Last Autumn I was asked to write an article for the Northumbrian Pipers Society quarterly newsletter. An edited version was published in the Autumn edition, but here is the full version…
Waking up on the morning after my birthday this year I realized with some horror that I had now been playing the pipes for 30 years (you would have thought I would have the hang of it by now really wouldn’t you?!..)
Starting back in 1983 with Dave McQuade’s loan sets to schools and moving on to a particularly decrepit Hedworth set which I played for many years, my early NSP playing was unorthodox to say the least, and heavily influenced by the Irish musicians in the area and my passion for Uilleann piping for which I am perhaps better known. The defining moment in my NSP playing career was when, after many years I finally acquired a beautiful boxwood 17key set from Colin Ross in 2008 – it did take a little persuasion it must be said, as he was concerned that the Bb keys may not have been strictly necessary, with me assuring him that them they were, and subsequently playing many Gminor sets just to make sure I got the good use of them! Anyway, on playing this set it was impossible not to fall in love again with the sound of NSP and I returned to regular playing with renewed enthusiasm.
Over the years my piping career has taken me to some interesting places, most recently in Russia where I was invited to play (Uilleann) pipes as a guest with the legendary Boris Grebenshikov and his (mainly rock based) band Aquarium. After several visits I introduced the smallpipes as my F set very conveniently played in the keys of F and C that my Uilleann sets (being a concert pitched or ‘B’ set) couldn’t, and they were subsequently used on several tracks even making a brief appearance on the (very heavy) album ‘Архангельск’.
Playing NSP in Russia with a (very large) rock band came with its own particular set of challenges, the first of which was getting them there. Travelling through Russian border control with a pipe case containing both Uilleann and NSP is interesting to say the least. The very first word I learnt in Russian was ‘волынка’ pronounced ‘Volinka” and meaning literally ‘bagpipe’ and it is essential information for smoothing the difficult conversation between me (no Russian) and the rather bemused looking immigration staff (little English) when they pointed to my case with a stern ‘open’..
Once there I discovered the climate is vastly different from the UK, with temperatures ranging from a chilly -25 during one December visit and a muggy +35 degrees during some of the summer festivals. Surprisingly the summer hot and humid weather did not seem to affect the pipes too much – tuning was remarkably stable and no adverse effects on the boxwood occurred. It was the cold weather that really caused the problems, with the extreme dryness actually causing my chanter to bend alarmingly (sorry Colin) with every cotton-wound joint falling apart, reeds coming loose and tuning all over the place. Thankfully on return to the somewhat wetter climes of Yorkshire the chanter returned to normal after several recovery days! Somehow I managed to keep the pipes going for the performances which were a series of large concerts for the 40th Anniversary of the band – The following photograph was taken in a sports stadium concert in St Petersburg, I am wearing an earpiece monitoring system as hearing myself (and adjusting tuning) acoustically onstage through the usual monitor wedges was virtually impossible with 8 band members, including a full backline and drumkit, percussionist, bass, electric violin, keyboards, guitars and whistles courtesy of Brian Finnegan. I am not a fan of reed-mics or ‘bugs’, and found several decent stage microphones (such as the AKG C1000’s) were required to adequately amplify the pipes without feedback – no mean feat in a 5000+ seater stadium, and a non-english speaking road crew!
Photo by Konstantin Sakhin, St Petersburg April 2012
However, not all my playing in Russia was with Aquarium, I played some solo concerts in August 2012, most notably at The Country Estate Arkhangelskoye – The Theatre Gonzaga in the Krasnogorsky region of Moscow, where I gave a short and formal recital of traditional Northumbrian Smallpiping to a very enthusiastic and interested audience of theatre –goers who had not seen or heard the pipes before. I chose the material carefully to reflect traditional NSP playing and included The Wild Hills O Wannies, Peacock followed the hen, Small Coals an’ Little money and other well known Northumbrian tunes which were enthusiastically received by the audience. A similarily well received solo concert of both Northumbrian Smallpipes and Uilleann pipes highlighted to me the interest that Russians have in traditional music from western shores. There are a handful of Uilleann pipers in and around Moscow, although only one NSP player that I know of, and interest in all aspects of ‘Celtic’ and particularly Scottish and Cape Breton music and dancing is high. Accessibility to instruments is probably the biggest hurdle for aspiring Russian pipers, and their enthusiasm for the NSP and indeed all forms of western traditional music, is not to be underestimated.
More recently and somewhat closer to home I have ‘depped’ for Andy May with Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies. Kate from the band named it ‘stunt doubling’ which had me worried for a while, and conjured up images of performing dangerous manoeuvres whilst playing the Biddlestone Hornpipe backwards! Thankfully my fears were unfounded and the shows went well – I am clearly enjoying the Ross set at this point – looking deliriously happy at that ‘g’ I’m playing in the photo below!