John Bushby shares a ‘light-bulb’ moment

I first saw Matt Seattle’s book in a Music Shop where I used to work in back in Hobart, Tasmania back in the late 1990’s. It was pointed out to me and was told I should buy it.  Which of course I did.  Why it should appear there? I have no idea but at the time there was a small group of us, mainly ex highland pipers (I was the odd one out)  of Scottish smallpipers.  About 10 of us.  I believe one of the instigators of the group was my pipe maker Malcolm McLaren, who now lives in Queensland and who has been featured previously in this publication.
Obviously another one of the group, the late Max Webb had bought a copy as well from somewhere, as amongst our music were some copies of Dixon’s Highland Laddie and a couple of others.  I vaguely remember playing them but at the time they just did not excite me.
After I bought the book, I occasionally opened it and started playing some of the tunes but still couldn’t get excited apart from Newe Way to Bowden which somehow interested me as a tune.  I did in fact end up recording it for a solo CD of pipe and songs I made prior to us moving to the UK as a request by a number of friends.
I tried Wee Winking Thing as I had heard Matt playing it on his CD, Out of the Flames but musically it made no sense really and I thought ‘what is the point of all these variations’.  My argument, although naïve, was why ruin a perfectly good tune with all these runs of notes etc.  I felt the same about a lot of Northumbrian pipe tunes when I played Northumbrian pipes.
I have often argued as to whether it really is as important as many believe and thought that maybe it was someone trying to make the music something that it really wasn’t.  It was following the ‘classical’ music fashion of the Baroque era where divisions or variations were popular.  I felt, probably wrongly that this wasn’t true to folk music or music of the people as, if I was anything to go by, it was not easily accessible to your ordinary player. I also found it hard to play the runs easily on my Lowland/ Borderpipes.
I do tend to question too, seeing as the tunes are found elsewhere, although different versions, how important the manuscript is overall in the scheme of things. Having said that it is the variations actually ‘pricked’ down that make it a bit different.
I maintained this argument even after I arrived in the UK in 2005.  I just could not understand why people got so excited about it. However, that thought started to change and I pulled the book out again but alas still could not get excited.  
I heard some of these tunes played at our competitions but even then they did nothing for me and I stubbornly refused to bother with them.  Others may want to play them, I thought, but personally I felt there were other tunes to get on with and learn.  So the book just languished lonely on the bookshelf along with many other tune books.  I mean, how many tunes do we really need?  I still feel that.
It was only when I volunteered to record the Dixon Homecoming Concert at Stamfordham on April 25th 2015 that I had that ‘light bulb’ moment!  I sat there with the computer chugging away and lost in the sound from my headphones and heard something in the tunes I had never been able to hear all those years ago when I first bought the book and tried to play them.  It all started to make sense and I thought, hang on, I can play these and maybe with a bit of time actually remember some by heart.  That may have been my original problem as I tend to find learning tunes off by heart a challenging thing unless the tune really means something and really moves me. But I digress.
So, out came the book again and I started playing them, especially those that were played at the concert, as well as a couple of others.  I was in another world.  Sure some of the patterns are tricky but of course not impossible.  
The other thing I did initially was not to play them on the Borderpipes but on my D smallpipes and I thought, this is more like it, although I do now alternate, as I do like the sound of them also on the ‘big’ pipes.  
I think my initial problem, apart from my propensity to get bored easily, was there was no indication on what tempo they should be played at and it wasn’t until I heard Pete Stewart gave a talk on Digging the Dird at one of our Collogues, and then my involvement with baroque lutenist and Early Music specialist Susan King from Tasmania (see the article on page ???)- that I realised tunes with variations or divisions have to be played in such a fashion that the runs fall easily under the fingers of the instruments that are being played.  To go from playing up-tempo reels and jigs to playing the Dixon tunes I realsied I had to change my ideas of playing the music.
Listening to the playing at the Dixon concert confirmed this view.  It was finding the internal ‘pulse’ of the tunes that turned the tide for me.  Some may argue these are (or were) dance tunes.  Maybe, but in my opinion not your jigs and reel type country dancing or whatever one wants to call it.  I have also discovered different ways the tunes can be played, such as whether some of the quaver runs can sometimes be dotted etc., even varying timing within the tunes.  
A new musical world has opened up for me and I suppose ‘better late than never’.  However one or two other question remain.
Firstly, I understand the way the variations work and quite a few display similar or identical patterns such as in Cut and Dry Dolly, The New Way and Apprentice Lads of Alnwick for example.  There are many other examples of repeated patterns in other tunes.   It could appear, to a piper new to playing this music, that Dixon struggled with ideas and just found something that worked and went for it with different tunes.  However this sort of thing was the norm with Baroque Music variations. I suppose my question in this regard was, at my first sight and playing, do a lot of these variations actually add to tunes or is this more a musical-fashion idea of the period?   Perhaps this idea could be for a later discussion..
Secondly, what pipes should they actually be played on?  I feel that maybe Borderpipes are not the ones but rather Smallpipes may be the better pipes as in my experience smallpipes are far more forgiving fingering-wise and this to me is important in the execution of many of the note patterns.  I find a lot of patterns are not as easy on Borderpipes where fingering needs to be far more accurate.  I have tried two different Borderpipe chanters; my original modelled after an old set found at Bridge of Allan and a copy of a Swayne chanter with simpler fingering.  Both have their different problems but the Smallpipes seem to work better overall.  So I would question the view that these are for the bigger pipes.  Maybe it is just the player!
More recently I have thought that OK, we have these variations but how exactly do these work playing and musically-wise?  Do we just go down the page playing one variation after the other?  My feeling is we need to re-think this idea and so I looked at one of the tunes, I Saw My Love Come Passing by Me and thought, how would it sound if, after each variation or division, you return to the opening theme? I tried it and for me it made more sense musically rather than what can become just a string of notes with no real connection to what it was a variation off.  This actually is quite a valid style in baroque and classical periods of music.  It may not work on all tunes but certainly does in my opinion with many of them.
I mentioned this in a discussion on the LBPS Facebook forum and it was remarked that it would make them rather long and the audience would leave to go home, or something to that effect.  Maybe not though if the tune as such was only played once.  That raises another point which I haven’t heard answered.  How many times do you actually play these tunes in performance?  Are they to be played once as a show piece or multiple times?  If once then for many certainly I believe returning to the theme before each division or variation is the way to go.  
So it has been quite journey from scepticim to real desire to play and understand  these tunes.  Whether I play them out – I would like to, or whether for my own enjoyment at home, I am indebted to  Matt Seattle, Pete Stewart, Chris Ormston, Iain Gelston and fiddle player Morag Brown at the William Dixon Homecoming Concert for giving me the chance to really hear these tunes in context.  
As with all music and certainly traditional music, how it is played is very much up to the player as an individual and I would be wary of anyone in the 21st century laying claim to how a piece of music is played unless there are written instructions from when the tunes were originally played.

John Bushby