Kathryn Tickell's Piping Journey
at the Anvil, Basingstoke, UK
(14 June 2002)

"I presume that if you came to this concert, you like pipes," said Kathryn Tickell with a smile, mistress of ceremonies for what would turn out to be an amazing evening demonstrating various types of piping from all over Europe. Although the publicity had featured Tickell, renowned for her Northumbrian pipes (and she occasionally played fiddle later in the evening as well), she introduced four other pipers who would play solo and in ensemble that night. There were two Scottish pipers, founders of the group Deaf Shepherd: Rory Campbell on both Highland and Lowland pipes, and Malcolm Stitt, who played Highland pipes and doubled on acoustic guitar. Joining the mix was Galician Anxo Lorenzo, whom Tickell met at a piping festival in Northern Ireland, on Galician pipes -- the gaita galega, along with various whistles. Rounding out the journey was Luigi Lai from Sardinia, who plays what are perhaps the most oldest pipes around, the launeddas, bagless pipes that date back to the 9th century BC and force their players to practice circular breathing in order create music.

For the first half of the program, the musicians generally played solo in order to demonstrate their individual instruments and skills. After the interval, however, they joined together onstage to combine sounds. Campbell and Stitt opened the evening with Highland pipes (Stitt later put down his pipes and accompanied Campbell on guitar after a few minutes); their duet, Tickell later explained, was a new Stitt tune called "Tartan Day." Apparently, the Scots in America have been trying to rival the Irish. This past year, 10,000 Highland pipers, including Stitt, marched in New York City on Tartan Day. "It's a sight to be scared of," she joked. Hostess Tickell also took on the role of teacher. She introduced the musicians and explained the differences between the pipes played that night. She pointed out that the major difference was bellows versus mouth blown, noting that all the pipes used that evening have drones. "I've got the most drones of anybody," she bragged with a laugh, explaining that she was only using three out of her four possible drones. Her Northumbrian pipes also were unique in that while the other pipes have open chanter ends, hers are closed. When all her fingers were down, no sound would be made. That fact wasn't a problem, however. The technique created a staccato effect, she said. "The drones should sound like bees humming," she mentioned. "The chanter should sound like peas popping from the pod."

She demonstrated that effect with a Billy Pegg tune, in which the composer was trying to imitate the sound of rain. The music grew faster with more rainfall, but it maintained a gentle "plop"; it was never a deluge nor a wild storm even as her fast-moving fingers appeared to create their own tempest. Northumbrian pipes have a different feel from their Highland counterparts. They seem a bit mellower, perhaps lighter -- not quite as "jarring." 10,000 Northumbrian pipers might not seem quite as scary.

Next up was Lorenzo. Tickell commented that when they met in Northern Ireland, they couldn't understand each other's languages very well, but through playing tunes together they somehow understood each other that way. Lorenzo's Galician pipes were mouth blown; they were more like Scottish bagpipes than her Northumbrian pipes, she explained. The drone, however, had a different feel than Scottish pipes -- perhaps it was a wee bit deeper. Lorenzo played Galician tunes on the gaita galega and then switched over to whistle. The Celtic influence was obvious, but there was also a Moorish feel as well.

The final soloist of the evening, Luigi Lai, turned out to be the one who held the audience, and most likely the other performers as well, in awe. It's not that the other pipes aren't challenging instruments to play. They indeed are, but the launeddas are a unique musical experience. Tickell said piper Alistair Anderson has called them "the bagless bagpipe," and that description is dead on in its accuracy. Lai holds the drone and a chanter in his left hand, fingering the chanter with that hand as well. In his right hand is another chanter, which he fingers with that hand. All three are in his mouth. In order to play, he has to practice circular breathing; Tickell described how she'd tried to learn this technique. "It takes years to perfect," she assured us.

Lai basically is a one-man band. It is difficult to believe that there is only one person making all of that sound. With big, puffed-out cheeks, he can go on and on, seeming not take any breaths of air on his own and only allowing air for the launeddas. Their sound, perhaps because of the tunes he played, had an exotic, perhaps Middle Eastern mood about them.

When the musicians joined to play together, whether it was two or all five of them, they blended traditions and instruments. There was a very Middle Eastern feel when they all played on a tune in A minor that Lai had taught them. In his limited English, he smiled and told the audience that the tune was titled simply "A Minor." Lai played with a longer drone this time (he had on stage with him a box that Tickell jokingly referred to as his "box of sticks") with a deeper buzz to it. Campbell had learned the Galician pipes and joined Lorenzo on a polka; in unison they hit some very high notes very quickly on what would have been a very fast polka to dance. All but Lai joined in on a tune Lorenzo had taught Tickell back at that piping festival in Armagh where they had met. She joked that there was one "funny" note, as she termed it, that she wasn't sure at the time that he really wanted her to play. It's meant to be there, though; and she's right: it is a funny note. It sounds as if it's off just a half step. Campbell and Stitt joined together to duet on Highland and Lowland pipes on "MacLean of Penny Cross," a march.

Stereotypically, pipes, particularly Scottish ones, are seen as being just for marches. However, there were times this evening when that image was blown apart completely. When all five musicians played Campbell's original tune "Heidi," with three pipes (Lai, Stitt and Tickell) against Lorenzo and Campbell on whistles, the initial feel was a very mellow rock/blues mood. These are pipes with soul; no saxophone was needed to add to those vibes.

It was an amazing evening of pipes -- made even more incredible by the fact that simply coordinating the pipes was difficult because they are played in different keys. For example, Campbell was in A, Tickell was in F (although she claimed she thought it sometimes sounded more like B flat) and Lorenzo was in C. Somehow, they managed to combine together their different keys in a way that created a harmonious sound, as well as educating their audience about some of the different types of pipes traditionally played in Europe throughout the years.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 3 August 2002