Crash Course in Bagpipes

Now and again, I have one of those experiences that remind me why living in New York kicks so much ass. As if I needed to be reminded!

At a quarter to two today, I remembered that I needed to get some toner for the home printer, so I went out to go to the Staples around the block. But the weather was so nice I decided to walk down to Washington Square and back first.

When I got there, I saw a pair of bearded bagpipers standing by the Arch. You get used to buskers with unusual instruments in New York, so I thought nothing of it, and continued to walk down one of the paths.

Then I heard the strains of “Hava Nagila” burst forth, and I thought, “All right, all right, let’s check these guys out.” What was odd was that they were playing it in a major key. They only played for a minute or so, then stopped mid-song and started talking amongst themselves.

Now that I’d got a good look at them, I noticed the bags of their instruments were deep purple, with the NYU logo on them. Similarly, their black berets had silver NYU badges pinned to them.

Anyway, I decided I had to go up to them and ask them why they’d played “Hava Nagila” in a major key. The taller of the two (and taller than me as well) immediately began to explain by showing me the instrument’s chanter. “Look, there are only nine notes on this thing. It’s a major scale and a flat-seventh. I’d have to put more tape on to get a minor scale.”

He gestured at the holes on the chanter, and sure enough, they didn’t look completely round: there appeared to be black electrical tape already sealing over the top parts of the circular holes.

It turned out that they were playing not one but two events today: one for which they would need their pipes to be in a major key, and one later at the nearby Center for Jewish History, for which they’d need to tape the chanters some more so they could play “Hava Nagila” in the correct key.

He went on to explain to me a number of fascinating things about bagpipes. Some of them, like why B-flat-minor and E-minor are so hard to play on a bagpipe (“It’s because of how they wrap”), were beyond me. But I managed to absorb a few things.

For instance, I asked what key a bagpipe is in, and he said, “Nominally, it’s in ‘A’, but these instruments predate modern notation systems.” He described the bagpipe’s “A” as being at 478 Hz. No 440 Hz for this instrument.

“So,” I asked,  “a tuned piano and a bagpipe both playing an ‘A’ together would sound dissonant, right?”

“Oh yeah, they’d sound awful,” he replied, “but people forget that for most of history, all instruments were solo instruments.” He went on to say that when a bagpipe plays in an ensemble with non-bagpipe instruments, the piper usually plays with music transcribed just for bagpipes, while everyone else plays with a different score (which made me think of “concert pitch” for trumpet). He also said that when rock bands play with bagpipes, they usually have to play in B-flat. (Note to self!)

“They’re not well-tempered, either,” he said, almost forebodingly. “It’s all Pythagorean: a fifth is three over two, a fourth is four over three, and so on.” I’ve had just barely enough exposure to this arcana to know what he was even talking about.

When I asked him what his background was, he said, “Just an engineer. I like numbers. Most guys who have been playing bagpipes for twenty years don’t even know this stuff.”

At one point, he was trying to illustrate a point that had eluded me by playing the instrument. Unfortunately, his illustration was lost on me, but it was absolutely the closest I have ever been to a bagpipes in operation. It was pretty amazing (and also pretty loud!).

His colleague asked me if I was a student at NYU, or even an alum, because if I was, I could join the band. I’d never regretted not going to NYU until that moment…

Incidentally, I’m pretty sure I was talking to the guy in the photo here, which I got from the band’s website. The band appears to be open to newbies, so long as you’re part of the NYU community, and even tells you that, with the right instruction, you should be able to play bagpipes in about a year. Now you know.

I talked with the guy for about ten minutes, and then he had to leave. Amazing to think that if I’d not decided, on a whim, to leave the office when I did and walk down to the park, I might never have had this encounter. Amazing, too, that so many of the best musical and theatrical performances I’ve ever seen have been just around the corner from where I work, on the street or in a park.

I ♥ NY!

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