page 18


Moebius are perhaps the finest flowering of the English bagpipe music revival. A recent press plug describes their music as “mainly traditional-based ...written by Jon Swayne” - a quaint notion, but one which in fact does scant justice to the breadth of Swayne’s composi- tion talent.

Unshackled by convention, he draws together disparate strands to forge a compelling and distinctive style. He makes no claims for this as traditional English music, and indeed with his polkas and bourees the accent falls most firmly on the other side of the Channel. His rich use of harmonies and the walking bass-lines of the lower-pitched pipes have the imprint of Roussillon and the Auvergne, and are all the more striking in the face of our own strictly melodic approach north of the Border.

I suspect that the starting point for this project was the instrument itself. Swayne, a bagpipe-maker, has combined aspects of the Border half-longs with the French Musette     bechonet, creating a superbly-toned hybrid with a range of an octave-and-a-half, and the potential for all sorts of half notes through cross-fingering.

Add the sensible notion of bringing together musicians playing in related pitches, and the harmonic possibilities abound.

More than once, in listening to the twelve tracks on this CD, the term "Irish organ" sprang to mind, this being a common early description of the Uilleann pipe with its regulators -   except that with Moebius the harmonies are more fluid and flexible, chiming out chords on tunes such as Jake Davey’s Polka, wafting gracefully through the complexities of The Harbinger, forging vibrant cross-rhythms in Europipe March No 1. A revelation, to be sure, to this confirmed melody-man, and a reflection of the versatility of the instrument.

Complexity, mind you, has its drawbacks, and the music as a whole seems thirled to a rather stately progression through the pieces, showing none of the rip-roaring no-holds-barred playing that we associate with the Scots and Irish traditions. This might be by design, or might reflect the difficulties inherent in creating a new and complex fingering system. If at times the fire is lacking, the technique is certainly good throughout, with fairly sparse gracing and a considered use of vibrato, easily overdone in less experienced hands.

With one exception all the tunes are of Jon Swayne’s making, and exhibit a wide variety of styles from mid-European waltzes to Border slip jigs. He takes every opportunity to display the versatility of his chanters, and happily moves well beyond the realms of the conventional, as in the plangent Waiting Game, in which the three pipes meander and inter- twine, playing off each other, swopping the lead line. “Not so much a tune”, as the sleeve notes say, “more a sonic experience”.

And (added bonus here), in the Beverly Recessional, recorded in situ at the at Beverley Minster, we must have the longest fade in recording history, as the pipes rumble majestically into the far recesses of the nave. It takes three minutes. Big music; big cathedral; big sound.

Although to a large extent a showcase for Swayne’s vision, the contributions of his cohorts Judy Rockcliff and Don Ward shouldn’t be underestimated. The sleeve notes don’t tell us much about them, but it’s clear that the strength of Moebius lies in the group sound, an   ensemble which puts implicit faith in the sweet-toned instruments, the strength of the     harmonies, and the richness of the drones. Some of the tune sets verge on the over-long, with the endless repetition of certain continental-style pieces, but by any reckoning this is a quality recording of music.

WARNING: This CD runs for almost 62 minutes. It probably shouldn't be digested in one sitting.

Iain MacInnes