The bagpipe, as the makar Robert Garioch wrote in The Big Music, “can mak its ain conditions ... sae the piper blaws his ain warld, and tunes it in three octaves”. And bagpipes indeed create their own multifarious worlds, from Dunvegan to Uttar Pradesh. There is something fascinating in this alchemy of reed and bag and wood and breath.
If many people’s image of a bagpiper remains a be-tartaned figure playing the great Highland bagpipe, the sheer universality and diversity of bagpipes is becoming increasingly appreciated, with ongoing traditions and revivals of indigenous instruments across Europe and into North Africa and Asia. This diversity will be – quite literally – sounded out next weekend by the third International Bagpipe Conference, hosted for the first time by the National Piping Centre in Glasgow.
The event will present papers and recitals illustrating such diverse piping cultures as the little-known Maltese zaqq and the boha of France’s Landes region, as well as English and Scots piping, including piobaireachd. “It’s all pretty new material, because the conference is very international and very eclectic,” explains its co-organiser, Dr Vivien E Williams, a research assistant at Glasgow University, which is collaborating with the International Bagpipe Organisation, the National Piping centre and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in running the weekend.
“The field of bagpipe studies is expanding all the time, and at the conference we’ll be hearing about bagpipes that most people won’t have heard of, such as the kaba gaida from Bulgaria or the Maltese zaqq. So there’s a lot of raw material that has been uncovered and there are also interactive sessions such as an ‘interactive bagpipe map for Britain and beyond’ being launched by Pete Stewart and Julian Goodacre, as well as a couple of films, including one from Poland.”
Some of the conference papers bear intriguing titles – what might one make, for instance, of “Self-Othering and the Revival of the English Border Bagpipes”, while Newcastle University-based Highland piper Simon McKerrell asks “What is the value of piping?”
The sheer richness of international piping as it stands today will inform the weekend, not least in Friday night’s opening concert. Emblematic of the conference’s diversity, the programme features Roddy MacLeod MBE, champion competition piper and principal of the Piping Centre, and, also from Scotland, the high-powered, bagpipe-led Scott Wood Band. From Belgium comes the Bourdon Collectief, a baroque ensemble featuring the musette de cour, a complex French chamber bagpipe, while in contrast are the eastern European village sounds of the Kaynak Band from Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains.
The conference ends on the Sunday with a concert in memory of Dr Roderick Cannon, whose death last summer was a huge loss for the piping community, his researches having produced his widely acclaimed book The Highland Bagpipe and Its Music, as well as pioneering research into English bagpiping traditions. He has been described as “a man whose interest in piping recognised no boundaries” – very much the conference ethos.
“More than 80 people came last year and we’re hoping for a similar turnout. The idea is to try and have different speakers each year so we get to hear about new types of bagpipe, or new perspectives provided by research,” says Williams, who has a PhD in bagpipe literature and iconography including further research with Glasgow University’s Hunterian Associates Programme and, being half-Italian, admits to “messing about” with the formidable Italian zampogna.
“This is the first time the conference has left London, and the fact that the place chosen for the third conference is the National Piping Centre shows how dynamic Glasgow is in terms of bagpipe studies.”
• The International Bagpipe Conference 2016 is at the National Piping Centre, Glasgow, 26-28 February, see www.internationalbagpipeorganisation.com