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Jon Swayne has had extensive experience of playing pipes with other            instruments when part of the wellknown band  Blowzabella.  Currently he plays with an all pipe group MOEBIUS, who have put out the CD “August, New music for Three Bagpipes”.

He makes all the pipes played by the group, and composed and arranged all but one of the tracks [see COMMON STOCK Vol 8 No 2 Dec 1993]

As most pipers know, there is plenty of fun to be had out of two pipes at the same pitch, but depending on how the melody lies, one can quickly run out of possibilities. Mixing two pipes at different pitches enlarges the scope for harmonic interest considerably be- cause the relative ranges of the instruments overlap. Assuming that the drones of both instruments are used, unless you are going for really weird effects, the choice of intervals between the two sets of drones boils down to two; the fourth and fifth. Both these intervals have their merits, but you only have to try it to come to the conclusion that the fifth is the more satisfying.

In the following I use the term key’ where I suppose the term ‘mode’ would really be more correct, but you probably know what I mean. Except for the RWE (really weird effects)     proviso, both pipes must play in the same key. Each pipe on its own has a choice of two  major keys, one based on the 6 finger note, the other on the 3 finger note[*]. Therefore in the case of the fourth between drones, the upper pipe must play in its 6 finger key, the lower in its 3 finger key. The opposite applies when the interval between the drones is the fifth. In this case the upper pipe plays in its 3 finger key, and the lower in its 6 finger key.

Fourth: Upper in A, Lower in E: play in key of A

Upper in G, lower in D: play in key of G, etc

Fifth: Upper in A, Lower in D: play in key of D Upper in G, lower in C: Play in key of C, etc.

It’s clear that some melodic freedom must be sacrificed if, as is usually the case, the upper pipe carries the tune. With the A/E or G/D combination, the tune must be a 6 finger tune for the upper pipe. In this case it is useful if the lower pipe is able to overblow, in order to                extend the shared scale up by a fourth. With the A/D or G/C combination, the tune must be a 3 finger one for the upper pipe, and here it is useful if the upper pipe can overblow.

A further implication is that in the A/E or G/D combination (drones at fourth), the lower pipe, which is playing in its 3 finger key, should be able to play a flattened seventh  relative to its 6 finger tonic, since this is the fourth degree of the scale in the 3 finger key. Conversely, in the A/D or G/C combination (drones at fifth), this applies to the upper pipe. Depending on the demands of the music, in the A/E or G/D combination, the upper pipe may need a sharp seventh. In the A/Dor G/C combination, it’s desirable for the lower instrument to be able to play a sharp seventh since it corresponds to the major third of the 6 finger scale of the upper (which becomes the sharpened leading-note of the 3 finger scale).

All the above is quite difficult to visualise from words, and there are other more complicated implications, but once you try things out in practice it becomes clear and obvious.

In order to fill out simple harmonies, or to make more advanced ones possible, you can add a third instrument. It usually seems better to double the upper one than the lower, though this is not the only possibility. You could for example use an EAE, DAD, DGD, CGC, CFC etc combination. However, depending on its design the high pipe could be rather piercing and tiring for extended listening, and would be better balanced by a larger ensemble underneath it. AAD, GGC is more mellow.

Provided that the drone/chanter balance of each individual instrument is appropriate, there wont be an impression of excessive drones when all the instruments are playing.

Writing harmonies for any combination is really a matter of experiment to see what works best. In writing for Moebius, I use a variety of means, from the simplest - pencil, paper and head-through keyboard, computer sequence to multi-track recorder. If you have trouble hearing harmonies internally (which I do, unless they are relatively simple ones), a keyboard is probably the quickest way to check ideas. With the left hand playing a fifth or fourth as appropriate at the pitch of the bass drones, and in the right hand play the three chanter notes. (If you are using a synthesizer you can use weights or wedges to keep the drone notes down.) Of course, you can also improvise harmonies on the three pipes in real time, but in my experience it is difficult and time consuming to arrive at harmonies other than tonic, dominant and sub-dominant triads. A keyboard allows you to visualise and      experiment with possibilities much more easily. As far as I am concerned, anything goes,  provided that within the harmonic direction of the piece it goes with the drones.

My personal preference is for a solid drone sound in bagpipe harmony playing. If there is doubt about the ability of the acoustics of the venue to communicate this to the audience then I would use PA if possible. The difficulties of miking bagpipes satisfactorily is                          increased for a group. A solo piper can remain relatively immobile without much sacrificing presentation, Members of a group need to be able to respond to each others playing with movement and to enhance presentation for the audience. For this reason, I feel that the best course is to use miniature microphones attached to the instrument for drone pickup, and to use a normal mike for the chanter. This way you can adjust the group balance by movement relative to the chanter mikes, where for example it is necessary to bring out the melody on one instrument. At the same time each piper has a fair degree of freedom to rotate around his/her mike for reasons of presentation or visual cueing without fear of going off the drone mike.

Everyone knows that a badly tuned bagpipe sounds horrible. This is even more true of bagpipe harmony groups, so it goes without saying that the greatest possible attention must be paid to accurate adjustment of the pipes, not only before starting, but also as the piece progresses if necessary by adjusting pressure in response to the needs of the harmony. It’s worth bearing in mind that PA seems to exaggerate any mistuning.

I would encourage anyone who hasn’t tried bagpipe harmony playing in whatever com- bination to do so. It can be immensely satisfying. It’s probably best to start with pieces that are not too technically demanding, and to concentrate on accurate tuning and getting a    beautiful sound.

(* those used to Highland pipe notation may think of these as the keys of ‘A’ or ‘D’ respectively.)