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stories from some of the world's top pipers

Carlos Nuñez

What attracts me to the Great Highland Bagpipe is primarily the sound. I think that the Scottish “Stradivarius” who reinvented the sound of the pipes in the 19th century were geniuses. They renounced things like the second octave, semitones obtained through special fingerings, and looked for a powerful sound instead, escaping from the nasal and sometimes unpleasant sound of older pipes, evolving towards an elegant tone with the “problematic” frequencies cut. Sound engineers nowadays might say it comes equalized. I think it’s also very wise that grace notes, instead of being defined notes with a strong presence as in other European pipes, just cut the sound, helping to articulate the music. Sometimes I feel as if it had been designed to listen to the music from far away.


Then of course there is the pipe band tradition, in which individualistic elements like vibrato, rubato, improvisation, notes with an uncertain tuning, are omitted in benefit of the ensemble. I think the Highland pipes nowadays, even if they are the same instrument in which pibroch is performed, are mainly thought to work within a pipe band. The repertoire is unique too, especially pibroch, even if there are links to other instruments or traditions, as my friend Barnaby Brown often discusses.


Even if military music is far from the spirit of fiesta of the gaita, old pipers like Ricardo Portela realised that there were different levels of tunes. There was dance music and serious music just to be listened to. When I learn about old Scottish music, I find more and more things in common with old Galician music. Both seem to have been less rigid than we were taught. I can’t forget probably the clearest similarity for an audience. Scottish jigs and Galician muiñeiras and the dancing with the arms up to the sky!


I love the Scottish tunes, from the mysterious pìobaireachd, to the Mason´s Apron or The Clumsy Lover that I played for years with the Chieftains. Another one I love is Aires Escoceses composed in the XIX century by Spanish violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, dedicated to his friend Scott Skinner. Known as the “Spanish Paganini”, he put all his virtuoso technique to the service of the beautiful Scottish melodies as variations. I think he did it in a very natural way not like Beethoven, who I’d say suffered arranging Scottish songs as tonal tunes, when they were obviously modal!

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