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Barnaby Brown and the triple-pipe

One bulky Sardinian man is yelling and gesticulating at another Sardinian man. My few words of Italian notwithstanding, it is evident these men are not enquiring after each other’s health. The head-to-head has been raging for some 45 minutes, and the crowd has started to join in. I make a mental note of the nearest emergency uscita, and consider the ethics of denying all acquaintance with a man who only two hours ago bought me lunch. Because if blood is shed, everyone is going to blame Barnaby Brown.

But that’s unlikely (the bloodshed, not the betrayal). This is, after all, only a lecture – a music lecture at that, hosted in Cagliari’s archaeological museum and co-sponsored by my hosts in Sardinia, the Associazione Culturale Italia-Inghilterra. Nonetheless, I am witnessing an exchange of emotions unprecedented among men in chinos and brogues, even when discussing medieval reed instruments.

Brown has not stirred up this hornets’ nest just for musicological kicks. A piper and piping expert, he is here hunting for the roots of a shared Celtic-Mediterranean piping tradition: something he believes he has found in the triple-pipe, known here as launeddas.

Encouraged by the eminent Scottish music historian, John Purser (and facilitated by Ryanair), Brown moved to Sardinia for five years in order to study the triple-pipe full time. Now back teaching in Glasgow, his theories on the instrument’s history have coalesced into two main themes.

First, that the triple-pipe is musically and culturally the precursor of the bag-pipe in the Gaelic sphere. This seems not only logical (without the bag there is little difference between bag-pipe and triple-pipe) but also evident, supported by a substantial number of medieval Celtic carvings. Logic and evidence aside, though, it runs contrary to the conventional wisdom that the harp and its canon formed the basis of the piobaireachd (pronounced ‘pibroch’, naturally), the elite Gaelic piping tradition.

Second, that the pipes depicted in Scotland and Ireland are very similar to those still played in Sardinia today, and that – even if this is a coincidence – it provides an unmissable opportunity for exploring common themes and experimenting with shared repertoire.

This second point is causing fireworks here: the Sardinians (some of them) believe that Brown is expropriating their heritage, telling them their iconic instrument is not, in fact, theirs. Which would be on a par with telling the Scots that they had no cultural claim over the bag-pipes. Or the haggis. Or the battered Mars bar.

But many Sardinians do not feel this hostility. Rewind 24 hours. I am in a folk-music venue in Quertu (the old part of the city), watching the same event – same music, same message – being applauded by an audience not only charmed by the music, but delighted that anyone would take the trouble to study any aspect of Sardinian cultural life. It’s a good crowd, too, especially since the triple-pipe, by Brown’s own admission, is ‘not everyone’s cup of tea’.

A word about the triple-pipe, then. Imagine the bag-pipes, but higher and more nasal, and with a staccato option that brings to mind two cats fighting on a bed of nails. Rigged to play highly repetitive music, this cane contraption sounds surprisingly like sound-tracking from The Matrix, a sort of musical binary code.

On paper, it even looks like binary! The repeating melodic patterns form a sort of binary+, the 1s and 0s not being consistent values but relative to what has come before. The notation is an indication of framework, not detail: a sort of musical grammar. And, like hymns, the individual launeddas are indexed according to their compatible inter-changeability, with ‘names’ derived from their code underlay rather than their ‘tune’ (my favourite, of course, being the famous 11001011·11001011).

The extreme impact of the sound is largely shock factor, and is dependent, in any case, on your listening to triple-pipes proper. But Brown, for various educational and pragmatic reasons (he is in the land of some notable launeddas masters), steers clear of such an orthodox approach; so what we are hearing in Quertu is Band-Re’s own special hybrid.

Band-Re is Brown’s adventurous collaboration with guitarist Gianluca Dessí. If Brown is the Sardinian voice of Scotland, Dessi is the Celtic voice of Italy. Their album, Strathosphere, demonstrates their synthesised performance genre which sounds a little like a lost recording of The Doors after an inspiring tour of Ireland.

Apart from being an interesting stylistic innovation, their eclectic approach is key to Brown’s educational angle, a wide selection of styles and instruments demonstrating a transferable musical background, regardless of country or instrument. And odd though this looks from a medievalist’s point of view, the duo seem to have history on their side: the very same Celtic carvings on which Purser and Brown found triple-pipes regularly show them being played in conjunction with a harp-like instrument – they have merely moved the accompaniment along by a generation or two.

This is not, of course, a pure launeddas sound. Based largely on Gaelic theory, Band-Re’s approach is not going to be endorsed as strictly legit by the local launeddas crowd. But then compared to the borderline-heretical discussion over the instrument’s origins, the small matter of what Barnaby Brown actually plays on the pipes is almost irrelevant.

The recital over, there is dancing, a useful reminder of what launeddas once meant to local life all over the island. Once, every village had its own launeddas player, who was employed by the bachelors to whip up a storm for semi-ritualised courting. Everyone dances in a circle, the blokes try to strut their stuff, occasionally it works. Very Mediterranean (and very Celtic). But when I ask Dessí how many people in the bars of Cagliari knew anything about triple-pipes, he shrugs and laughingly replies, ‘None!’ The Quertu district, it turns out, is not indicative of the rest of the island.

The following morning I volunteer to see the pipes being made, one of the reasons why Brown has come back to Sardinia. The process is disarmingly simple, like a science project for kids (something Brown puts into practice in Glasgow, in fact). The double pipe – the ‘triple’ is the drone – is just like a recorder cut into two, one chanter for each hand. To make each one, all you need is some beeswax, cotton thread, and two types of locally-grown cane (hard and soft, male and female, for tube and reed respectively). You carve your finger-holes according to the pitches you wish to achieve, cut a flap of softer cane for your reed, and then bind the various sections together with the cotton thread.

Depending on the climate, the tubes can last 10 years. There is a plentiful supply of materials. And the whole process costs next to nothing. The instrument is even self-sufficient in a sense: the same blobs of wax which form the airtight seals (especially important at the mouth, to enable the requisite circular breathing), can be poached from to tune the single-bladed reeds. It’s not glamorous, but it encapsulates the rustic origins of the instrument.

Making – or even merely adjusting – your triple-pipe is not like nipping out to the Yamaha shop for a half-size violin. Apart from anything else, it’s much, much cooler. Even watching it being made, and contributing to its design and tuning grants an understanding of the instrument not found with a shop-bought model. And this is absolutely essential: if the reeds, for example, are poor-quality or not warmed up (or too warm) the pipes can sound like a modem dialling up in a storm.

Brown’s involvement is more-than-usually important because the pipes being made are not standard Sardinian launeddas; these are – as emphasised by the uses to which Band-Re put them – variants, hybrids, reconfigurations. Sevenths have been flattened, fingerings adjusted, music reworked, with the expressed purpose of exploring the links between Scottish and Mediterranean music.

But one of the instruments being made is a synthesised hybrid, a non-instrument fitted with a durable plastic double-reed, for practice-chanting. This is partly a trick on Brown’s part to lure highland pipers into triple-piping, or at least into exploring some of the launeddas repertoire (probably tantamount to sedition in both Scotland and Sardinia!). But it is also part of Brown’s general educationalist’s approach: this easy-to-play single pipe is specifically designed to be played in D, thereby rendering it compatible with school xylophones (in C, but they feature F# and Bb). It’s all part of a coherent scheme which takes in everything from lowland bag-pipes to the silver pipes of Ur.

If the launeddas piper must take a disproportionately hands-on approach to manufacture, it is more than matched by the musical skills required of his accomplice in the workshop. In Brown’s case, this accomplice is Luciano Montesci, a bus driver who makes about 40 pipes a year – only for pros – at a mere €50 per pipe (or, rather, per triple-pipe).

The pipe-maker must be able to do everything, from fashioning the drone out of a piece of raw cane – the harmonics of which are essential to the tuning of the two chanter pipes and the hypnotic nature of the instrument – to whittling the minutiae of the reed, to playing the instrument well-enough to know that it can fit a specific part of the repertoire (which he must also understand). And yet, in this room, there are no charts, no diagrams, no measurements; everything is intuitive.

For all that, there is surprisingly little emotion in Montesci’s rarefied craft. He tests the tuning, makes the prototype, makes it longer, edits it with masking type, makes the new pipe, adjusts that one, all the time chatting and pouring coffee and discussing the sound with Brown. But he doesn’t varnish it with blood, or kiss it goodbye, or sign it with his sweat under the watchful eye of the local priest. And, interestingly, he never once demurs at his involvement in the bastardising of the launeddas.

Which brings us back to the museum, and this unlikeliest of causes for a bunfight. This is not a ticketed event, but is nonetheless packed. These people are not music boffins, but they are no fools. They are taking Brown seriously and, arguments aside, it is evident that they are buying into what he is attempting to achieve in terms of academic enquiry.

As the diehards debate how best to protect Sardinian heritage from imitation and expropriation, the D-G of the museum astutely points out that a culture needs regular injections of fresh material to keep itself vital. This is well-received in principle; but, though Brown’s Italian is evidently very much better than he claims, everyone, I feel, is leaving room for the possibility that something has been lost in translation. Is piobaireachd (or a variant) taking over from launeddas, the music? Are triple-pipes the same as launeddas, the instruments? Is it the instrument, the player or the music that distinguishes one from the other?

These are fair questions from a proud minority civilisation, concerned that more than nomenclature is at stake here. But by the end of the evening Brown has done a good job of allaying suspicions of a cultural hijacking. As for the distinction between the instruments, the answer seems to be: all three, if not necessarily in equal measure. And at this juncture, this is perhaps about as far as the debate can usefully go.

Brown finishes the evening with a piobaireachd chant from The Comely Tune. Fittingly for his entire project, the words – ‘Hinbandre hobandre’ – are vocalised learning chants for medieval bag-pipers. As he sings, his eyes half closed, his hands wildly demonstrate the ornamental fingering on an invisible triple-pipe.

For Early Music Today.

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