Bear Fullerton met with The Seven Pipers Scottish Society Pipe and Drum Band at the end of a recent weeknight rehearsal to talk about their upcoming participation in this year’s All Souls Procession as our grand finale musicians. Along the way, we learn a bit of history and cultural background on the pipes from Pipe Major William W. Don Carlos, Michael Brollini, and Bear himself!
Bear: You guys are doing the finale score for the Procession this year?
William: We are doing the finale, and we’re going to be in the Procession as well. We’ll be at the beginning of it and once we get up there (to the Franklin docks) we’ll have about twenty minutes to set up while everyone finishes and then play for the finale. I understand there’s like this moth-to-the-flame idea, and this whole thing on a crane; I mean the drawings look really cool, it’s going to be fun.
Bear: The event is just really amazing. I’ve been to a lot of wonderful, interesting events around the world, and this is definitely one of the most where you can feel the energy and the magic, with the world of the dead and the world of Life so close together.
William: As an arts event, it’s really unique, isn’t it?
Bear: Is it an original piece you’re doing, or something traditional?
William: In the past we’ve done a Solstice festival with Flam Chen, and we did a twenty-minute piece while they did a choreographed thing with fire and the stilts and everything. And what we did was put a whole bunch of pieces together in a huge set. So we’re going to draw on a bunch of different tunes; some of them come from Brittany, which was part of the Celtic region you know, and some from Scotland and some from Ireland. And basically because the choreography has a different flow and different aspects to it, there’ll be some slow pieces and some faster pieces to correspond accordingly.
Bear: So are all those pieces from those regions actual tunes from the past, or ones you’ve made that are close to those?
William: We wouldn’t have made up any of them ourselves, so they’re all traditional tunes.
Bear: How long have The Pipers been in the All Souls Procession, participating in it?
William: Three or four years? Probably we’ve done it three times.
Bear: And what got The Pipers involved, what was the reason they got involved originally?
William: We encountered Flam Chen somewhere along the way. There was a chalk festival, where they had all these artists come from all over and do original pieces on the sidewalk downtown, and of course it doesn’t last, so they make this big festival out of it, and Flam Chen performed there. So we did a piece for them, and it was a lot of fun, we liked the people. And I had lived here and didn’t know about the All Souls Procession. For me going to the All Souls Procession was extremely uncomfortable because I didn’t know what to expect. You sort of have to open your mind when you walk into those situations, and then you realize that people are mostly the same wherever you go. So what we found was very, very nice people, and it wasn’t something that was….I mean, it is bizarre, because it’s something you don’t encounter every day.
A Piper: I almost don’t want to play in it, because I just want to march in it. To be in the Procession, and that throng of humanity pushing forward, all the vibe you get from the people and the costumes. It’s one of my favorite things ever.
Bear: My favorite part is going though the underpass when everyone starts really getting loud and the drums are going. It’s the most primal, primitive, wild energy you’re probably ever going to find. I’ve been to a lot of places in the world, and very few things compare to what you get from it. You imagine this must have been what it was like thousands of years ago when people drew together and did things like that.
William: I wondered how we would be received when we first did it, because the pipes are so loud. And you go into this thing and whatever the people there have in mind to get out of it by being in it, we’re going to bring all this sound in and there’s no way that we can hide, we’re just going to be right there in the center of it. But people received us, and it fit.
Bear: With the pipes and the drums going, and of course all the history behind it, from what I’ve seen, most people are always waiting eagerly for you guys. There is something deep and primitive about the pipes, the reeds, the noise it makes.
I was doing a look-back on bagpipes through history, and they had bagpipes quite far back, though it’s still hard to document. There’s actually text that talks about how Emperor Nero played the bagpipes once; he played something like a “flute” with the mouth and using an armpit at the same time, which is typical of a bagpipe set-up. So it goes back pretty far, and you’ve got everything from Hungarian bagpipes to Spanish to African, all the way up to Scottish.
And then before the bagpipes, the Celts and then the Gauls used a lot of reed instruments or pipes when they’d go into battle. The sound of it would evoke a lot of emotion and feelings. I’ve looked into the ways of these people’s beliefs in death, and a lot of the old tribes and peoples would hear these noises coming through the reeds in certain areas –in Brittania, they’d actually have sacrifices in the bogs– and the noise created by the reeds would make them think, “this must be the underworld”, or that there were openings nearby. So those noises have been incorporated with matters of Life and death throughout history. And especially bagpipes, having a well-known effect on the battlefield as a motivator and also as a terrifier.
And in the Procession, every time you guys play “Scotland the Brave”, that gets the most response from people. There’s just something about it –the way it sounds, the march– that gets everyone to stiffen up and raise their shoulders more, and gets everyone more excited and cheering. In my experience at the All Souls Procession, that is the one that has the most effect.
My favorite time I have to admit was when I took Dani the first time, and most of you guys had your skull-paints on. And when you’re in the front and you’re looking back, and they’re playing “Scotland the Brave” and they’re marching in skull-faces, you just can’t help but see all those Scottish warriors from the past who trounced people left and right just marching towards you.
Michael: It’s interesting for me to hear you say that “Scotland the Brave” was appropriate for you at the All Souls Procession, because to me it seemed really out-of-place and weird. Maybe it’s just because I know the tune. But it’s actually really cool to hear you say that. There is a very primitive thing there, and –especially when you hear people play who are very good at it– there’s a really technical, artistic side; but there’s this brute force voice that comes through everything that’s really, really primitive. And, it goes from the “Scotland the Brave”, with this ultimate, puffed-up pride thing, to “Flowers of the Forest” where you can just hear the tears. It fits in really well with All Souls.
Bear: Do you guys know anything about Scottish or Gaelic funerary customs or practices, the history of that? Or anything to do with the bagpipes and funeral rites?
Michael: Bagpipes and funerals go together.
Bear: They do. I think it’s just the way they evoke, and how you just described it is perfect actually for it.
Michael: There’s a poem that I really love.
“I have power, high power, for freedom to wake the burning soul
I have sounds that through the ancient hills like a torrent’s voice might roll
I have pealing notes of victory that might welcome kings from war
I have rich, deep tones to send the wail for a hero’s death afar”
(this is a section from a poem entitled “The Lyre’s Lament” by Felicia Dorothea Browne Hemans –jhon)
I just think that encompasses everything about what the pipes are.
And as far as funeral rites, we here in the States have “Amazing Grace”, and in Scotland it’s “Flowers of the Forest” that’s the funeral tune.
Bear: With “Amazing Grace”, you have to admit; the song, the music, the tune fits with bagpipes so nicely when it’s done.
William: The thing with the bagpipes is that they probably came to Scotland last out of all the cultures. In the Celtic cultures, the direct connection with the bagpipes and things like funerary rites isn’t as well established as maybe we would like for it to be. The bagpipes in the Highlands go back three or four hundred years, tops.
The clan system is ending about two hundred or two hundred-fifty years ago, so you’re sort of at the end of that period. Before that, what you had was the harp and the fiddle that were part of the clan life.
The pipes have been used in the classical music “piobaireachd” (pronounced “pea-brock”), where you would have some tunes that were called laments; and you would have a lament for a person that wasn’t so much played at the funeral of that person per se, but long after they were gone, that tune was made to immortalize that person. We don’t play that kind of music though for the Procession, having said that.
Bear: The ones you guys play are actually fantastic. But the pipes, it’s hard to find out how far they go back. I was reading, doing some research, and they have very vague evidence dating to 1380 of bagpipes being in the Highlands, and 12-something for the Irish ones, the Uilleann pipes. That’s about as far as you can go back. But the problem with it is record keeping in those areas was very low; they weren’t great record-keepers.
William: Well, they had an oral history, the Celts did, and so that worked really great for the Druids (the priest-scholars of the Celts and Gauls), because you had these professional men who would memorize thousands and thousands of lines of things. The problem is that when the Roman legions came and chopped all the druids to pieces, that was the end of all of it, because no one wrote it down.
Bear: A regular druid adept had to memorize 60,000 verses.
Michael: You mentioned piobaireachd, and that was handed down orally, too. It was sung, it wasn’t written down.
Bear: Oral traditions tend to bind people and things together –you have to be together, you have to be close, you have to work at it– and sadly, when people conquer and destroy another people, they break a lot of traditions up, get rid of the oral ones, which is a great way to make you forget your past and so you have to focus on being part of the future. It’d be nice to get back maybe to some of those traditions again too, if possible, so that people could bond together a little closer.
William: I think what’s great about the pipes is that they’re part of a living tradition, and so whatever we do with them becomes part of the tradition. When we bring it to the All Souls Procession and it’s meaningful for those people, to me, that’s a beautiful thing. We’re also going to play in here (Northminster Presbyterian church)– we play for a church service one weekend a year because they give us the rehearsal space– and we’ll play with this organ upstairs and everything, and that’s a beautiful thing too. So for those people, the same tune, “Amazing Grace”, for them has a very special significance; and then at the All Souls Procession, a wholly different crowd, and it means something different, but it’s something special for them, and I think that’s cool.
But no matter what happens, the bagpipes will survive, and those traditions will go on.
To find out more about The Seven Pipers Scottish Society, including their event schedule and classes for Highland and Country dancing and traditional Celtic musics, go to http://www.sevenpipers.org/ .
Special thanks to Jonathan Morris for the use of his photo.