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.

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