As with other musical traditions, the Tonal Character of the Great Highland Bagpipe has changed to suit tastes over time. As audiences want ‘more’, pitch has become ‘brighter’ – and we’ve had a sharpening of standard from strings, percussion and other classical instruments. It’s a case of creating options for audience preferences and expectations, and Brighter is usually more persuasive than Lower. Brighter also appears louder.
The Highland bagpipe’s ‘melody gear’ is the Chanter – a conical bore of wood or synthetic, where the instrument’s nine notes live under the pipers fingers, with a covered short double reed resting at the top (unseen unless revealed from it’s protected stock). My grandfather’s 1900 Lawrie chanter is so very smooth at A440, if I have the right mix of reeds.
The standard pitch-character of our chanter currently moves up every 5-7 years. In the 1990’s, it was about every 12-15. Before that, my guess it was about every 18-26. It changes as gear accommodates player preferences, as winning soloists and pipe bands accumulate prizes — the rest of us want to compete with a similar pitch. After all, who wants to stand out all alone in the Low Pitch field.
I was called this September to perform the Peter Maxwell Davies piece, “An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise” in October. The opening of Skagit Symphony 2019-20 Season, with new conductor Michael Wheatley, who was on the other end of the phone. I performed the Davies piece in 2014 with the Yakima Symphony, so I knew the pitch adjustment from the current standard of A480 to a durable A440 would take 25 hours. Getting my stride back from a bad late summer Pneumonia, I thought it might be a good distraction to help me get back in the swing — which it did (finding an extra 25 hrs of tricky effort by mid October was a good grindstone – I told myself that).
I began resurrecting my Grandfather’s Lawrie’s, which I used in 2014 for my first Davies call. Same pipe I was handed when 9 by my Grandmother Kathleen. This lovely, prayerful Irish Catholic immigrant grandmother always knew what she was doing – and always had something special for me when we arrived after our long drive to visit. She was mesmerizingly kindful. My four siblings, adults by then, mentioned the same years later. My grandfather passed when I was 4; I’ve come to know him as he looks on from his piping pictures on my Music Room wall – one solo, and one with his pipe band from Ardee, Cty Louth. I had both photos redone early on at Seattle’s Moon Photo. Found them torn and faded in his leather pipe case when she handed it to me.
When my Grandfather played solo and with his band in Ireland, the pipe must have been very close to A440 – his pipe just sings at this pitch. The reeds I used back 2014 now didn’t have the Round Sound I wanted – when his pipe is a Round A440, the drones and chanter wrap around everything like a warm blanket. I worked away nonetheless. Work work work, finally had some stamina, my body and the pipe moving forward (though twice as physically demanding as normal). Work work work. Still, not the Round Sound. It was ‘okay’, but I won’t stop until it’s Right.
Out of the Blue, an email from Eastern Canada – a piper I’d never met asked if I wanted to try his newly designed A440 Highland Bagpipe drone reeds – out of no where. Sure I said. They showed up a few days later, no charge – then another packet, and another. I needed the perfect mix of reeds to foster my Grandad’s 1900 Lawries magically woven Round sounding A440 GHB tone, and suddenly I had them. I was able to mix Old and New for a sublime enveloping roundness for the Skagit Symphony’s home at fabulous McIntyre Hall. Maestro Wheatley’s helpful demeaner put me instantly at ease to creatively solve timing issues from afar as I moved toward the Skagit Symphony from the back of the Hall. We all did superbly, including Grandad’s pipe. I don’t think Davies ever sounded so good.