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Piping Up

Multi-talented musicains strike a chord on arcane reed instruments


Published August 16, 2006 at 2:14 p.m.

A dozen Scottish smallpipes buzz in unison, as piping expert Annie Grace stomps her flip-flop-shod feet in time to the tune she's teaching. The sound fills the room, but some people are having trouble with the fingering. "Have a wee listen," she says in a lilting Scottish accent. Grace stops the other players seated in a circle around her, their pipes in their laps powered by small bellows strapped to their arms. She starts again at a slower tempo, and begins to sing the notes clearly in Gaelic, "o hara be oro, ah hayra o oro, o hara be oro, o hara m boro . . ."

Still playing, Grace calls out fiercely in a clarion voice, like some Celtic drill sergeant, "Is it comin' back? Clear as mud?" The group starts up with a wheezing sound, and then pauses for a few seconds to tune and gather steam. In a moment, they're off again in a cloud of chest-swelling harmonies.

At the mention of bagpipes, most people envision the Great Highland version: a large Scottish instrument with a sound designed to carry great distances. Plaid-kilted, puff-cheeked operators play them standing up and, if they've any mercy, outdoors. Regimental pipe-and-drum bands skirl them in street parades, and they appear at weddings and funerals, in military divisions, or as props in Brigadoon. But the Highland pipes have lots of lesser-known, distant cousins scattered throughout the British Isles and continental Europe, and these also have their share of ardent admirers.

Scores of top-notch bagpipers, instrument makers and enthusiastic students have come from around the world for the 22nd annual Piper's Gathering in Killington. The three-day conference, which took place last weekend, is devoted to "alternative" bagpipes. It's the largest, most comprehensive event of its kind in North America.

Northumbrian piper Alan Jones founded the Gathering in 1985 in North Hero, where it continued for 20 years with great success. In fact, the popular event outgrew the meeting space available, and a 2004 thunderstorm exposed the limitations of tents. The Killington Grand Hotel offers greater space and stability. On Saturday morning, 10 of the hotel's conference rooms hold students absorbing instruction in at least six varieties of bagpipes, as well as the tinwhistle, and their trills filter through the walls. From the hallway, all the activity sounds like a beehive full of particularly merry insects.

Emanating from the spot devoted to English and Cornish pipes is a reedy, haunting, almost Middle Eastern sound. Suddenly, it stops, replaced by the voice of instructor James Merryweather. "See if you can find some wobulator to put in there," says the genial, bushy-bearded man holding a medieval-looking set of bagpipes. He beams at a student he's selected to "solo." The player tries to modulate the music to add a controlled wobble, something between a note-bending quaver and a trill on the song's top note.

Most of the pipes in this room have spindle-turned drones with fluted ends like trumpets, and look as if they were copied from an illuminated manuscript. That's not far from the truth: English bagpipes were fairly common in the southern part of the country before the 1500s, but by the 1800s, they'd fallen out of favor and disappeared. The pipes here are the result of an attempt to revive an extinct instrument, after prototypes assembled by researchers and instrument makers in the 1970s and '80s. One of the models is based on a 15th-century illustration of the Miller from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Like many of the pipe types at the Gathering, this one is now undergoing a renaissance.

Satisfied with his pupils' progress, Merryweather suggests exploring alternate harmonies at tomorrow's "Cornish pipe moot." Someone asks what the word "moot" means, and another student quips: "A cow with gas." Merryweather chuckles and says he's not sure if he coined the phrase, but he started calling sub-gatherings of the Yorkshire Bagpipe Society "pipe moots" when he lived there and began convening casual practices. Fittingly, the word borrows from J.R.R. Tolkein's tree-like characters that gather to communicate via a sort of musical booming and tooting. "I just thought back to The Lord of the Rings, to the Entmoot, where all the Ents came to . . . It's as silly as an Entmoot, really," Merryweather concedes.

The Pipers' Gathering does feel like a news-swapping event. During the lunch break, impromptu sessions spring up in corners, as pipers jam and teach each other their favorite tunes. The overall effect of multiple pipes playing different melodies within ear-shot of each other can be a bit jarring for listeners. But the sense of freedom and enthusiasm for the music is appealing, and the music-making klatches generally don't last long.

The morning's chatter conveys a mixture of dread and gleeful anticipation at the prospect of browsing the vendors' hall -- it's a dangerous place for anyone bitten with the bagpiping bug. In addition to CDs, rare books and displays of thistle-themed artwork honoring Scotland's prickly, purple flower, the hall houses five pipemakers who craft all their instruments by hand. Full sets run upwards of $7000, and in-demand makers have enough orders to keep them busy for years.

Bagpipes make noise by forcing air through pipes over reeds, sort of like a saxophone or a clarinet. The bag holds the air, which is blown in either through a pipe in the player's mouth, or through a bellows connected to his or her elbow. Drones, pipes of varying lengths that usually stick up behind or point down and to the side, contain reeds that provide a harmonious background noise -- if all goes well and the set is in tune. A set of pipes can have anywhere from two to five drones, or more. The chanter, shaped something like the lower part of a recorder, also contains a reed, and this is where the player's fingers go to make the melody. The "alternative" pipes at the Pipers' Gathering are almost all bellows-driven, which allows players to sing or talk while they're making music.

Several of the instrument makers displaying items on the white-covered tables specialize in the Uilleann pipes, a bellows-driven bagpipe from Ireland. Alex Bush, a twentysomething maker who recently co-founded Uilleann Pipeworks of Boston, explains how to pronounce the Gaelic: "Illen." He strikes a hip-hop pose: "Like, I'm illin'!" Bush offers a rundown of Uilleann pipes and their wood-and-brass construction: They're quieter than Highland pipes, he says, "about as loud as a fiddle, so they're played indoors. It's more of a pub instrument. So the music that you play on the Uilleann pipes is dance music -- jigs, reels, stuff like that -- not what you'd normally associate with Highland bagpipes, which is more war processional music."

"The chanter plays the melody, and there are three drones, which go 'braaaagh,'" Bush continues. "Those are tuned in octaves to each other." He explains that a chanter and three drones are a half-set, but a full set has three pipes called regulators, which have big switches with long metal tabs. "The regulators all are keyed and can play chords, which makes the Uillean bagpipes the most complex bagpipe in the world," Bush enthuses. "You can play a harmonic chordal accompaniment, that's also rhythmic, to the melody."

Across the room, pipemaker Michael MacHarg of South Royalton presides over three tables filled with rare recordings and books, equipment for pipe cleaning and repairs, and dozens of elaborately carved chanters and bagpipe components of his own design. He's been in this business for 30 years. A rare double chanter in the style of Spanish Galician pipes nestles kitty-corner to flat bags made of elk hide, and a chanter with a top carved like a bearded man's head. Fuzzy rods, destined to dust and clean pipe innards, are spread out next to hemp twine for adjusting joints on the pipes. A jar labeled "bagpipe seasoning" isn't for desperate moments in the kitchen; it's a solution for conditioning the insides of new bags before they're put to use.

MacHarg talks about the material used to make the stocks and joints on a pipe. These were once commonly made of tusk ivory, but nowadays there's a far more humane and renewable resource: the Tagua nut, from a type of palm in Micronesia and Polynesia. "It looks like a prehistoric apple," MacHarg says. "It has dentine in it, the same as your teeth." It's the kind of arcane detail pipers seem to love.

MacHarg's son Iain, the lead piper in Burlington's now-defunct Celtic trad-rock band Whisky Before Breakfast, is an instructor at the Gathering this year. A champion Highland piper, the younger MacHarg is also proficient at Scottish smallpipes and other instruments.

Not far from his father in the vendors' hall, Iain sits with several other musicians to play a short and spirited reel. While their fingers fly, the players grin and waggle their eyebrows, trying to one-up each other with embellishments while keeping the tempestuous pace. The tune is just a taste of what's to come in the evening: A full concert featuring James Merryweather on English pipes, Montpelier-based Uilleann piper and pipemaker Benedict Koehler, Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston and Uilleann piper David Powers. Ultimately, it's all about the music.