Tuesday 5 July 2016

Sheer magic: ancient music from the Highlands of Scotland

Spellweaving - Delphian
Spellweaving, ancient music from the Highlands of Scotland; Barnaby Brown, Clare Salaman, Bill Taylor; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 27 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Historic pipe music from an 18th century manuscript, transcribed for a variety of different instruments

Spellweaving from Delphian Records is a magical disc; it is a fascinating exploration of the pibroch, the classical music written for the Highland bagpipes, the great pipe. But the disc has striking twist, the three artists involved, Barnaby Brown, Bill Taylor and Clare Salaman, play the music on a variety of instruments. We do hear the Highland bagpipe, but we also hear the vulture bone flute, the Highland clarsach, the wire-strung lyre, gut-strung lyre, Hardanger fiddle, hurdy-gurdy and medieval fiddle.

The music all comes from a remarkable document, Colin Campbell's Instrumental Book of 1797, a manuscript compiled by the piper to John Campbell, 4th Earl of Breadalbane on the latter’s western estates at Ardmaddy in Argyllshire. The extensive manuscript collection, often called 'The Nether Lorn MS' (after the district in which Campbell lived), was compiled during the closing years of the 18th century. It is written not in the more modern staff notation, which came to dominate in the 19th century, but in the traditional canntaireachd or syllabic notation. This uses syllables of Gaelic to represent the music and is based on the oral tradition of pipe teaching. As Barnaby Brown in his booklet note points out, the manuscript represents just a fraction of the repertoire which has been lost because the musicians, for whatever reason, chose not to keep a record. On two tracks on the disc we can hear Barnaby Brown singing the canntaireachd notation, for Fear Piba Meata (The Timid Piper) to the accompaniment of Bill Taylor on wire-strung lyre and for Ceann Drochaid' Innse-bheiridh (The End of Inchberry Bridge) to the accompaniment of Clare Salaman on medieval fiddle and Bill Taylor on Highland clarsach.

Sutherland's Gathering - from Colin Campbell's Instrumental Book
Sutherland's Gathering
from Colin Campbell's Instrumental Book
The use of a variety of instruments in the music, rather than just the Highland pipes, is a deliberate attempt 'to break out of the piping ghetto, initiating a cultural exchange with the wider musical world'. So some of the instruments are of Highland origin, but others are not. The different timbres bring a fascinating range of colours and varieties to what is essentially a minimal music.

The Highland pipes have only nine notes, and within this the pipers seem to have deliberately restricted their compass, there are 16 surviving virtuoso solos that only use four pitches and a hundred that use five. In his article Barnaby Brown explains the highly structured nature of this music with its question and answer phrases being subtly varied and providing the underlying basis for the music. The results can be highly extended, Cumha Mhic Leodi (McLeod's Lament), which is played by Bill Taylor on clarsach, lasts over 15 minutes whilst Cruinneachadh nan Sutharlanach (The Sutherlands Gathering), which is played by Clare Salaman on Hardanger Fiddle, lasts nearly 14 minutes. The use of Hardanger Fiddle, with its ability to add drone notes gives an interesting new range of colours to the music.

That is the beauty of this disc, it allows us to appreciate the music with new ears and, lacking the sheer thrill of the Highland great pipes, appreciate the remarkable power and structure of this music. This is proto minimalism, using repetition to make small changes in expression and rhythm really count.

We hear a total of  eight tunes, with eight instruments plus Barnaby Brown's voice in the canntaireachd. The disc opens with the great pipe, as Barnaby Brown plays Hindorodin hindodre: One of the Cragich, a nameless pibroch whose 'name' is in fact the canntaireachd notation and Campbell referred to it as One of the Cragich, which might (or might not) mean one of the craggy. Those who are not immediately in love with the bagpipes will find the variety of timbre something of a relief, we follow the Hardanger Fiddle with the exotic tones of the bone flute, a recreation of one made 30,000 years ago and found in southwest France. Perhaps the most fascinating though has to be Clare Salaman's performance of Piobaireachd na Pairce (The Park Pibroch) on the hurdy-gurdy, making it sound as if the music was written for the instrument!

During Kings Place's Minimalism Unwrapped season in 2015 a number of proto-minimalist pieces were performed, works which pre-figured 20th century minimalism. I am not sure whether they had any pipe music, but it is clear that this genre has similar concerns and fascinations. On this disc we can appreciate the music in a new way, whilst admiring the technical skill of the performers.

Hindorõdin Hindodre: One of the Cragich (A 'Rocky' Pibroch) - Barnaby Brown (Highland bagpipe)
Cumha Mhic Leòid (McLeod's Lament) - Bill Taylor (Highland clarsach)
Fear Pìoba Meata (The Timid Piper) - Barnaby Brown (vocals), Bill Taylor (wire-strung lyre)
Cruinneachadh Nan Sutharlanach (The Sutherlands' Gathering) - Clare Salaman (Hardanger fiddle)
Hiorodotra Cheredeche (A Nameless Pibroch) - Barnaby Brown (vulture bone flute)
Port Na Srian (The Horse's Bridle Tune) - Bill Taylor (gut-strung lyre)
Pìobaireachd Na Pàirce (The Park Pibroch) - Clare Salaman (hurdy-gurdy)
Ceann Drochaid' Innse-bheiridh (The End of Inchberry Bridge) - Barnaby Brown (vocals), Clare Salaman (medieval fiddle), Bill Taylor (clarsach)
Barnaby Brown (pipes and vocals)
Clare Salaman (fiddles & hurdy-gurdy)
Bill Taylor (lyres & harp)
Recorded 8-10 June 2015, Phipps Hall, University of Huddersfield
DELPHIAN DCD34171 1CD [74.37]
Available from Amazon.co.uk.

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