Re-thinking Bellows

There is a joy to making, even the mistakes although frustrating, can be instructive. This summer I have been making bellows again. I have made quite a few over the years for my small pipe workshop and they have all been a bit different. The only constant thing about them is the form.

French Musette Bellow
Form of a French Musette Bellow

The bellows I am making are still in the shape of the old Musette bagpipes I saw in various bagpipe museums in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Gijon. The shape of the musette bellows intrigued me, and the designs and colours made it stand out as a work of art. It depicted the culture of the French court of the 18th century, the flamboyance, the intricacy, the colour.french bellow design

I thought to mimic it’s form but keep a Border/Northumbrian style of “austerity and plainness”; a protestant in stead of a catholic style! The shape (sosceles trapezoid) also allowed me to play around with the construction of the bellows, it is a deliberate move away from the traditional way of making NSP bellows.

The style of Northumbrian Small Pipe bellows are plain, with the natural wood being the only design and the leather as the only other material. The clack valve being either wood or ivory, and plastic with modern designs. The form of the NSP bellow has also a rounded back.

Besides the form I wanted to change the position of the clack valve; the NSP bellow has the clack valve in the front on top of the cheek, this is prone to obstructions from shirtsleeves, jumpers, arms etc. The closing of the air hole due to these obstructions made blowing problematic and it often gave a sound like a “whuppy cushion” which not the desired harmonic effect I am after!

The construction I have been playing around with this summer is to put the clack valve at the back of the bellow, out of the way of the arm and any clothing. Instead of 1 clack valve I made several clack valves in case if one got blocked others would still draw in air.

Underside of my bellows
Underside of my bellows

I had experimented with solutions to this problem before, by putting the clack valve in front next to the hinge. I have also experimented by drilling holes in the side of the clack valve so air could still be drawn into the bellow if it became blocked, but it was never enough air for it to be practicle.

A friend of mine, has a small pipe bellow from France, its form is not like the Musette, but it has its clack valve at the back of the bellow, it has only one valve and recently I had a conversation with a piper who said this design is prone to get blocked by cushions on seats etc. So I renewed my idea of having multiple clack valves. My first attempt had only 3 clack valves, but this did not allow enough air to come through; this summer I made 8 clack valves, but I think this is too many, I have a feeling 6 will be adequate, and it will be my next experiment with this system.

Another observation I have of bellows (after visiting Piping Live 2018) is that they look very heavy. I would say there are 3 types of bellows in my region: the NSP style of bellow – plain; Irish pipe style – padded, heavy and dripping in studs; and the 3rd type the French style which is mainly used in the South of UK. I am experimenting with the object of getting rid of the weight, it serves no purpose, in fact it is detriment to the playing technique. The weight of the bellows pushes the bellow down towards the hips (instead of the desired position of the lower chest), so the position of the bag will be off-kilt, the bellows dragging down the blowpipe; there is no reason for this. A lighter bellow will be kept at the desired height, by the belt and arm, blow pipe and bag; less weight pulling the bellows downward.

Topside of new bellow
Topside of my bellow

My final experiment is to play around with the decorative design on the bellows. Again, thinking of the original Musette bellow with its ornaments and colour I have been looking at decoupage techniques and thinking of ways to personalize the bellow cheeks. To move away from the plainness of the wood (however beautiful that may be) and to use images or designs to highlight the bellow’s surface. I used to cover it with fabric and it can work well especially when it matches the fabric of the bag, but why not be more creative with the design? Also, I am thinking to burn images onto the wooden bellow cheeks, to give it a added beauty.

I think once I made the decision to move away from the traditional making/design style of the Border/NSP bagpipe I feel there are possibilities for creativity. For those who feel tradition should be left alone, I say that without experimenting and breaking away from tradition we would not have the NSP pipes at all. I would argue that the NSPs are a result of breaking from tradition. Innovation is part of the tradition.

Here my bellows experiments until now:Jpeg

Recently I have finished a bellow made from bamboo. The material is light (my desired effect) and strong. I used the French arm strap construction as is pictured in the first photo for this posting.
bamboo bellows

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Concert: Newcastleton Folk Festival

I decided to have a theme for this year’s concert at Newcastle Folk Festival. Last year at the Friday night concert, I played a random set of tunes from the Peacock Manuscript. But this year I wanted to select different “variation” pieces of Northumbrian music played on the Northumbrian Small pipes.

These variation sets, are long pieces of music; similar to having 5 or 6 melodies added after each other. They are very characteristic of old Border Northumbrian melodies. There are suggestions why these variations came to be added after the main piece of music (the A and B sections of a melody). Some say they are for dancing, for the musician not to be bored; some say they are for listening, as in a concert environment and the player can express their virtuosity and skill.

Whatever the reason these variations can be simple or complex, often long in length sometimes having 25 sections; or as little as 2.

The old manuscripts have variation pieces in them: Dixon, Peacock, and Bewick are the manuscripts I chose to play from.

I started the concert with a reason why I chose to do the variation pieces. This was because 2 years ago I was sitting in a session listening to a friend of mine playing a variation piece on the Scottish Small pipes. As I was listening a man learned across to me and whispered in my ear “it goes on a bit”. He clearly did not like these long pieces of music. It is an expression I have heard before, especially from non-musicians. They do not understand why it is so long, or what the tune is trying to convey to the listener.

People have a short concentration span, 3 minutes on average, as long as a pop song; after that their mind goes onto other things. The variation piece needs concentration to listen and understand it properly; or the audience needs activity as in dancing. These melodies more makes sense when one is playing for a dance; it can get very boring to play the same melody over again, often 15 times while the dance is going on. It makes more sense to keep adding parts so the musician can keep an interest and therefore put some life into the playing.

The comment, made by the man in the session, kept in my mind for a while and I mused upon its reason and solution. “How could I make these traditional pieces of music more understandable and digestible for the listener?”.

In the concert at Newcastleton, I began with a very simple variation piece, Peacock’s “Highland Laddie”; mentioning that the 2nd part of the tune, is another melody called “Butter’d Peas” also from Peacock with the parts changed around. Instead of parts C and D, as in the Highland Laddie, they become parts A and B in Butter’d Peas.

With this example I began to mention my method for other variation pieces. I said “I began to chop up the variations into A and B parts, to make them more easily remembered, as well as giving them a life of their own, then when I had mastered the 2 parts, I joined them onto the variation piece once more”.

To demonstrate this I played Dixon’s “Highland Laddie” mentioning that I missed out the last 2 parts as I found it was “enough for me to play”. I wanted to say that musicians should play what feels comfortable to them, what they like and what they consider appropriate. There is no law that you must play all of the variations. Pick out the best parts and play those.

My next example was Bewick’s “Blackett O’Wylam” where I played all of the parts; followed by Peacock’s “Newmarket Races” where I only played the first 4 parts.
The next melody was Bewick’s “Sir John Fenwick’s” where I played all of the parts, and lastly I played Dixon’s “New Way to Bowden” where I played all the parts.

The concert was recorded and I will upload the recording at a later date.

Bandcamp: CDs

I have been re-looking at my Bandcamp site. It takes a lot of time to edit it.

I have re-mastered (as they say) the Border pipes CD “O’er the Dyke” and in doing so, it was like finding a lost manuscript, hidden in my archives. I had to re-understand what I was doing all those years ago while recording that CD, using the equipment I had back then. No such thing as DAWs as today, I used to record using a normal computer and its own sound programme. 2 computers to create 1 CD.

Technology moves so fast and now it is easier to record, edit and publish a CD using 1 computer and 1 programme. It takes a lot of time of course, days, weeks and months… but the actual recording can be done a lot quicker.

I have been working on 2 new CDs.

The 1st CD is of the Northumbrian Smallpipes: looking more closely at the Dixon manuscript, with their complex variations. And also I have been looking at various non-British melodies from Sweden, Spain, Belgium and France.

The reason for the mix of styles is a reflection of the countries that have influenced my music of the past 20 years. A CD has to be representative of what I am playing now, and what I am playing are melodies that are directly part of my life. Since I spend a lot of my time in Spain researching the bagpipe, I play a lot of Spanish bagpipe melodies, and since I visit Sweden I have collected 1 or 2 tunes from there… and so it goes on.

The 2nd CD is a concertina CD, with a doubling up of a mandolin on various tracks. The mandolin I started to play again after 30 years break. These tracks are a reflection of my busking activities in the UK and various duets I have been involved with in Spain. The style also covers a range of UK and Spanish melodies that work on the concertina (not all of them do work!). I had to learn a new repertoire on the concertina recently as one of the notes stopped working, so instead of transferring the existing melodies onto a new pitch, I learned a new repertoire in a different key.

These CDs I hope to have finished in December and January.

Northumbrian Smallpipes

This years Newcastleton Folk Festival (2016) was enjoyable for me, I played various pipes (Gaita, NSP, Border and Scottish Smallpipes) and played at a few concerts and gave my workshop on the Smallpipes.

I was asked to play at the opening concert in the Church, part of it was video’d. I played for about 30 minutes and I really enjoyed the atmosphere. The melodies are all traditional Northumbrian/Border mainly from the Peacock manuscript (1800)