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Clive Bell

Bell Labs: Digging Music Archaeology

September 2016

Clive Bell unties some new historical knots binding centuries-old Celtic chants, Mediterranean piping, and more

Recreating lost music is one of Barnaby Brown’s passions. He’s a bagpiper and flute player who pitched up in summer 2016 at the Wysing Polyphonic festival, playing a vulture bone flute (reviewed in The Wire 391). Brown made this flute himself, modelled on bird-bone instruments found in French caves dating back up to 42,000 years ago. What to play on such a find?

Another example is a series of Scottish medieval stone carvings, clearly showing someone with three pipes in his or her mouth – a triple pipe, that Brown firmly believes was an ancestor of the bagpipe. There’s no bag yet, just a trio of reed pipes: one drone, two melody chanters and a lot of circular breathing. And of course in Sardinia they still play the wild, skirling launeddas in just that way at street festivals. Brown lived in Sardinia for five years, and his launeddas skills are displayed on a 2014 record titled In Praise Of Saint Columba, in the surprising company of the Cambridge choir of Gonville & Caius College. The combo of seventh century Celtic chants and florid Mediterranean piping is bizarre but convincing.

At the heart of Brown’s concerns lies pibroch, the Scottish semi-improvised bagpiping tradition that flourished in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Elite pipers were sponsored by their clan leaders, but after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 this system collapsed. Many people, including English gentry, feared this grand tradition might die out, and prize money was offered to anyone who could devise a notation system. This is the context for the staggering opus that is Colin Campbell’s Instrumental Book 1797 – 25 hours of pibroch, notated using the syllables of Hebridean mouth music. Every melody and every ornament is expressed in words, which can be sung – and Brown does sing them. He also plays them on the Highland great pipe, and of course the vulture bone flute.

All of this can be heard on Spellweaving, a remarkable CD that appeared on Edinburgh’s Delphian label in 2016. These are pibroch tunes from Colin Campbell’s book, sung and played on harp, lyre and hurdy-gurdy. Only one of the eight tracks features bagpipes, and the show is almost stolen by a wondrous 15 minute rhapsody from Clare Salaman’s Hardanger fiddle. Pibroch is a paradox: fierce austerity coupled with enough intricate embellishments for a rococo church. It’s also a bug, in the sense that pibroch fans have been bitten and are obsessed. Back in his heyday, presumably the pibroch piper was something like a west African griot, celebrating the virtues of the clan and their leader, and improvising an epic tapestry of sound to get the Highland party started. These days it’s more about strictly organised piping contests, and dour debates about ornamentation. Hence Brown’s desire to, in his words, “break out of the piping ghetto”, to force pibroch to engage with the outside world and recreate it as a living force.

The first sound we hear is the splash of a boat being rowed across a loch. This is in line with Brown’s theory that pibroch may have had a function keeping time for rowers. Five minutes in, Brown’s pipes make way for the hypnotic patterns of Bill Taylor’s harp and lyre. Taylor’s lyres are hybrid marvels of archaeology and reconstruction: one is based on seventh century fragments from Suffolk’s Sutton Hoo hoard, but with a yew wood bridge copied from a fourth century BC original found on Skye.
Taylor is a Celtic music specialist, but it’s a surprise to find Clare Salaman in this company. She’s a Baroque violinist with a longstanding interest in the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle tradition. Here she also plays a medieval fiddle (delightfully known as a waisted vielle). But Spellweaving’s high point is her Hardanger performance of “The Sutherlands’ Gathering”, a lengthy pibroch that really does what the album title promises. There’s no obvious link from the Hardanger to the Highlands, so I contacted Salaman to ask how she found the experience of playing pibroch for the first time.

“It has a very mesmeric quality that’s beyond anything else,” she explains. “And its complications are very consistent – the ornaments in one section all relate to each other, they’re of a similar shape – so it just became very meditative. It got to a stage beyond where I normally get to with music. That was because we’d been working on it for so long, and also because of the Hardanger violin – the quality of the sound when it’s resonating properly, with those ornaments which were very natural to the instrument – it didn’t quite feel like playing. It felt more like an experience, rather than doing it.”

Salaman also talks about the difficulty of penetrating this music. Meetings went on for a year and a half, during which Brown tried various methods of teaching his team, including coloured pebbles. Then phrasing and ornamentation were subjected to excruciating degrees of analysis. I’m impressed that Salaman’s eventual performance sounds so wonderfully relaxed, even blissful. “I never thought I would get there,” she laughs. “At the beginning of the project I despaired. I thought, I don’t understand what’s going on, this music doesn’t make any sense to me. But by the end it was one of the things that I’ve most enjoyed doing, because it’s so pure somehow.”

Salaman also runs her own project The Society Of Strange And Ancient Instruments, inspired by a French ensemble of that name, who played an early form of exotica in Paris around the year 1900. The current bee in Salaman’s bonnet is the tromba marina, an unwieldy Renaissance bowed monochord that plays buzzing harmonics. She tells me of her plan to recreate a 17th century meeting of four tromba marinas in a Mayfair pub. So I’ll see you there.

Meanwhile, musical archaeology moves on. Spellweaving is labelled “European Music Archaeology Project Vol One”, and EMAP is one of those EU-funded schemes you may have heard about. More volumes are planned: Ice And Longboats (already out on Delphian) offers Viking soundscapes and songs from Ensemble Mare Balticum, while the forthcoming Dragon Voices has British trombonist John Kenny energetically speculating on the sounds that issued from ancient trumpets, reconstructed from discoveries in Scotland, France and Ireland. Future albums will take an in-depth look at Palaeolithic bone flutes, and the instruments of ancient Greece and Rome. What these all have in common is an odd blend of meticulous, PhD-type research and wild musical surmise in areas where no one really knows anything. So it’s amusing (if unforgivable) to compare them to video game soundtracks like Jeff van Dyck’s stirring work for Rome: Total War. Here too, among the kitsch riffing, there’s a straining of the imagination – an attempt to conjure the music of two millennia ago.

“Rome” from Rome: Total War soundtrack:


Graziano Montisci: I think You aren't documented enough to talk about Launeddas. If Brown said this, he lied.
You come in Sardinia, or invite the Sardinians people.

Wonderful; very interesting stuff! Thank you! The instruments sound amazing!

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