barley skimmers     Scottish Music for the Pipes

Hilary de Vries

with a foreward and CD by Allan MacDonald





A new collection of new music for the pipes is usually the work of a piper; the music can be expected to, at the most, develop and extend the tradition, in a manner which is recognised by its modal and rhythmical characteristics. When one comes along that changes the format, by someone who is not a piper themselves, ‘interesting things happen’, as Allan MacDonald says in his foreword to Hilary de Vries’ collection The Barley Skimmers..
The book contains 46 original tunes, inspired by the landscape and changing seasons of the Highlands and Islands. The title tune of the book comes from the swallows that fly across the fields of barley that surround de Vries’ house on the Black Isle.
Before looking more closely at what those interesting things turn out to be, I should say that the first dozen tunes are more or less recognisable as fitting the ‘modal and rhythmical characteristics of the tradition’. The first two for instance, are more or less 2/4 marches, and they are followed by tunes that cover the various possibilities of the 3/4 time signature. Once you work further into this collection, however, you might feel it’s worth going back to these tunes and seeing if they still play the same way. For once you reach tune 14 odd bars of different time-signatures appear, melodies begin to part company with the ‘format’ and before long you are faced with bars in 5/4, 6/4 or 7/4, often changing mid-flow.
Daunting though this may seem to those whose piping has stayed well within ‘the tradition’, a brief read through of the notes that Hilary has included at the end of her book should be reassuring. Of the tune The Birdsong of Cuillin View, having explained that the tune was written in the north of Skye ‘with a view of the Cuillin in a wonderfully quite spot filled with birdsong, she adds
“The tempo is an aid. Play it looser than that, as if it was being sung by a bird. The bar lines help show the notes to best emphasise in the phrasing of it”
You may be now getting some idea of what Allan was referring to as ‘interesting things’. This might not be to every Pipe Major’s taste perhaps. As Allan says ‘the tunes no longer represent the accepted norm of pipe compositions that can often consist of cliched riffs and recurring melodic figures and motifs’.
However, pipers with a relaxed attitude to their repertoire will find much to stimulate their playing; this music requires a quiet approach; it is open-ended and meditative; melodically more simple than complex and relying for its power on the willingness of the piper to explore its possibilities. As a sample of what Allan is referring to, here is ‘The Sandpiper in the Heights of the Hill:

sandpiper in the heights of the hill

 copyright Hilary de Vries

Those who are intrigued, but find their musical world more stretched than they are used to, will benefit from the CD included with the book, on which Allan MacDonald has recorded all the tunes from the book, played on smallpipes. Beware, however; true to the spirit of the book, Allan makes his own interpretation of some of the more challenging parts. Which brings me to my one criticism of the book. There are clearly some errors in the notation; the occasional bar might have the wrong number of notes for the time-signature it carries, which with music such as this is unfortunate; one is left wondering whether it is the time-signature or the notes themselves that contain the confusion. This is particularly true of the tune (track 27) Cnoc na Craisg, whose time signature is 6/8 but whose opening bar (and all subsequent similar bars) is notated with a total of 7 quavers in the bar; Allan’s recording makes the correction to the note-values, but it is equally possible to play the notes as written, giving a rather different result. In the end perhaps, with music such as this, it can be left up to the piper who has spent the time with it that it deserves, to make their own decisions, eachtime they play it.

Pete Stewart
The Barley Skimmers is available from Boarstone Publishing price £15 + P&P