An Old Sackpipa at Gagnef 2015

I have just returned from a 10 day trip to Sweden to visit my friend and bagpipe maker Bors Anders, we spoke about many things: making pipes, publicizing and developing Swedish bagpipes on line, the development of the reeds etc.

1 week later we drove north to the village called Gagnef for the Sackpipa Meeting. This was my 4th visit and my best due to the fact I had my own sackpipa this time, and was able to join in with the melodies.

The Gagnef group visited the local museum where we saw an old example of a sackpipa with an imitation small drone attatched in the same stock as the larger playable drone. The instrument was in a bad condition, not playable, we noticed the cutting marks of the handmade instrument, the bored out chanter and discussed if it had been turned or drilled on a lathe. 

There was some beautiful design work on the stocks, as well as wooden pegs to place a leather strap over the bindings. Obviously a lot of work was given to the construction of the bag and leather work, but other things like the wooden parts were poorly done. 

The chanter and drone stocks were not centered, the cut of the thumb hole seemed to be for a left handed player (left hand at the top of the chanter), and the finger indentations were all symmetrical cut into the chanter wall.

The ‘owner’ of this pipe was a landlord of a village a few kms away, he owned a pub and also was skilled in leather work, this reflect the workmanship of the leather, but not the wood parts. The bag had been repaired and chanter holes were slits and all had the same size and dimensions…was it ever playable?

Why was there a 2nd drone added? Did he see it somewhere and copied it? Was he copying a set he had seen before or just heard that pipes had 2 drones? Owning an Inn would let him see and hear bagpipes being played from people passing through. Perhaps he had acquired the pipes from a traveler? Perhaps he had seen one and tried to copy it but could not play? Who knows… but it was interesting to see a historical sackpipa which was dated roughly 1850-1900.

The rest of the weekend was playing; sorting out the reeds, socializing, eating and having a great time in the Swedish countryside… loved it.

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Bagpipe Society Blowout, 2015

It was my first time at the ‘blowout’ (Polesworth, Tamworth, England) in a beautiful surrounding of the Abbey. Each piping culture has its traditions and this was a new tradition for me. Here there was a different style and feeling about the music, pipes, people and events, perhaps a more European style or perhaps an ‘English” style. I say English as it is a reinvention of a tradition that died out. And the reintroduction of the tradition has established a very firm and loyal group of people to their type of music.

I was expecting a heavy influence of French music, but I was surprised to see a good mix of styles in the form of workshops and concerts: Northumbrian/Borders; Occitan from the French Pyrenees; Hungarian; Irish; Welsh… these music’s were played on a type of bagpipe that I have a problem in naming.

They call it a “Border pipe” but I cannot see where their border is exactly? The majority played a type of pipe similar to the French/Belgium bagpipe: mouth blown or bellows blown, conical bored chanter, 2 drones, over-blown into a 2nd octave. Not so loud, plastic reeds, no African Blackwood in sight (made a nice change too) therefore the sound was mellow, perhaps they could call it a “French-Anglo Pipe” as the makers are English and the pipe is modeled on the French/Belgium style.

The makers present (selling their pipes) were in the main hall alongside a Society stall, a flute maker, an Occitan maker. Zampogna maker. There was a 2nd hand section of music books, CDs, cassettes…

One of the workshops I attended was a ‘beginner’s workshop’ to sort out teething problems players were having. This was very informative as it gave me a chance to see how the workshop was structured (with relation to my own workshop); I was also looking for some advice about my Spanish gaita as it was sharp in the bottom notes.  It came apparent that the information was only for a select type of pipes from a select few pipe makers. A general knowledge was not there of conical bored pipes.  The Society was open to all pipes but in reality (at this blowout in particular) only certain types of pipes were represented. Sometimes it felt like if you did not have a bagpipe from a certain type of maker then you were excluded from activities and advice, there was no advice about the Gaita. Also it presumed that because I had “asked the question” that I did not know anything about pipes or conical bored pipes, and I was told to go and “ask (someone) and you will find that the pipes are fine” (meaning “it is you who is wrong” well it seems I know as much as the person who is giving the advice, as he did not know either, a little condescending I thought).

The only sessions available were in D or G, G being the more popular of the 2. G pipes are common in French music, a large bass G. Which is fine, they sounded beautiful. But there are other pipes and I would have liked to have seen a session where any type of pipe could have been played… a few people had brought their sackpipa (key on A minor), , Spanish gaita (C),  , I had with me bagpipes in A minor, C, A major, D, F, and C minor… but no G. I did attend the Irish workshop which was in D, but others I could not. This did not lesson my interest. Other pipes present were a Welsh Pibgorn (D), Leistershire Small pipe (D), Italian Zampogna and there was a Dudy from the Czech/Slovak regions.

The D session on the Saturday was titled “English Session” this apparently is a new occurrence as only English melodies are played (I did not know this at the time and I played a Catalan melody which was met with a silence). After I realized my “mistake” I tried to play along with the English melodies, which there was a lot of. This was the biggest surprise of the weekend, a firm selection of English tunes were being played by all. The Northumbrian tunes came at the end of the night when they had played out all the English tunes. This is great as it establishes a firm melody base of for an English tradition, and leaves the Northumbrian tradition a little apart (which I feel is more accurate as it is more akin to the Scottish/English Border tradition).

Another surprise for me was the Occitan music and bagpipes. 2 makers from the French side of the Pyrenees were offering their instruments for sale, CDs, workshops and concerts. It was a music I only knew a little about (and only recently). They seemed to have a cross-over from the Catalan and Aragon side of the Pyrenees with the Sac de Gemecs (made from a fruit wood, a type of apple) and the Gaita de Boto (complete with snakeskin and girls dress). But also they had their own type of pipes a very large bagpipe in F with a large drone with a knitted “flecco” (decoration). A shepherd’s bagpipe without a drone, deep sound, sad sound, lovely (I had heard this on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees). And the Boha bagpipe with the drone apart of the chanter which can play 2 notes… (Therefore is it really a drone?). Also there was a variant of this having 2 melody pipes and 1 ‘drone’ built into the chanter, single reeds, polyphonic sound.

In the sessions I heard the Welsh Pibgorn, a dingle reeded instrument, 1 octave mouth blown with a distinctive sound, a beautiful decorated horn cut away at the bottom of the chanter, with cylindrical bored chanter.  Their melodies were not dissimilar to a Breton tune, in a minor mode.

The Hungarian duo (pipes and hurdy gurdy) were fantastic players, (I had seen them at the Piping Live Festival in Glasgow a few years previous) tight in their music and ‘tuning’ (an important lesson for us all). Played beautifully with traditional and composed pieces, improvisations and structured parts. The pipes were not so dissimilar to the Occitan Boha. With the Hungarian ’suggesting’ that the Boha was taken from their pipes. They look similar… but who’s came first is a question too far…

My final observation of the weekend was that there is a danger of the “small pipes” becoming obsolete in time due to their quiet nature. Those who had them were drowned out by the conical chanters. This is a reflection of what is happening in sessions too all over the country. If you are “not heard”, why play them? The highland pipe makers are increasing the volume of the “session small pipes” but not so with pipe makers (although there are exceptions). Perhaps the small-pipes need to become more assertive, and insist the venues, meetings, and festivals are predominantly ‘small-pipe sessions’ the same way the ‘English Session’ has become?

Sackpipa Practice Chanter

I made a “sackpipa practice chanter” by putting my original chanter into a highland bagpipe practice chanter mouth piece. This gives me an opportunity to learn the melodies before applying them to the bag.

Many years ago when I began researching the sackpipa I made a PowerPoint slide show of the melodies I had collected from the internet (mainly from the early version of Olle’s page), I found the mp3 recordings and added them to the slide show. I had intended to learn these melodies one day using the slide show… now is that day. On screen comes the notation and the music automatically plays; as it plays I follow using fingering patterns only, and then I play the melody myself.

The tunes I have been working on so far with any regularity are:

Jag blaste I min pipa (which I have memorized)
Ljugaren (I have memorized)
Sackpipslat efter Jont Lars Olsson (memorized)
Krigsvisa om danskarna (struggling with this one, to remember the melody, it feels a different style in some way).
Steklat fran Sarna (memorized, but the 2nd half creates some mix ups with the finger order)
Vals fran Enviken (memorized)
Visa fran Venjan (I have been playing this one with the C natural just for easiness; the tune requires a C sharp).
Langdans fran Solleron (memorized)
Bjorskottens polska (memorized)
Polska efter Troskari Erik (struggling, due to the polska rhythm)
Gardsbygubbarnas polska (struggling, 2nd half looses me, the polska rhythm and the duplicate notes)
Miller of Dee (memorized)

Sackpipa Blog: Sackpipa Melodies

At the end of May I will be going to the Bagpipe Society “Blowout” with my sackpipa, also I am returning to the “Gagnef (Sackpipa) Meeting” this year at the end of June. I have been going to the Gagnef meeting for 4 years (I skipped last year due to financial difficulties), but this year I will be returning with my own sackpipa to join in with the other musicians.

Because of these events I have decided to keep a blog, leading up to the Blowout and Gagnef meetings. I want to document the progress I have/will make regarding the learning of sackpipa melodies and playing techniques (from an UK perspective!).

The recent acquisition of my sackpipa chanter from Bors Anders (instrument maker from Nykoping, Sweden.you can view his web site at http://www.borsljudet.com ) has enabled me to begin working on Swedish bagpipe melodies. I have had the sackpipa for 2 years but was unable to play it due to a difference in reed/chanter compatibility.

The chanter was made and designed for cane reeds; whereas a synthetic reed from Seth Hammond had been used when I got it. I was finding the top note to be out of tune with the rest of the chanter when set against the drone. Bors Anders very kindly changed the chanter which had been adapted to fit Seth’s reeds (as well as supplying me with Swedish cane for my original chanter).

The result was a tuneful sackpipa chanter. So now I could work on the melodies.

The only notation I had was a book given to me by Bors Anders of his original compositions for sackpipa entitled “Lat Och Olat for Sackpipa” (Swedish characters are not used in the typing), and an A4 size sheet with 5 tunes printed on it. I do not remember where I got this sheet of music from but I did recognize some of the melodies from the titles and I knew them to be traditional… a good place to start learning.

These tunes are: Langdans fran Solleron; Visa fran Venjan; Vals fran Enviken; Ljugaren; Jag Blaste I min pipa.

A few days ago I had visited a piping friend who also is learning the sackpipa, he told me he was learning a few melodies and I thought to give them a try too.

These melodies are: Sackpipa polska; Steklat fran Sarna; Bjorskottens Polska/Polska efter Nedergards Lars.

My first few practices are proving to be fruitful. I have decided to play with completely ‘closed fingering’ (like I play my Northumbrian Small pipes), I did try ‘open’ and ‘semi-open’ fingering, but it felt “natural” to play it this way. 2 years ago at the Gagnef Meeting (2013) in conversation with Olle, he mentioned that there is no “traditional” fingering for the sackpipa, and why not try it fully closed. I can play other pipes, semi and fully open styles, but I like the idea of playing the sackpipa fully closed, especially as I like the staccato style of playing.

I made a recording of the first practice, the tune “Ljugaren” the recording tells of “unsteady bag pressure and‘stiffness’ of style from reading of notation” but early days yet…

Making Swedish Sackpipa (1)

I completed turning the chanter down to a workable size. I turned the bottom for the chanter so it would be able to fix a sliding part so I can tune the bottom E note exactly to the drone (1st getting it tune with the middle A – the root note). I saw this idea being used by Bors Anders, a sackpipa maker in Sweden. I used Beech wood to contrast the white Damson wood.

 The drone I had already made years ago, I think the wood was Lime wood with a nice grain. It is only temporary, used for quickness to test out the chanter. It is the same length as the chanter which is what is required and the same bore size.

Next is to make the bag and reeds…

Making a Swedish Sackpipa

For about 30 years I have been trying to make a set of bagpipes…Northumbrian, Border, Sackpipa, Labanora Duda, Musette. I have always failed because I have never had the correct reeds, nor the correct measurements. I am beginning again hoping I have more knowledge this time to complete a set. I am starting with the Swedish Sakpipa as I am hoping to go to Gagnef in Sweden in June to the Sakpipa Meeting, and there I can ask advice about reeds and perhaps make one that will fit.
I got measurements a few years ago of the chanter and I began today making it from Damson wood that I got from my garden, it has been drying for a year.
Today I cut and turned the wood then drilled the bore of 6mm. dia. down the middle, this took me all day, a slow process.
The problem being the wood is thick and I have to turn it down, which takes quite some time.
I have a few pieces of Spanish cane (Arundo Donax) which I take to Gagnef and make the reeds. The Damson wood has a beautiful grain and it is a white colour.