Iranian Tar

The other day I got my hands on (for the first time) an Iranian Tar. I have only seen photos and video clips of this instrument so I was interested to see it close up and to play it. It is heavy due to the solid wooden body, and it has a wider neck than i thought. There are 3 double strings with gut frets across the neck.

There is a tight skin over the body of the tar and its peculiar shape of the body is by hollowing out 2 pieces of wood and joining them together to give that “8” shape. The most enlightening part of the instrument for me was the plectrum, it was solid brass and cone shaped. It was difficult to hold and the owner said that players often put wax over it so the fingers can grip it securely, but it is the brass that makes the loud sound and the resonance from the body and strings are amplified by such a hard material as brass. The owner said the tar is the leading instrument in the ensemble and the loudness can rise above the other instruments. Some pictures of the tar I held:

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Ana Alcaida at Taberna Elisa

A good concert in Taberna Elis (Madrid/Spain) by Ana Alcaide and her fellow musicians. Three people in total giving a full sound with instruments such as the Swedish Nickelharper, the Iranian Santur, the Arabic Ud, the medieval Cittern, various percussion including a water pot! a Bouzouki and Guitar. Some songs with vocals and a mixture of Sephardic and Spanish songs and some others I did not recognize. The sound was not that good I think a proper sound check with the sound system could have had a better concert with the group running through a few numbers to get the levels earlier in the evening, but it was done just before their performance and half way through, the time in messing about made us miss the last of the concert as we had to get the metro home. Some really beautiful melodies and a nice blend of instruments giving it a nice acoustic relaxing atmosphere. The audience was attentive even telling the louder ones at the back to be quiet! The small bar was full with people standing outside peering through the windows. Here is a video clip from the gig.

Radio Cumbria Interview

It took a while in getting but I finally got a copy of the interview I did at Radio Cumbria a few weeks back. I include it here. It went well I told the basics i think, about the Northumbrian Pipes, the Border piping tradition we have in the Scottish Borders and a little about the music that is played in those parts. Besides the interview there are 3 melodies and I added some pictures to the interview.

"Radio Radio…"

The recent interview at Radio Cumbria was a recording for annual Robert Burns’ night, which is taking place at the end of January. The interviewer asked me about the Northumbrian pipes the Border tradition of piping and the melody of one of Burn’s melodies “The Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon”. The event got me thinking of other radio sessions I have done. Besides this one, I have another Radio Cumbria interview that was done while busking in Carlisle. A radio presenter came across me busking and happened to have his DAT recorder with him and recorded an interview about the pipes and I played a few tunes, this recording I have put on the end of my 2 CDs.

Another radio interview about the pipes was done in Istanbul, Turkey in the late 90s. I had brought my pipes to Istanbul as I was involved with a few folk musicians and I was spending a lot of time there and needed the pipes to practise and to keep in contact with my north UK roots. I did not know what was happening but one day at the conservatoire a Turkish piper turned up and invited me to be interviewed on a radio programme. I was invited along to the Radio Istanbul studios, which was in a back street in Taksim, and there beside me was another piper. He was Turkish and he played the Tulum, a Turkish bagpipe from the north east of Turkey near Georgia, Azerbaijan and along the Black Sea. It is mouth blown and has no drone, only a bag and 2 melody pipes in one stock and a wooden ‘horn’ at the end of the chanters. The holes in the chanters are not the same so when played it has the effect of having 2 melodies played at once. The radio programme was about these 2 pipes, their comparisons; we both played a few tunes and chatted about construction etc.

Another radio interview was when I was playing in a band in Amsterdam. “The Lonesome Pump Attendants” were a 3 piece band whose members were once in the “Red Aligatorz” a rock-a-Billy group from Cumbria, UK. When the Aligatorz split, the singer and I moved to Amsterdam playing skiffle songs with guitar and t-chest bass. Later the double bass player from the Aligatorz came over and the 3 of us played in Amsterdam for about 6 months, touring all over Holland. The radio interview was recorded in a squat/pirate radio station. A New Zealand biker did the interview with his Dutch assistant. WE performed 3-4 songs and I remember the first song when the presenter asked us to play he did not know how loud we were, his recording nearly blew his speakers!

The last radio interview was with the Red Aligatorz in Carlisle, again Radio Cumbria in the early 80s, with the presenter asking about the band and the gigs etc. I remember it being a lot of fun…but not sounding so cleaver!

A Forgotten Manuscript

I am planning a busking route through the Basque country and northern Spain this year and sorting through my maps and books in a pile of travel information, I came across an old black book I recognized from years back covered in dust. Inside were mostly blank music manuscript pages, but in the front of the book using my hand writing were traditional melodies from various countries: Lithuanian, Sweden, French and Slovak. The key signature of the notation told me that I had collected these melodies for playing on my Russian accordion that was in the key of A major, but other keys showed I was thinking for the Northumbrian pipes as the keys were also G and D major and were in the range of the pipe chanter (an octave and a half).

My Russian button accordion I had bought in 1992 while I was living in Vilnius, Lithuania; researching traditional music. The accordion was a popular instrument for dances not only in Lithuania but in Poland and Russia and throughout the Baltic States. I had bought it in a music shop in Vilnius, I could not play nor had I attempted to play it before, but I had time in those changing days when Lithuania was freeing itself from the Soviet influence. I was studying at the Vilnius Conservatoire so I thought I could get advice from the people there. My accordion had a range of about 3 octaves, double reeds that was slightly out of pitch with one another that gave it its particular sound, but what I loved was the harmony buttons that gave me that instant “Russian” feel. I learned a Belo-Russian melody and used these harmonies which transported me to the literature of Bakunin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. I also learned a few Lithuanian melodies and used the more dominant harmony buttons, the style instantly changed into something more recognisable, more European perhaps; these melodies were dance melodies from the folklore tradition. It seems this is where my interest fell away as I could not co-ordinate my melody hand and harmony hand correctly, polkas, marches anything in 2/4 or 4/4 was fine, but I could not get the waltzes and 6/8 rhythms and if I could not master it there was no point in continuing with it? Anyways, my interests slowly changed later on when I met different, less academic, folklorists in Kaunas. These people were into wood and skins of the Baltic nature/villages, not metallic instruments of the Soviet cities; and even though I did continue play it for the next 2 years I never really progressed from these few melodies that I learned in 1992.

The melodies in the book were copied from scores in the Conservatoire, my interest in Swedish music was a long standing one, I had visited Stockholm in 1990 and came home with some records of traditional music: accordion, nickelharper, anthology of Scandinavian instruments, and of course the bagpipes, there is something about the Swedish lilt, style, and presence that is soothing to me, relaxing and touches my Celtic sprit. There are only 2 Slovak melodies in the book, not surprisingly quite different in structure to the other melodies. Apart from these melodies copied for accordion I had written next to certain scores “fiddle” so apparently they had been written for violin. A couple of French melodies were penned in ink as an afterthought, possibly done at a later date.

In the back of the book there are some of my attempts at folk melody composition; flute notation without any description; a Belo-Russian melody; Kankles melodies and some compositional workings on a musical project I wrote called “A Maiden Wreath Made of Lead” which was a composition using my experiences over 4 years in the Baltic States, the composition was written during my BA in Contemporary Arts (1994-7). This is followed by other compositional workings as a follow up from “Maiden Wreath…” called “Paths” which was a musical journey into religious music of India and Pakistan, especially Qawwali, where I went on a field trip in 1995.

Festivals 2011

Busking has been a good way for making contacts, it has its limits of course when compared to the internet, but it has offered a few opportunities in the past to break away from the streets and perform in more varied surroundings. I have been offer weddings to play at, festivals, on the spot radio programmes and recordings have happened, and it has led to TV appearances and even the occasional music promoter offering to promote me! People have offered job suggestions and many have taken my card and details with promises of future work, and the opportunity to sell my CDs which is a good chance to promote my work and ideas. This year there has been interest too and if everything happens as it appears then I will be doing a radio programme this week for Radio Cumbria. In March there will be a project to preserve the Border pipes that I will be attending. In June I am invited to play at the International Folk Festival in Pilzen, Czech Republic; and in July I have been asked to play at the Cockermouth Festival, Cumbria. Let’s see what the future holds?

Border Variations

The world at 8am is a dark and dangerous place for a cyclist heading for Carlisle on the Wigton road, it is rush hour and it is the main road linking several towns along the west coast of Cumbria with lorries roaring past, cars, vans and one lone cyclist all heading for Carlisle in the dark with rain beating down and an icy wind on my back. I caught the 9.10am bus to Langholm, about 20 miles over the Scottish border, where I was to meet 2 Border pipers for a session of playing traditional melodies of those parts. One piper lives in Langholm and the other comes from Hawick, we play generally from 10am until 2.30pm with a small break where we enjoy a soup and a chat. The melodies we play are a mixture of different tune books but all are traditional Border melodies with variations. I am a new comer to the group and I add my share of melodies from Peacock and Bewick to the eclectic mix. I sight read where I can to join in, I am not so bad in sight reading but I loose my way with the speed they play and the variations that are still unfamiliar to me. The variations are very particular to the Border piping repertoire, sometimes runs and arpeggios are reproduced in other melodies and after playing a dozen or so, one can see patterns, clearly formulating a style to these types of tunes. Often a melody can be found in a different manuscript under a different title, possibly suggesting that a common melody travelled well but that the names were not passed on. The main manuscript to be used is the once forgotten “Dixon Manuscript” brought to light again by Matt Seattle who reprinted it for general use. The style of the melodies are very different to the Scottish Highland pipe tunes or to other melodies from the UK and Ireland, they have virtually no grace notes written in to the score, whether they were played in a systematic fashion is hard to tell there is no reference either way, but the general thought is that they were played in a more “Northumbrian/Border” style with little gracing. When I started playing the Border pipes I found the variations difficult to enjoy, in fact I did not play them, but now I see them as being a part of my tradition, an important part of our ‘style’ and part of my culture. Variations look a little like ‘practise pieces’ one finds in music tutors, as though a pupil learns an instrument and has a series of finger exercises before the main melody begins. On the surface it looks like they are just a series of arpeggios and runs, less melodic and more rhythmic in style, a series of repetitions and an unusual use of the 7th note (flattened or sharpened) that in theory is used as a passing note not an important part of the melodic structure, when played this 7th note should clash with the drones but it gives it ‘its’ sound, the particular sound of Border piping. It takes a while to get use to this sound, these runs and repetitive arpeggio use, but when it does get into your mind and heart it is captivating and it is a window into a lost world into the music of the Scottish borders.

Coming home the wind was in my face and it took me ages to cycle home, when I did I flopped in front of the fire and to pass the time got out the concertina and played some tunes that I had memorized trying to add harmonies to the bare melodies. I play mainly 3rds and 5ths to the main melody notes trying to add a harmony where appropriate.

After dinner I went back to the Border pipes and made some changes that I had noticed in the afternoon: making them louder by opening the reed, trying to get them closer to concert pitch “A” but realising that the top notes were too sharp and so it needed flattened by pulling the reed out but this would make the chanter flatter, it could not be helped, an ‘in-tune’ chanter is better than one that is half in tune! So I will have to make do with a chanter that is just below concert pitch and hope it will not make too much difference. I also tried playing melodies from memory, so building a repertoire. In all it was a good day full of music.

Tuning the Border Pipes

Today I got the Border pipes out of their old battered suitcase. It is a while since I played them and since I am having a session over the border in Langholm, Scotland tomorrow, I thought to get ready and dust of the fingers and try and remember some tunes. Remember I did, it all comes back after a few failed attempts, I played mainly Peacock melodies some new ones too. As usual I altered the reeds as I am trying to get the chanter in tune with the drones as close as I can to concert pitch “A” (440c), this is to blend in as much as possible with the other 3 pipers who will be turning up tomorrow also I wish to play with other musicians in time and the need to be compatible with other instruments is becoming quite important. I have played solo on the pipes for years and although it is very liberating to play what one wants, it can be quite isolating too. I put more thread around the sliding drones to make them air-tight and to stop them double tonguing. I also experimented in holding them, as they are not the most comfortable set of pipes to play. Old photos of the Border Piper have playing them with the drones set neatly across the chest. In practise this is not so easy; the drones are heavy, longer than the Northumbrian pipes, and flop around. I have had them over the shoulder, by far the better position, but a big separation between the chanter (melody) and the drones (harmony) I like the Northumbrian pipes as the chanter and the drones are relatively together blending nicely. I put the drones across the chest but it is very unstable under the bag arm, then I put them underneath the arm that they normally rest upon so they are lying downwards towards the ground with the arm over them. This is the best position as the chanter and the drones are sounding together, but the neck of the chanter was flapping around and also uncomfortable, more experimentation needs to be done. I pushed the chanter reed in as far as it would go, opening the end to make it louder and to flatten the top notes of the chanter. I have always tried to quieten the chanter as think it is too loud, but I now believe (because of playing on the streets and back ground noises) that louder is better to cut above the other street noises. It is a constant struggle between the reed and the chanter to get it right, very frustrating very tiring, all in aid to get it to concert pitch “A”, if I had left the reed the way it was it was a perfect match between pressure of the bag, drone reeds and pitch – a flat “A”, but problematic to play with others. Lets see what happens tomorrow at the session.