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MACKEREL SKY: AN APPROACH TO MULTI-TRACKED BAGPIPES – by John Dew

MACKEREL SKY: AN APPROACH TO MULTI-TRACKED BAGPIPES – by John Dew

📷 Photo by Rufus Huggan

Hello there! My name is John Dew, a musician and composer from Crieff, and I’m really excited to bring my debut album ‘Mackerel Sky’ out to the world. This album, building from my E.P. ‘The High Bridge Walk’, was inspired by the ever-changing atmosphere up above and explores how multiple bagpipe and whistle sounds can be layered and interwoven, like the layers in a mackerel sky. Also featured on the album are the wonderful Dylan Cairns on guitar and Eoghainn Beaton on bodhrán, they did a great job on the accompaniment and the three of us can’t wait to play this live! 

My first instrument is the bagpipes and although there are a few whistle tracks in the album, the composition for multiple pipes was the main focus of the project. Playing the pipes has its difficulties; they’re very loud and lack dynamic variation, often are either “on” or “off” in an ensemble, they need constant tuning, use just-intonation and only have 9 notes with a few chromatics – all in all a maximum of 14 notes with the right chanter/reed combination. Where does this leave us then? Well, quite limited I’d say. That’s why it’s so important to look for inspiration beyond our comfortable influences and explore other contemporary artists in multiple genres. With this strategy, I came up with two main compositional angles; 

Firstly, I wanted to explore polyphony. For me, I’ve always loved layered bagpipe sounds. With a pipe band background, I’ve been surrounded by bands that explore 3-part arrangements as well as the newer pipe band ‘suites’. Something rarely explored, though not unheard of, is bagpipe contrapuntal music; the likes of species counterpoint and fugal textures are less explored with bagpipes and something that I love. For me, the likes of J.S. Bach’s ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ as well as works from the more recent Shostakovich, Steve Reich, John Metcalfe, Hildur Guonadottir and John Adams, are wonderful, polyphonic pieces. These have guided me in exploring polyphonic and layered textures. When listening to these I wondered how I could apply these textures and methods in my music, using the humble ‘tune’ as the subject for counterpoint.  

Secondly, I looked to see how much material I could draw out from a single tune. Many progressive artists in any genre develop the musical subject. These sorts of methods include fragmentation, improvisation, varied dynamics and fleshed out motifs – ultimately, moving away from the tune. This is something I’ve explored in the musical arrangements in this album, particularly in track 9 the Retreat Marches. It’s here where any artist tries to imprint their own stamp on any piece of music. 

In order to achieve balance in writing 4-part bagpipe pieces a significant amount of editing and balancing was done during the mixing process for which much praise goes to Chris Waite at Gran’s House Studio. He was tremendous in understanding how best to balance the ‘accompanying’ bagpipe parts to the melody and it differs in each individual track. For this he deserves a great deal of credit, as well as his patience for the numerous multi-tracking I did in the studio! 

So, the main focus of the composition was looking into how bagpipe parts can be layered and polyphonic textures created. I spent a while thinking about which tunes I wanted to use before applying various compositional techniques in the arrangements. Once this was finalised in my head, I hit Sibelius and a week or so later I had a first draft of the album.  

Many of the tracks use a simple 3-part harmony underneath various rounds of the tune or in their interludes. The title track, Mackerel Sky is a 10/8 tune. At the time of writing the tune I had only recently been introduced to complex time tunes. I decided to write one and this 10/8 E minor tune was the end product. When exploring anything new for the first time, I find it important to keep things as simple as possible and I feel this tune is simple and fun to play. I named it after the type of cloud we so often see in Scotland; an indicator for a high chance of precipitation. This layering then became the basis for the rest of the album. I then added riffs and counter riffs to the track to further explore the idea of tension through contrary motion. 

This is followed by a reel called Merlin’s Leap. I felt this contrast between 10/8 and 2/2 further mimics the tension and release seen in the mackerel sky. Many of the other tracks, Sunday Afternoon in Rattray, Osprey Flight, The Town of Venasque and The Salute Parts 1/2, follow a similar construction with parts weaving in and out of the tune bringing a level of tension and release in the arrangements. 

There are some tracks that I particularly enjoyed working on. The Prelude was an attempt to write a piece of music that used a series of riffs inspired by minimalist music. Each one works with, through and against one another to ease us into the album. The Vineyards of Unang, a piece for 5 whistles, was inspired by a trip to the south of France. Myself and a group of friends were invited to play at a Scottish themed soirée at a Chateau Unang. Here, there was a very beautiful chapel, with foundations as far back as the 9th century. The three of us a performed a slow air and what an acoustic! This reminded me of the wonderful music of Giovanni De Palestrina and the exquisite contrapuntal sacred music he wrote and performed in these churches. This inspired me to apply these compositional techniques to a self-penned air ‘The Vineyards of Unang’, with slow moving parts in a quasi-renaissance style of counterpoint.  

The Salute – Part 1 further explores polyphony. The basis of this track is the ground/urlar of the piobaireachd The Prince’s Salute. Piobaireachd is the result of the first exploration of harmony away from single-line chanting; a drone set against the chanting of the melody – a practice used as far back as the 14th century. Piobaireachd continues to use this texture and is a defining feature of the artform. I wondered what would happen if we applied the practices of species counterpoint to an old piece, using the urlar as the cantus firmus. What would happen to our old melodies had they passed through the musical evolution of contrapuntal writing and what would the result sound like? Well, due to the bagpipe’s limitations, not all of the “rules” could apply, but the end result was a 3-part contrapuntal piece exploring contrary and oblique motion as well as 5th species counterpoint with the urlar as the cantus firmus. 

Even though, the main focus of the project was the exploration of layers there are a few tracks that are simple tune-accompaniment sets which I felt were important in contrasting from the thick textures and intensity of the other tracks. Tension on the Shore is a set of tunes played on the whistle, Connor’s Debut is a set of hornpipes and jigs on the highland bagpipes and The Salute – Part 2 are some pipe reels with accompaniment. The Retreat Marches was a set that was a challenge for me because I wanted to create a solo piece that would push the development of the melodies using a single line and have a variety of contrast within the arrangements. 

The final track is a piobaireachd, an absolute favourite of mine The Marquis of Argyll’s Salute. Piobaireachd is one of Scotland’s oldest surviving musical traditions. Also known as Ceol Mor, these pieces begin with the Urlar (or Ground) and is followed by a set of variations based on this theme. The inner construction of a piobaireachd melodies uses harmonic consonance and dissonance to the drone of the bagpipes. Remember, drone and chant as a form of music which dates as far back as the 14th century and is considered the earliest form of western harmony and polyphony. I felt it was therefore important to demonstrate where the origins of polyphony derive from and to show how much this beautiful artform has progressed in time.

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John’s Dew’s debut album ‘Mackerel Sky’ is available for pre-order now from johndew-composition and will be released on 27th August 2021.

View the ‘Mackerel Sky’ Mackerel Sky Digital Booklet.

Listen to the first single on John’s Facebook.

Many of the tunes in this album feature in John’s tune book ‘Pipe Tunes’ and more will be added to the forthcoming book ‘Pipe Tunes 2’.

Support John through Patreon.

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Listen to the album pre-release demo.