Piobaireachd/Pipe Music is the startling new solo recording by piper and multi-instrumentalist Fraser Fifield. It features a collection of tracks recorded following Fifield’s deep re-examination, during lockdown, of what he calls “that ancient, slightly mysterious music associated with the Scottish bagpipe.”
A musician whose work over the past twenty years has found him collaborating with Indian, Bulgarian and Argentinian colleagues, as well as appearing with Scottish Gaelic-world music band Capercaillie, jazz guitarist Graeme Stephen, chamber music adventurists Mr Falls Chamber, the Afro Celt Sound System and the mammoth Grit Orchestra, Fifield began his musical life playing the Highland pipes in his adopted Aberdeenshire.
Taking lessons with his local GP in Aboyne, Dr Jack Taylor, himself a gold-medal-winning exponent of piobaireachd and for many years the chairman of the Piobaireachd Society, Fifield became – and has remained – fascinated with piobaireachd from the age of eleven.
While adding whistle, saxophone, clarinet and kaval (the Balkan end-blown flute) to his repertoire over the years, Fifield has often applied the phrasing and techniques associated with piobaireachd, sometimes known as “the classical music of the Highland bagpipe,” to his own compositions and improvisations.
In lockdown, Fifield explored and re-imagined ancient tunes, including The Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick, from the 17th century and attributed to Donald Mòr MacCrimmon, and The Lament for the Old Sword. The former, which commemorates an act of terrible retribution, features soprano saxophone, clarinet and whistle embellishing the bagpipe melody and the latter finds whistle and soprano saxophones vividly reinterpreting traditional piobaireachd variations.
Piobaireachd/Pipe Music also features Fifield’s own compositions, including Being in Time, a Border pipes, saxophones, whistles and kaval multi-tracked odyssey in dedication to his late friend, the pipe maker Nigel Richard, and In Regard to That Matter, which was commissioned from the RareTunes Scottish music archive and composed in the spirit of the album.
Improvisation on Whistle acknowledges both the alap of north Indian ragas and the urlar, or ground, of a piobaireachd. This reflects Fifield’s experience of playing with Indian masters including Zakir Hussain and his conviction that Scottish piping once involved much more improvisation than 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,“ he says. “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.”
The word ‘piobaireachd’ literally means pipe playing or pipe music but is now used to describe the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. It is also known as ‘ceòl mór’ (meaning the big music) to distinguish it from marches, reels, jigs and strathspeys, which are referred to as ‘ceòl beag’ (the little music). When and where piobaireachd first emerged is unknown but the MacCrimmon family, from Skye, who were hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan have been described as its inventors and were certainly its most respected upholders. A piobaireachd consists of a theme, or ground, moving through progressively intricate variations before finally restating the opening phrases.