ones as well. Depending upon your disposition and ear for a tune, there may be something about them that you can't put your finger on, but it's no big thing. Until a well-known tune, written for a more conventional instrument, is played on the pipes. Then, it may seem that the piper either doesn't properly know the tune, or is being unadvisedly free with performing his own version. The reality is that the pipes do not have a wide range of notes available; no, the frugal Highlanders have made do with just nine. Furthermore, there are no 'chromatic notes' (no, I don't know either) on the Great Highland Bagpipe—a' phìob mhòr, if you're a Gael. This lends pipe music a limited sound, but I often felt that Joni Mitchell was similarly afflicted. So, the pipes are stirring, alarming, and slightly* edgy to anyone with a remotely musical ear in a modern, western sense.

 * this word is really superfluous here

Back to the chanter though. Its job is to produce the intricate stuff; the notable part of the piece, which you might be inclined to whistle, if the mood took you. In a battle situation—and remember that in the Great War, the Germans referred to the Scots pipers as 'the ladies from hell'—the chanter is used to produce the main assault on the enemy, the part that says "we've had our breakfast and it wasn't really what we wanted so we're a bit pissed off now, and now we're coming to pick a fight with you." And so it goes; hell is raised with a leather bag, a few wooden pipes* and some reeds. One side of the piper's stern face may be blown out into an alarming bulge, while his fingers beat a 'fuck you' rhythm** that is translated into a no-nonsense assault tune.

 * nowadays, synthetics are becoming more common
 ** a former colleague, ex-Scots Guards, used to 'play' his pen like a chanter, during committee meetings; perhaps he was quietly expressing the same sentiment.

Seaforth Highlanders with piper

That's what the chanter does.

The pipes though, have a secret weapon: the drones. These 3 longer pipes are not played as the chanter is; instead, they simply emit a constant note for as long as the bag is full of air and under pressure ... not unlike a politician. Their function & purpose is therefore quite different to that of the chanter. While the enemy is being given fair warning of the impending fight (Scots soldiers are nothing if not fair—it's the Highland ethic), they are simultaneously confused by the background noise, the drone. There is no tune to this. Think instead of a teenager whose voice has just broken, and who is in full flow with a moan against everything: parents, school, food, lack of internet, the entire Universe. It's a noise that nobody should have to suffer without the opportunity to decline.


The pipes therefore have this two-pronged approach to putting the enemy on edge: the chanter and the piper's nimble fingers are saying "right; here we come, ready or not," while the drones are mentally hitting them for six. They can't quite work out where the moaning is coming from, and about what, so they are now mentally, if not physically, completely out of step with everything else that is happening. Bombs, machine guns, mortars and the whine of incoming shells are all straightforward and to be expected; bagpipe drones are not. It is a singular weapon that was probably banned under the Geneva Convention.

So, Colleague, the chanter. Not a tin whistle. That just wouldn't cut it.

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