My trip to Europe to pick up instruments

Featured today is the Galician piper I did a two day workshop with.

Last year I quit my job and went travelling for close to two months. I saw a few doors opening music-wise and decided it was time to try it. Every year I pick a couple of things I want to do and pick them as the next year battle. I doesn’t have to be in any particular time of the year, it just happens. This time, I picked doing more music and doing less office work. It worked. It was also during that year that I put in orders for more instruments. Two gaitas and a flute.

One of the interesting things about the trad instrument world is that it resists industrialisation. Since it’s a low demand market, it relies entirely on pre-industrial manufacture, and on craftspeople, artisans, and luthiers, and with it, on their own personal take on instruments. Gaita is one of these, with nowhere near enough demand for an industrialised, standardised version. Instead, there are a few standardised gaitas, and a few makers that do their own personal take on them.

My first gaita was given to me by my grandpa, but I had to get new chanters from the makers I knew then. This was fresh out of the standardisation process for the instrument, and I got two chanters that are a snapshot of that moment in time: one in C copying Galician concert pitch chanters, and one in Bb which was a chanter developed entirely in the centre of the country by two craftsmen. They based themselves entirely on tone and came up with a diatonic chanter that has a minor scale instead of a major scale. This happens often in bagpipes and other wind instruments without keys: makers will make the holes according to a specific diatonic scale, and rely on cross-fingering for chromatics.

Over time, and as I progressed in my gaita practise (along with playing more and more flute), I started hitting the limits of the instrument, namely, dynamics, range and volume. It was around this time that I contacted makers and ask for some help working on new chanters and bagpipes. This turned out to be fairly difficult. The makers I used to work with were resistant to some of my ideas, so I contacted a maker in Australia instead, who was happy to work on a design with me (to be fair, a very close design to his usual one). I also contacted a maker in the north of Portugal for a couple of new sets of bagpipes. As my flute use increased professionally, I also contacted a maker in France that makes inexpensive keyed flutes and ordered a 6-keyed wooden flute.

One of the side effects of relying on craftspeople for instruments is that there is a long wait between the order and the instrument being delivered. In my case, I waited for some bagpipes close to two years, one of them about three months, and the flute took closer to half a year.

Waiting this long for an instrument means if your musical practise changes and evolves, by the time the instruments arrive, you might’ve already changed styles, or be looking for something else. In my case, I was lucky enough that I was still looking for similar things than when I ordered my instruments. Once all of them were done, I set out to visit the makers and collect the instruments.

I love travelling, but prefer to have excuses to visit small towns, people, and places that have little to do with what stereotypical trips would encourage. This trip, my excuse was to visit and pick up instruments. My first trip was to Porto and Maia, in the north of Portugal. There I picked up a two-octave C chanter and a traditional sounding A chanter. My request was that I could tune the drones enough to change keys, usually between C -> D or A -> B. Since my C set had an extra drone in G, tuning it down to F was also something I asked. That would unlock many extra keys while keeping the drone on.

The maker delivered most of what I requested, with an extra drone in high G (which I love but for the wrong reasons). One of the challenges is that the single reed used for drones can’t cope with so many tonal changes, so I had to do a lot of work around it. Right now I can have a drone in C, D, G, F and high G. Having two drones at the same time on the other hand is proving to be a bit hard, since the valve system changes the tuning once 2 drones are on at the same time. This isn’t an issue with tap systems since the air path isn’t shared.

After picking up my new gaitas, I visited a local traditional music school and took a workshop with a great Galician piper. I’d even risk saying a revolutionary one. It was a bit intimidating to be at that workshop, since all players there were either former teachers of mine, or the top pipers in Portugal, playing in a lot of traditional local bands. The workshop focused on a new method this piper developed that allows musicians to do two whole octaves on any gaita chanter, after preparing the reed and adjusting intonation. This was an absolute shock for everyone. We also learned how to do dynamics, pauses, adjust volume, adjust tuning using rubber bands. An absolutely groundbreaking workshop that left us all back at the beginner stage of our instruments. I had accepted that gaitas had only one octave range, no dynamics and no pauses, entirely out of respect to the authority of my teachers. After the workshop I felt that my understanding of the instrument had completely changed. Unfortunately, that also means that my expectations for my new chanter were misguided—it wasn’t the chanter that had to change, it was my playing.

After seeing the teacher doing two octaves on a traditional chanter, it became clear to me that it wasn’t the chanter at all, and that gaita (and in a way, bagpiping) has been misguided for decades. Seeing our instructor play dynamics, pauses, classical and contemporary pieces along with traditional pieces, made me understand, yet again, that usually the instrument is only part of the constraint, and the superstition and ritual around it is just as limiting. Gaita interpretation possibilities in Portugal were trapped and were now being set free, and the best pipers in the country were part of it. Interestingly enough, Galicia’s traditions have solidified so much more that this instructor has little reception across the border due to his unorthodox approach. He said Portuguese piping had potential to be the new grounds for evolution of the instrument. Yet again, being backwards and underdeveloped can have its benefits, and I hope I witnessed a turning point in our own tradition.

After this mind blowing experience, I went on another trip to pick up another instrument, this time a wooden flute from a maker in Brittany. I flew to Nantes and stayed with a great host using CouchSurfing. They had great advice, a nice place, and great travel stories. I went to visit the maker in a small town near Bégard. So small, in fact, there are no door numbers. There I was welcomed by the maker. A reserved man in a gorgeous country house. The flute is spectacular, a lot better than I expected. I took my old flute to show him, and he tried it out. It was indeed terrible. Ironically, the cold humid weather made my old flute sound great, except for the higher octave which remained terrible. I asked the maker to play his biniou as well. I didn’t expect that much volume, it was great. He served us some home made (non-alcoholic) cider, and we chatted a bit, including the sad news about Grinter.

I made the point, that a maker’s material knowledge dies with them if they don’t take apprentices. I don’t think most of them care. Unfortunately, that will always mean traditional instruments have high variance, are often inconsistent, and are victim to fad and superstition. Just like with gaitas, my old flute sounded great at the hands of great flute players, with their complaints, of course, but the tone was more in the hands and breath than in the instrument itself. I think it’s an old pattern, to blame the instrument when we simply haven’t been practising enough. Blaming the tone on the flute when it’s actually the player, mainly, the reason why tones are so distinctive.

After that great drive into Brittany and a short visit to the coast, we returned to catch our flights. In my case, I had some spare time so my host invited me to perform at an alternative school near Nantes. I did three short performances in front of three classes of children between 5 and 12. It was absolutely beautiful, with the kids dancing an an-dro I played from Brittany. Most of their questions related to how I made a living, and about their own lives (they are very young after all).

This musical trip, in a way, is my way out of a world obsessed with travelling experiences that look more and more the same. I travelled for music and sound, and to meet makers, play their instruments. I’ll be returning to Australia with new instruments, but more importantly, with a lot of new stories and sounds in my head.

Here are some headless photos of me picking these up.