Fraser Fifield reimagines "the big music" for Piobaireachd 2021 project

Fraser Fifield has spent lockdown recording a series of startling new compositions based around the classical music of the Highland bagpipe, writes Jim Gilchrist

Fraser Fifield PIC: Douglas Robertson
Fraser Fifield PIC: Douglas Robertson

A piobaireachd from the 17th century, The Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick, attributed to Donald Mòr MacCrimmon and commemorating an act of brutal retribution, undergoes a startling reinvention as soprano saxophone, clarinet and whistle swoop and twine around magisterial bagpipe cadences; another ancient tune, The Lament for the Old Sword, becomes almost pastoral as whistle and two saxes (no bagpipe this time), reinterpret traditional piobaireachd variations in their own way. These vivid re-imaginings suggest that Fife-based piper, saxophonist and whistle-player Fraser Fifield has passed a singularly creative lockdown.

With some dozen examples of his multitracked wizardry now completed, Fifield’s Piobaireachd 2021 project, inspired by or linked directly to the art of piobaireachd – sometimes described as the “classical music of the Highland bagpipe” – is primed to become a CD, probably for release towards the end of the year. In the meantime, however, they are all downloadable from his website, arrangements offering a near-immersive world of reed sound, in which bagpipes, saxophone, clarinet and whistle intermingle.

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Piobaireachd has fascinated Fifield since he was 11 when, in his home village of Aboyne, he received tuition from his local GP, Dr Jack Taylor, who also happened to be a gold-medal-winning exponent and for many years chairman of the Piobaireachd Society. “He instilled a fascination with that form of music that has stayed with me ever since.”

Now 45 and living in Cupar, Fifield has established a high reputation as a virtuosic and inventive performer on not just the pipes but on sax and whistle, playing with a bewildering range of musicians and genres, from his longstanding partnership with guitarist Graeme Stephen to Salsa Celtica and Afro-Celt Sound system; from McFall’s Chamber and the Grit Orchestra to Indian percussion maestro Zakir Hussain.

Finding himself immured in lockdown, he started re-examining in greater depth what he calls “that ancient, slightly mysterious music associated with the Scottish bagpipe”, at the same time submitting a funding application to Creative Scotland, which proved successful. It was, he remarks laconically, “just something to keep myself busy, something to enable myself to call myself a professional musician while all this carries on.”

The result, however, is startling. Some tracks are based on specific piobaireachds, while others are compositions of his own, informed by the ancient music. Some settings, as sax and whistle thread their way through the pipe melody, bring to mind the distinctive heterophony of Gaelic psalm singing, an element he explored in his first album, Honest Water, back in 2001.

Among his own compositions, Being In Time is a bustling multitracking of Border pipes, saxes and whistles joined by Bulgarian kaval, and is dedicated to his friend, the pipemaker Nigel Richard, who died at the beginning of this year, while the jubilant-sounding In Regard to That Matter was originally a commission from the RareTunes Scottish music archive, but composed “in the spirit of the piobaireachd project.”

In his Improvisation on Whistle, which he describes as a nod to both the alap which introduces north Indian ragas and the urlar or ground of a piobaireachd, Fifield’s beautifully liquid playing reflects not only his experience playing with Indian musicians but also his conviction that Scottish piping once involved much more improvisation that it does today. “I have a theory that improvisation is simply inherent to the human musical experience and I would posit an improvisatory route to the music we now call piobaireachd. I suppose it might be impossible to prove but it makes sense to me and I’m happiest when creating afresh – that interesting mix of performer and composer at the same time.”

Another track is called The Piper’s Premonition, but if this particular piper had entertained forebodings about how his approach to piobaireachd might be received, it seems he needn’t have worried. He has already received favourable responses from some aficionados of the art form, including his old teacher Dr Taylor.

For further information and downloads, see https://fraserfifield.com/piobaireachd-2021

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