Exploring the music of the Lowland Piper with Pete Stewart
Report by Colin MacDougall
On Saturday 3rd of January 2015 the Celtic Piping Club was privileged to host a workshop by Pete Stewart, a stalwart of the fiddle and smallpipes and well-known musicologist and historian. He specialises in forensically examining the structure of lowland pipe tunes. [Ed - Here are some links to Pete's 'Lowland Amusement' blog and an article on the Life and times of the Lowland Pipes.]
Starting from the position that we play music rather than instruments, Pete illustrated how we use our own lenses to interpret musical notation: in his case the lenses of English and French dance styles. In this way, music becomes more than an intellectual translation from paper to fingers via the brain. By contrast, music expresses the history and context of the times and is embodied in the musician who plays with fingers, body and soul. We see this when we watch musician whose shoulders move and whose feet tap and beat - often inspired by dance steps.
Such an integrated view of music rejects any notion of a split between the body and the brain on the one hand, and the musical and historical context on the other. This explains Pete’s workshop title of “Digging the Dird.” The word “dird” has imprecise roots, but Pete gave “dird” meaning by drawing on Danny Rose, an Orkney fiddler who in 1928 said “You need three things to play for dancing – time, volume and dird.” The meaning of “dird” that underpinned the workshop was as an engine that drives the pieces of music that were in front of us: leading to the question of how we can find the engine that drives the music.
But finding the dird, or engine, can be a tricky business given the paucity of written instructions or recordings from which to work. That is why he combines experience in history, music and dance with a large dose of detective work.
The first clue is to start with the dance steps and use the body and feet to see how the steps drive the tempo and structure of the written notes. Then, the body and the feet work together to drive the music.
A second clue is the structure of the tune expressed by the statements it makes: for example a question followed by an answer and perhaps another question and a different answer.
A third clue is to experiment with time signatures-by playing in different tempos and seeing how everything fits.
The fourth job of the musical detective is to look at the history and development of the tune-something we did in the workshop by marvelling at Scottish pipe tunes that are over 400 years old. Pete took us through the influences of dancing on tunes and the classical Baroque period. It became clear that it was both acceptable and normal to rework and reinterpret the same tune over decades and centuries.
Challenge number five is to understand the context, uncovered by paintings and carvings and poetry and manuscripts. Was the town or borough piper involved? What type of instrument was used?