WHEN MR. SEATTLE REINTRODUCED US TO WILLIAM DIXON, some of us got it straight away, others took a while and some still don’t see what the big deal is. To a few Northumberland pipers the music was instantly recognisable and understandable, and I believe the importance of the Dixon MS cannot be overestimated in our understanding of piping in the borders 300 years ago. For those interested in lowland & border music Matt’s latest opus had a tough act to follow.
Where ‘Geordie Syme’s Paircel o Tunes’ succeeds is not in surpassing ‘The Master Piper’ but in broadening our perception of music throughout the borders at a time when the big pipes were relatively common. It is really a different kettle of fish to Matt’s work on the Dixon MS. Rather than a straightforward historical record of piping as it was written down south of the border in the early eighteenth century, this book is a carefully considered selection of ‘mebbes’ north of the border. Taking as a starting point a known piper, his location and employment, Matt has expertly unearthed the possibilities of Geordie’s hypothetical repertoire from manuscript collections which were doing the rounds in his time and locale.
The music included here is certainly diverse in its style and range, some of it will be familiar and some will be completely new to readers. A number of the tunes will present challenges for many border pipers. I personally struggle with “shivering the back lill” and bow to Geordie’s professed skills. I’m not fully convinced of the importance historically of this technique or its widespread use amongst pipers of the past, but I take Matt’s point of including in this collection a large selection of tunes outwith the normal pipe scale which take into account the claimed abilities of Mr. Syme. So be warned - pipers will be challenged, although “gut-scrapers” will love it. And if you’re not too keen on exploring the upper reaches or are stuck with keyless smallpipes, many of the 173 tunes included here fit within the usual scale, and the others are mostly adaptable to fit 9 notes.
One of the most satisfying things about Matt’s production, as anyone in possession of his previous publications will know, is the extensive commentary, history, correspondences and notes he includes on individual tunes and tune types. As a piper there is much to learn from reading Mr. Seattle’s text. I know that some just like to play the tunes with no regard to where they’ve been or where they come from, but for me having an understanding of the context gives essential insight into performance possibilities, and Matt provides that context in abundance. The text also provides us with detail as to how Matt has shaped each tune from the different versions he has found, and the instances where he has made his own adaptations. The tunes presented, the results of this work, are both fascinating and musically satisfying, but don’t just play the tunes – read the accompanying text, it really is worth it!
As I’ve worked through the music in Geordie’s Paircel I’ve found myself repeatedly returning to a phrase from Matt’s preamble – “aye, na and mebbes”! That is the joy of the journey – finding what fits, what suits our taste as pipers at any given time and what is entertaining for the listener. At first glance I was apprehensive about some of the contents, but my initial reservations are being dispelled tune by tune, and Geordie’s Paircel gives us another fantastic seam of rich piping material to mine. Although The Master Piper has not been dethroned, he certainly now has some friendly competition.
Iain Gelston November 2017

(Geordie Syme’s Paircel o Tunes is published by Dragonfly Music 2016 ISBN 978-1-872277-35-6. It is available from the publishers and from the LBPS Online Shop)