Corny Muse
Baron and  Anneix

Recordings of Bagpipe Music
by Steve Winick (1998)

The title of this article suggested itself as a tribute to pipes and pipers; cornemuse is French for bagpipe, and pipers are renowned for their sense of humor. The last few months have been fruitful ones for the bagpipers of the world, and a number of good CDs from France and Britain have arrived at my door. The first is by one of the world’s premiere bagpipe players and scholars, Eric Montbel. Montbel has been a member of leading traditional French bands like Lo Jai, Le Grand Rouge, and Ulysse. He has founded a non-profit organization for musicians as well as a folk music magazine, Modal. He is currently the founding director of the Center for traditional Music in the Rhône-Alps region of France. Somehow he has managed to have an active solo career as well, with several albums to his credit, the latest of which is Chabretas: les cornemuses à miroirs du Limousin [Al Sur ALCD 156]. Montbel’s main instrument has always been the chabreta, the Limousin bagpipe, and this album is a collection of chabreta melodies, mainly bourées and slower tunes. The stately pace and infectious rhythms of these dances makes for compelling listening; the fact that many are new compositions in the tradition of chabreta music, a tradition few understand as fully as Montbel, makes the disc an extra treat. Montbel’s sharp playing is augmented by several of his musical friends: Jean-François Vrod (violin), Guy Bertrand (flutes) and Richard Monségu (percussion), all of whom do a magnificent job of adding texture and variety to the recording. A full scholarly set of notes in French and English, including notation for five tunes in different typical modes, is included in the booklet.

France: Landes de Gascogne, La Cornemuse [Ocora C 560051] is another CD that focuses on the bagpipes of a particular French region. Unlike Chabretas, it features five different pipers. Four of these are what we would call “revivalists”: people who, in the 70s, learned to build and play the bagpipes of the Landes, reinventing the tradition as they went. The fifth piper featured on the disc is Jeanty Benquet, considered the last of the traditional Landes pipers; Benquet died in 1957, leaving behind only one recording, from which three selections appear on this collection. While we must imagine that Benquet’s playing is closer to the “old style” of Landes piping, we know that he was a cosmopolitan traveler and a semi-professional entertainer, and thus subject to outside influences. No other recording of a traditional Landes piper was ever made, and this one was discovered only recently. Therefore, the post-1968 revival of Landes piping is based much more on Slavic models, and on personal creativity, than on the Landes past. It is an excellent example of a creatively invented tradition. The four revivalists all play their instruments with aplomb, some alone and others with accompaniment from fiddlers, hurdy-gurdy players and clarinetists. Most of the melodies are intended for dancing, and they have a breezy lift that makes for most pleasant listening — provided one likes the sharp tones of the bagpipe to begin with. One interesting feature of the Landes pipe is a short pipe for accompaniment of the melody. It can be sounded more or less continuously as a drone, or used rhythmically like the regulators of the Irish uillean pipes and the trompette of the French hurdy-gurdy. It adds a bit of texture and complexity to several of the tunes on this disc, and is especially noticeable in Benquet’s playing. Like Chabretas, this CD features a full set of informative liner notes, in French, English and German.

I’ve recently come across two more albums that feature French bagpipes, both in the Auvidis Ethnic label’s France series. The first is Musiques D’Auvergne [Auvidis Ethnic B 3681] by the trio Café Charbons, who specialize in music from the Auvergne on cabrette (Auvergnat bagpipe), vielle à roue (French hurdy-gurdy) and violin. Most of their repertoire comes from the so-called “Auvergnats de Paris,” people from the Auvergne who, over the last hundred and fifty years, have migrated to the capital. This community was and is an extremely active one musically, and a great wealth of Auvergnat music has been collected and recorded in Paris. The members of Café Charbons are Marc Anthony, Dominique Paris and Jean-François Vrod, all of whom have played with the group Compagnie Chez Bousca. On Musiques D’Auvergne, they play a more conservative brand of Auvergnat music than with Chez Bousca, entirely acoustic and traditional. Their repertoire is composed mostly of sprightly dances, but with some reflective airs and gentle waltzes sprinkled among the more boisterous tunes. Very accomplished arrangers, they bring the beauty of harmony and counterpoint to the strong Auvergnat melodic tradition, making this a forceful and worthy album.

Vielles & Cornemuses [Auvidis Ethnic B6830] by the quartet Vielleux du Bourbonnais is a very similar disc featuring ensemble playing of traditional French instrumental music. As one would expect from the title, the album concentrates on bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy, most of the tunes featuring both instruments with no other accompaniment. The hurdy-gurdy is a viol whose strings are sounded by means of a wooden wheel. Because of its sharp tone, and the fact that several of the strings are drones that sound continuously while the instrument plays, the hurdy-gurdy actually sounds quite similar to the bagpipe, and the two go well together. Like Café Carbons, Vielleux du Bourbonnais play their music with great respect for the melodic traditions they use. The major innovation is the use of bagpipes in several different keys to facilitate playing harmony with one another; this is standard today in French traditional music, but was unknown 30 years ago. Vielleux du Bourbonnais infuse their music with great energy and vitality, making Vielles & Cornemuses a fresh and enjoyable album for lovers of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies. If you don’t know much about this music, however, don’t look for help in the sleeve notes; the booklet has no information about any of the musicians or the music except a brief blurb and credits for the authors; it doesn’t even identify the members of the band.

Before I leave behind French pipes, let me mention a new CD from the masters of sonner par couple, or Breton duet piping: E bro roué morvan [Keltia Musique KMCD 68], or the land of King Morvan, by Jean Baron and Christian Anneix. The title of this album refers to Morvan, who united the people in one area of Brittany to fight against the Frankish emperor. Largely due to his efforts, the emperor recognized his successor Nominoë as an imperial missus, the first person with administrative responsibility over the Bretons, and quasi-nationalist pan-Breton identity was born. Nevertheless, Morvan himself ruled only a section of Morbihan, not all of Brittany, and the tunes chosen for this album come from that area. They are played on biniou-koz, a very shrill single-droned bagpipe, and bombarde, a shawm or oboe pitched an octave below the boniou-koz chanter. Typically, the biniou plays continually, and the bombarde plays every other line, which adds an interesting texture and sonority to the music. Baron and Anneix are among the best-known players in this style, and their flawless technique and inimitable style infuse these old dance melodies, many of which were originally sung, with as much spirit and feeling as a vibrant human voice. The music of bombarde and biniou-koz takes some getting used to, but it pays off when a great pair like Baron-Anneix are recording.

The French bagpipes I have discussed so far are mostly sharp-sounding instruments, but not all bagpipes are as nasal. The Northumbrian small pipes from northern England are a delicate and sweet-sounding bagpipe, powered by a bellows rather than a blowpipe. They are featured in a new compilation from Topic records’ latest compilation The Northumbrian Small Pipes [Topic TSCD 487]. The folk revival hit the Tyne valley in the late 50s, and many young people awoke to the beauty and history of their native bagpipes. The early stages of the revival involved the search for older masters of piping, people like Billy Pigg and Joe Hutton, whom Topic records finally recorded on a justly famous compilation called Wild Hills o’ Wannie in 1974. Simultaneously, younger people drew inspiration from these elders and began playing the pipes, both solo and as part of folk groups. Topic released several albums featuring both older and younger pipers, including Bonny North Tyne (1974) and Holey Ha’Penny (1976). Soon bands featuring the instrument appeared; The High Level Ranters and The Cut & Dry Band, both of which featured pipers Alistair Anderson, Colin Ross and Jim Hall, were two leading ensembles of the era. Tracks from all of these albums and groups are included on The Northumbrian Small Pipes, which was compiled by piper Colin Ross, who played on most of the original recordings. Probably the most astonishing playing on this disc comes from Pigg, who is justly considered one of Northumbrian piping’s greatest masters ever. The combination of vibrant tone, unique phrasing and great feeling make his version of “The Wild Hills o’ Wannie” the definitive performance of the tune. The jig and reel set he plays is an equally masterful rendition. Other old-timers, like Hutton, George Atkinson, Diana Blackett-Ord, and the duo of Colin Caisley and Foster Charlton, turn in excellent performances, and the playing by the younger generation makes up in energy and imagination what it lacks in depth. Even though the sound quality is poor on a few cuts, this album is good listening. The liner notes are a little spare; a discography that identified which tunes came from which albums, as well as some notes on the tunes and the players themselves, would have been nice.

Since Ross’s early years, a new generation of Northumbrian pipers has emerged. One of those pipers, Pauline Cato, is just beginning to enjoy wide recognition for her genius. Her latest project is a duo with singer and virtuoso fiddler Tom McConville (of Dab Hand, Syncopace, and other lineups). Their recording, By Land and Sea [Tomcat TCCD 01] demonstrates how nicely the Northumbrian pipes can fit into a small ensemble; the delicate harmonies played by McConville on fiddle add great effects to tunes like “The Duke of Fife’s Welcome to Deeside,” and guest musician Chris Newman’s brilliant guitar work is perfect rhythmic accompaniment. In addition to the many sterling tunes, the CD contains four songs sung by McConville in a sweet, strong voice and a strong Geordie accent that add an extra touch to this fine collaboration. The songs include Richard Thompson’s “Beeswing” and the traditional “Coaly Tyne,” both familiar to fans of British folk. Particularly compelling is the combination of pipes and voice; a good set of harmonic drones does wonders for a singer, and the freedom of the pipes to explore places around and between the melody’s notes makes for a rich sound indeed.

Few places are more strongly associated with the bagpipes than Scotland. This has perhaps been bad for pipers in other countries, whose achievements are less widely recognized. However, the reputation the Scots have gained as excellent pipers is certainly deserved. In addition to its national emblem, the Great Highland Bagpipe, Scotland harbors less well-known varieties of pipes, including cauld-wind, or bellows-blown varieties. Robert Wallace, both as a solo artist and as a member of the band Whistlebinkies, has been an innovator in the use of bellows-blown pipes in the Scottish folk revival; in the 70s, he restored a set of lowland pipes by referring to museum drawings (no playable lowland pipes were available at the time), and played the instrument on recordings by the Whistlebinkies, making their albums watersheds in the use of lowland pipes. On his latest solo album, Breakout [Lismor LCOM 5253], Wallace plays the lowland pipes (which are essentially similar to the highland pipes, and sound much the same, only quieter) as well as the Scottish small pipes (which sound very much like the Northumbrian small pipes discussed above). Wallace is also unusual in that he plays the pipes solo, in a traditional band, and with orchestral musicians in classically-oriented arrangements. Here he plays in all three of these modes; passages from Celtic-inspired operas are here, along with traditional dance music. Particularly impressive is a tune in which all styles interact: “Broderick’s Bodhrán,” on which Wallace plays the lowland pipes solo, and with accompaniment from guitar, violin and cello. Wallace’s piping is impeccable from start to finish, and the album should please folks who like to hear unusual pipes in unusual contexts.

And so, to all followers of the Corny Muse, happy honking...and listening! - Steve Winick