Matt Seattle recently sent to selected contacts, among them your editor, a product of his socially distanced Autumn.

Your editor has asked me to provide an account of the writing process behind the following tunes. For I don’t know how long, I’d had it in mind to compose a Gala Water Suite comprising tunes named for the places mentioned in two of the pre-Burns lyrics to Braw Lads o Gala Water (see Geordie Syme's Paircel o Tunes, tune No. 20). Living where I do (Hawick) I’m familiar with the A7 (which follows the Gala Water) and have passed close to most of them, but I’d not actually got round to stopping to look more closely at most till 9 September 2020 while on the way home from Pete Stewart’s house where we’d been rehearsing his composition The Declaration of Arbroath.

There’s an attractive wrought iron sign pointing to Nettlingflat, the beginning of the song’s journey down the Gala Water. Some of the farm buildings are just visible from the Borders Railway, but not from the road so, because I had a little time to spare, I drove up the winding track to ‘take a scour’ and began the tune, a downward spiralling reel, when I got home.

I made two further journeys, accompanied by my wife Irene who took photos along the way, to visit almost all the places mentioned in the songs, and completed the Suite, fourteen new tunes enfolded between two traditional airs, on 22 October. I’d not experienced such a concentrated burst of composition before, and can put it down to four factors: the idea had already been bubbling away in the background; the nourishment of new impressions taken in during our explorations; and the frustration of not being able to play music with others during the pandemic. The fourth is beyond description.
As for the composing process itself, I have found over a long period that there are two essentials: living in the medium - you have to be very familiar with the grammar and vocabulary of a musical language and its existing literature to compose within it, as you neither want to write nonsense nor repeat anything already written; and you need a good beginning.
This was reinforced in me by an exercise in a composing workshop I attended where everyone had to write two bars of a tune and pass them along to the next person to continue. I found it easy to continue something that had been started, but finding a good start was not so easy (I cannot, by the way, recommend this as a way of composing convincing tunes if more than two people are involved, but it’s a good way to sharpen your musical tools). How to generate a good beginning is very personal to each composer: for me there is (almost always) an inspiration outside of music which prompts me to compose, and a procedure for turning the subject into music, while for a friend a beginning often arrives ‘out of the blue’ and he may even decide afterward who or what the piece refers to. And then ... sometimes you are lucky and music ‘hits you over the head’ (some composers dream music); but I suspect that the luck will have been earned.
Every art form has techniques; learn them. Every musician has strengths, weaknesses and foibles. Speaking of guitar players, a master of the instrument once told me, “Every player has their favourite licks: the best players have the best licks”. The same applies to writing pipe tunes, and there’s maybe a fine line to tread between having a recognisable style and repeating yourself.

[Ed: of the 14 new tunes in this suite, I have chosen the first two and the last two plus one other. Many of Matt’s tunes are definitely Border pipe tunes, requiring an extended range (of which more next issue); Numbers 2 and 15 here are examples; the other 3 here can be readily played on smallpipes]

2. Nettlingflat

©Matt Seattle 9-11 Sep 2020


Nettlingflat and Heriot House both claim to be the starting point of our journey down the Gala Water we have included them both here. Nettlingflat is the northernmost of the two, with Heriot House a little way to the south and on the other side of the A7.

As the tune spirals into our southward journey, shorten the minims ad libitum to dotted crotchets, and tie the ‘missing’ quaver to the quaver in the next line along with its chord for some syncopation.

3. Heriot House

©Matt Seattle 16-17 Oct 202

                                    72 bpm

heriot house
The air for Heriot House is a more relaxed affair, and has a more casual relationship with its chordal accompaniment than is our wont; try underpinning the chords in the first six bars of strain 1 with a pedal D, and do likewise to those in strain 2 with a pedal A.

12. Appletreeleaves is Meikle Better

©Matt Seattle 11-14 Sep 2020

                               Slow and languid


14. Lothian Lads

©Matt Seattle 9-10 Oct 2020

                                Slow Boogie

lothian lads

15. Teviotdale Lads

 ©Matt Seattle 12-14 Oct 2020

                                                                                               Fast Brangle

teviotdale lads