In Conversation: Brighde Chaimbeul, Vasco Alves and Alasdair Campbell
At Counterflows 2022’s opening night we brought together a series of projects combining artists from different musical backgrounds and approaches to their work.
After a series of zoom meetings, Brighde Chaimbeul and Vasco Alves came together for two days of rehearsal and exploration of their two different approaches to the pipes in Glasgow. For the project, Brighde performed on the Scottish small pipes, and Vasco on the Portugese pipes, gaita. In some ways their journey into piping could not be more different; from a very young age Brighde mastered the highland/Gaelic tradition, while Vasco only recently started exploring the pipes in the context of his experimental practice.
The conversation that transpires between these two wonderful artists follows on from their continual talk about music, traditions and the pipes.
The conversation was transcribed from zoom by Sarah Lawson.
Thanks for doing this, considering you came together only for a few days before opening the festival, your performance was really brilliant, riveting and intense. So thank you for that. From my part, and Counterflow’s approach to programming, we are not interested in the hierarchies of music. We respect genres and traditions. But we are interested in how to place these genres and traditions in a contemporary context. How do you respond to bringing your own traditions together? How did you approach this in the context of this project?
Well, I think that the way we tried to approach this was more trying to find a common ground, I guess. Where we could perhaps try and both explore the work that we usually do in our own work. And that’s where the idea came from, of trying to somehow make a concert about all the elements of the bagpipes. In which we explored the winds, we explored the drones, and then we explored the chanter and the tunes. And having this narrative helped frame our own ideas along the way. And we managed to do some more sound explorations, which, perhaps, are closer to what I do [with] my own work. And also, we managed to play some more … get closer to the traditional repertoire. Which, perhaps, is a bit closer to what Brighde explores in her own work. And yeah, I would say that would be the basic framework under which we try to create our concert.
Yeah, obviously, what we had in common was our instrument. So I think that was the starting point. Because you can compare what was similar, [and] what was different with the instrument itself. And then from there came the sound, I suppose, and what we ended up playing in the concert.
Would you explain what pipes you were playing? Because,for me, there’s always a simplification of pipes. [In] general, in Scotland, everyone says the bagpipes. But actually, there’s so many different variations on what the pipes are. So it’ll be really interesting to hear what your pipes are, and how when you’re working together, what the difficulties were with the different types of pipe?
Well I was playing the Scottish small pipes in C and they’re low blown. So rather than playing with your mouth, like the more typical bagpipe, you have bellows strapped to your elbow, which blows the bag and makes it sound.
I was playing a Portuguese pipe which is also used in Galicia. Basically, these instruments are used along the coast, all the way from some fishing towns in the south of Lisbon, all the way up to Galicia, basically. Yeah, my pipes, I have to blow air into the bag, as opposed to using a bellow. They’re also in C, which helped blend together with Brighde. However, they are an octave higher, and they are a little bit louder, which made things a little bit trickier because we couldn’t really hear each other very well if we were playing without amplification. So I played without amplification for most of it and Brighde had a microphone to amplify her pipes. I think that’s actually one of the things that made working together a little bit difficult, in a sense. Because it’s not the same thing to hear someone through a speaker than it is to listen to them on a similar acoustic ground. Yeah, I would say that’s probably the trickiest bit, or the hardest part for me at least. I don’t know, what do you think?
It was the balance with … even the tone, and the volume was a challenge. But I also think that that’s what made it interesting to listen to as well, because they are quite different sounding for bagpipes. Like Vasco’s pipes are a lot brighter. Like the high frequencies are a lot stronger. Whereas mine are obviously more mellow and the mid frequencies are stronger. So I suppose that was interesting, as well as being challenging.
One of the things I’m interested in what you’re doing, is that traditional music in [the] Scottish sense, in which Brighde plays, a lot of it is based on melodies and tunes. I’m interested in how this project, how it worked with the tunes and the dissonance and all these different…? I know that you’ve got a narrative. But, first of all, Brighde, how do you feel about taking your music away from that idea of tunes or melodies, you know, which is really strong in traditional Scottish music?
Yeah, I was very open to going away from tunes and just exploring sound. A big thing about playing the pipes is tuning and getting the best possible tone. Like, you’re always playing with your reeds, even oiling your wood, [and] making sure there’s no air leaks. And all of that is just sound and aiming for the best possible sound. So even when you’re learning, at the beginning of learning the instrument, you’re not playing tunes, you’re just making sounds. So you’re just kind of going back to the start. And also, going back to what you do probably a good half of your life playing the pipes, which is tuning and trying to make them sound as good as possible. So it’s not like completely foreign.
Even though I’m always playing tunes and that’s kind of my sound on a stage. But it’s not completely foreign to just be listening to just the drones, or something like that. So you really enjoy just having like 20 minutes or whatever it was just [to] explore what sounds came out of the instrument rather than having to concentrate on what your fingers were doing.
Your fingers are also doing stuff on the other parts, I guess. I should also mention that we do have a common ground. That, even though when I do my own shows I don’t play tunes, I learned the instrument through tune. So yeah, for sure, we had this common ground. And even though on a personal level in recent years, as Brighde mentioned, I decided to go and explore the sort of sound that the instrument puts out. All these air disruptions that can be applied to the reeds and how to focus on that on a personal level. But, for sure, [it was] the tunes that connected us. So I think we managed to find a balance, very effortlessly, I would say.
The other thing that I thought was nice for me to do in this collaboration was … A big part of my performance is always having a pipe perfectly in tune and sounding nice. Also, a big part of the piping culture that I came from is about having the best possible tone quality and tuning. So there is a chunk of our performance that wasn’t necessarily nice sounds. You’re putting the drones in and out of tune, we weren’t blowing properly, we were squealing and all these things you’re taught are wrong or aren’t … You’re not supposed to make these sounds. So it was quite freeing, and just good fun to make these, sort of, wrong sounds.
Yeah, I think that’s also a part of the language of the instrument in a way. It took me ages to actually be able to get myself out of the tune worlds and be able to explore and spend time working on [these] certain aspects. I don’t want to say something wrong, but I do find that sometimes [it] can be a bit hard to get yourself out of the traditional world with certain instruments. Because most of the time they’ve been used in a certain way. I think that was also something that we tried, to do combinations that are perhaps a little unexpected within [the way] these kinds of instruments are used. Maybe that middle section where you were playing tunes … well, we both play tunes, but we’re trying to follow each other with more, sort of, droney sounds and oscillations on a tone.
Yeah. Well, that middle section, instead of both of us playing the melody, which is a big thing in the piping world. If there are more pipes, to play together. [Instead], I played the tune and Vasco was making sounds over it, harmonics. Like really big, quite mad sounds at times. And I think that’s quite interesting, because it’s completely opposite of what would normally happen in a pipe band, or if you were having tunes together.
I’m quite curious, Brighde … I’ve experienced and been involved in traditional music for a long time but I am interested in who teaches the best sound? You know, and who creates the best sound? I remember talking to Flora MacNeil about singing in the same manner. In the sense that the competitions and all the different things that follow a lot of the Gaelic tradition, the Gaelic song, and the mod, and the piping. It’s interesting who judges these things, and how they come out… What’s your take on all that? How is something right, and how is something wrong? And this is what interests me in the context of what you were doing. Because, for me, what’s interesting about experimental music is that it’s very hard to make judgment on it sometimes because what you’re coming to [is] something that you don’t really know much about. So you have to use your instincts to judge something. But with tradition and a long tradition, there’s all [this] judging and there’s all these people saying this is the way to play it. And this is the way not to play it. So what’s your take on all that?
Yeah, I think with the competition scene in the piping world, which with highland pipes is quite a big thing. And that’s how I learned growing up. I would be in competitions and things like that. So the whole foundation of that is kind of like instrument and tone first, music second. And that’s what I sometimes struggle with. And why I’m not really involved in competitions any more. And the freedom that I got from playing small pipes and going away from that side of piping was that it was more individual styles and more about the music and the tunes and the dancing. But I do think that that sort of scene is still a part of me. Obviously, because I grew up in that and that whole thing of like, tuning and good tone is still very much part of me. Which I like some parts of, because I think with… I dunno, that’s kind of a huge part of my performance is the drone. So if you’ve got that steady drone, it can bring you into a kind of trance, trancey place. But it is unlike any other instrument, like pipers of session with the reeds.
No, no, absolutely. It’s absolutely legitimate, the whole tuning and the piping… It’s just, for me, interesting in the context of music in general. Vasco, what’s your take on that extreme training and learning of [an] instrument? Because I see it in experimental music as well. Although on the surface, it might be perceived not like that, but it can be.
Yeah, I mean, the competitions in Portugal [are] not big at all. It’s pretty much inexistent. But I guess my issues with that would be that … Or at least my opinion, from outside, is that perhaps you end up being quite closed on certain aspects of it. And, as I think we actually discussed this when we [were] together a couple weeks ago, that everyone is already [at] such a high level, that what ends up making the best is, like, who’s more in tune? And we’re talking about tiny little things that … if music comes down to that, it’s a bit strange.
You get to a point where, as you say, the standard is so high, what do you even judge? So it becomes like going in with a microscope. It nearly takes the enjoyment out of it, in a lot of ways. But some people have the head to do that. But for me, it sometimes gets to a point where you question whether it’s music at this point. If you’re making music, or if it’s like, nearly like a sporting event?
Yeah. I’m not too interested, when technicality [or] extreme technique becomes the focal point. I think techniques should be a bridge onto something.
But having said that, as well, there are players that are absolutely incredible and all they do are competitions.
Exactly. I think it’s legitimate, in its own self. I just think it can become quite narrow in a musical sense. I feel that about classical music, as well … judging something on the minutiae of music. It’s not about the actual music, it’s about the way that it’s performed. And it becomes a different thing, almost like a sporting event, as you say. So I wonder where you think this collaboration could go from here. Do you think there’s even a recording? A live performance is very different from recording something and obviously different elements have to be considered. But it would be interesting to see what you thought about recording the music.
Yes, I think it would be interesting as a recording project … because you might not have to worry about the balance in terms of how the listeners are hearing it in a room with the difference of the pipes. So a recording project would take those worries away.
Yeah, I would say that. I mean, I always perceive recordings and live performances in a very different way. Very rarely, I think, a live performance works well as a recording and vice versa. I think they have different purposes and they are different things. I would say there’s definitely elements of our work that could be explored. Especially, in that middle section where we mix the tunes with more exploratory parts. It’d be nice to spend time working on it, and evolving or developing those ideas. Yeah, there’s definitely elements that we could carry on working. But I would say that for recording, I think we would still need to do a little bit more work.
No, no, absolutely.
On every level.
No, I agree, it’s a very different thing, a recording. And just wondering how it would translate into recording. Because it was very of the moment, which I think is great. But, I wonder what other elements you might bring into the recording? From your own traditions?
One thing I would be interested [in], as well as playing the small pipes with your bagpipe, would be the highland pipes. Not the full highland pipes, but I have a three quarter set, which is slightly quieter. It probably [has] that similar tone level and octave. I think that would be another aspect that would be interesting.
We actually discussed this when we’re together, that it would also be interesting to explore my pipes with a lower chanter that could play with your small pipes. There are some chanters in G which are a lot lower, which are very similar in sound to the small pipes. Which would allow for the instruments to talk [on] a more direct level.
I would love to hear that low chanter. And you’ve got small pipes in all different keys [so] you could explore playing two pipes that are in two different keys, as well. Because obviously, we were both in C in the performance, but that’s something else that could be done.
I was also gonna say that, in the recording context, it would be a little bit easier to explore. For example, our drones. Because there’s a certain extent to which you can play around with things live and still be able to bring them back to a normal tuning that will then allow you to play tunes, which is kind of how we ended the concert. And there were certain things that it would be difficult to do live because then we would not be able to transition so smoothly for other types of sound making with the pipes. And I think that would be something that we could explore, perhaps in a recording context. One other thing that I thought, even before we met, but I ended up never suggesting was to export certain percussion instruments. Especially fused in a very simple, minimal way. Things like the triangle, for example, I really like them.
The much maligned triangle player, in the orchestra.
It’s a funny one, because it’s obviously heavily used. I don’t know if it’s used in the Scottish tradition, but it’s certainly used over here quite a lot. But it’s also been used by people like Alvin Lucier on some very well known avant garde pieces. I’m interested in that.
A: I noticed that in the Galician tradition, they use the triangle player a lot. Which I thought was amazing. I don’t think we do [that] in the Scottish tradition, Brighde, do we? Where does it come from in the Galician and the Portuguese traditions, playing the triangle? I suppose it’s like a bell, it’s a very sharp sound.
Yeah, I’m not sure where it comes from. I hope I’m not saying anything wrong. But, it’s a very simple instrument. It’s a piece of metal that’s curled.
I would imagine that [it] something that probably was relatively easy to [make] with low means in a rural context, perhaps.
But also, it’s very high pitched. So it cuts through the pipes.
Yeah, I would say so. And then you can kind of open and close your hand, which allows for a long decay or a shorter decay. It kind of ties in with the simplicity of the pipes in a way as well. I think there’s a sort of primitive aspect of it. I don’t say simplicity in a negative way. I say it in a positive way.
Yeah. No, of course. So anything else you want to talk about?
Well, [with] the recording question, you could definitely push the instrument to their max in that context. And you could push the reed to its most strange sound, which you probably couldn’t do as easily in a live setting.
Yeah, do you play any other instruments, Brighde?
I play piano and a bit of fiddle.
Do you sing? You must sing.
Well, I can sing.
No, I just wondered, because the piping tradition and singing [are] quite linked.
You sang a little bit in our performance, did you not?
Oh, yeah. I sang to myself. Especially in Scotland, piping and singing are very much connected. But for me, it’s not necessarily like I’m a performer of song, but I do take a lot of inspiration from songs. And the way I play, imitates a voice, like the grace notes I choose to use. [When] learning a tune I would sing it to myself and things. But not necessarily, you know, stand on stage and
And sing? No, because I think the voice is really important in any music. The voice, we always talk about the voice, but actually, the human voice and the context of this music I think is really important. I feel that anyway.
One of the things that my teacher used to tell me when I was learning some years ago was always to sing the song whilst you’re playing to yourself as a way to just carry on. Because there is a lot of physical memory when you’re playing tunes. Like, times, I can’t even remember them well, but if I start to play, they come out of your body. Like your body is speaking to you, as opposed to you’re trying to drive the body through …
Yeah, you’re not remembering the notes, you’re just remembering feeling the sound through your body.
Your body remembers what to do when the sound comes out, there is a sort of a connection that happens. And then things actually flow, which sometimes is quite surprising. Especially after a long time [from] playing certain tunes, and you doubt if you’re able to actually do them. And then all of a sudden, they just come out.
For the layperson, Brighde, I wonder if you could explain what a grace note is?
Yeah, a grace note is … Basically, you have the chanter. And to make a long note, you’d generally just lift each finger. A grace note is sort of when you cut that long sound. So, if you’ve lifted a finger and you’re holding a note, a grace note would be a cut of a finger that’s higher than the note you’re on. So it’d be like ‘daaaaaaa’ and then ‘da’, ‘da’. A cut like that, that’s what you call a grace note. So it’s the way the pipes, kind of, articulate. Because obviously it’s a very legato, smooth sound. You can’t stop the sound, well on my pipes, anyway. So that’s the way you use to emphasise or to articulate, really. And there’s all different … There’s a one cut like that grace note, there’s doubles, there’s triples, and there’s all variations of them that make a different sound.
Considering the pipes have, basically, a continuous sound. Pretty much all the ornaments and all the techniques involve some sort of air disruption, I guess. That’s the only way you can somehow give some dynamics or some silence, or some cutting elements to that continuous flow of sound.
Is it going to be an online thing?
We’ll put it online just as an interview. Okay, I mean, is there anything else you want to bring up at this point in time?
Well, perhaps one other thing that we could mention, at least regarding our performance, is the fact that we tried to also bring aspects of the Portuguese piping tradition and Scottish piping tradition together. When we played tunes, we would always play one from each area. So where we both come from. And just going back to the beginning, where we all started, just to reinforce that idea of the narrative of all the elements of the pipes. That was the starting point. And then the end was to basically play a couple of dance tunes. Which is, one of the pinnacles or functions, that the pipe serves in both Portuguese and Scottish tradition. So that’s kind of how we decided to end the performance.
And what were the tunes?
Well, your Portuguese one was a Murinheira, wasn’t it?
Yeah. In the end the two dance tunes we played, one was a Murinheira. Basically we tried to find two songs that have similar rhythmic patterns. So my Portuguese one was a Murinheira, from the north of Portugal. And yours was a Jig?
Yeah, so they’re both in six, eight. I picked a tune that was quite similar harmony wise to your tune. And my tune was an old nursery rhyme type song. A gaelic song. But also like a dance, a Jig.
I should also mention that one of the reasons why I like that tune a lot is because the beginning of it almost sounds like a Beatles tune. And in some parts of the country, especially through [the] mid 20th century, there’s a lot of cases where people kind of heard tunes on the radio. Because they’re so isolated in these rural areas, they pick up certain tunes and then just come up with songs that would then be played over and over again and basically shared through generations.
I’m not sure if this is the case, no one really knows. But I kind of enjoyed it because of that because it hints at this almost, sort of, sampling.
So what was the Beatles tune?
I don’t know the name of the tune actually. But if you hear the song that we played, I think you’ll be able to recognise it. Sorry I’m not a massive Beatles fan.
It’s a really cheesy one actually, it’s not a great one, I don’t think
So these tunes then become traditional? Or they hear the melodies on the radio and they use them?
Yeah and then they just get passed on. They change, they mutate, they become something else. It’s some early form of sampling.
Well, that’s how oral traditions pass on and change, I think
And this isn’t the case with this one, but it reminded me of it so I thought it would be a nice touch as well.
The other thing I could say is obviously we had two days together having not met before apart from on Zoom. Because we had that journey of the reed, to the drones, to the chanter, I think we worked together well and both our ideas melded together. I speak for myself, but I learned from you and you allowed me to explore things that I would not have usually. And then obviously I learned a new tune, as well.
Of course, a Beatles tune!
Well, I learned a lot as well and it’s always really good to meet other ways of playing other sounds. I’ve never seen a small pipe being played and it’s super beautiful. And, there’s also something with a pipe that is quite moving when they’re being played just on their own. And yeah, it was great I learned two tunes, Colla Mo Rùn and what’s the last one in Gaelic?
Fac’ Thu Na Fèidh I threw this at you [on] the first day. So you had 2 days to learn and perform it.
No, yeah, it was definitely good. As you said, we met two days [before] without even knowing each other. I think some of these things take time to evolve, to develop. But considering the scenario, we actually managed to break the ice relatively early and tried [to] meld our ideas together. Which required both of us to be quite open. I think it went well, on that aspect.
Yeah. I also think how intensive it was that we had two days. I feel like I’ve known you for a lot longer.
Maybe, sometimes that can be quite a good thing, I suppose, getting thrown in there and you have to do something in two days. It’s intense.
But to give you an idea, it took me at least four years, since I started to play the pipes, to even think about deconstructing some of these elements and try to explore them. So it’s not something … That was something that I was a little bit worried [about], in some ways, introducing to our collaboration, because it’s not it’s not easy. And it’s not just about doing crazy sounds, there is some background to it. I was also a little bit worried about the fact that I will probably not be able to play the tunes as well as you but in the end, it was okay.
I think it’s great. Let’s see, if we can keep this talking about all this sort of stuff. And not right now, but in the future, because I do think there’s something that could be quite interesting come of this.