Nice to meet you Brighde (pronounced Bree-Chu in Gaelic). Congratulations on your amazing debut album! Can you tell me something more about your musical background and the instrument you’re playing on it?
I grew up on the Isle of Skye and started playing the pipes when I was eight years old. My neighbour who was from Athens, Greece taught me how to play it. Then, I played a lot of music in primary school: piano, singing, fiddle…and there was a bagpipe teacher, too. I learned to play the piano too, but in a more classical way, and my four sisters and brother play music as well. I’m playing the smallpipes on the album, an instrument that is related to the big and better-known bagpipes but where, instead of blowing, you play it with bellows and you control the air that goes through the pump with your elbow. They sound quite mellow and soft in comparison to the big bagpipes and have a very constant sound. You cannot stop it until you stop the air.
So you just released this pretty overwhelming debut album. How did you compose the tracks that are on it?
All of the tunes are traditional and, apart from two, really old. I got them from manuscripts from the eighteenth century, but they obviously existed before that; that was just the first moment they were written down. They are a mixture of tunes that I have been playing and loved since I was little, and tunes that I’ve found in archives, both old recordings and written-down manuscripts.
How do you work out a tune when you find a new one? Are they originally written for smallpipes?
I examine the melody and see if it fits for pipes, or change it to make it fit. Then I start adding variations naturally, and play around with the melody. I’m not necessarily tied down to exactly how it’s written, since they are not all originally written for smallpipes. Some of the recordings I found are people singing the tunes canntaireachd: a phonetic form of singing those tunes for teaching piping. But I feel that most of the tunes can be played on any instrument.
Regarding the origins of the tunes, from what region do they come from?
Most of the tunes come from Gaelic songs, hailing from the Scottish Highlands and the West Coast. Gaelic is my first language, so I wanted to make that connection with my music as well. I do have two tracks with Bulgarian music on the album, though. When I was travelling around Bulgaria two years ago, I learned about their piping tradition, Kaba Gaida. I sort of fell in love with it a bit, because it was very different from anything I’d heard before. It took me some time to get into it, but it is very interesting and hypnotic. There’s obviously a connection between the music of the two regions, because it’s played both on the same instrument and for a dancing purpose. In Bulgaria, singing and piping is closely related, just as it is in Scotland. All these little connections make it interesting.
Judging from the song’s titles, I presume you combine different tunes into one song. How do you choose these combinations?
I usually just play them by ear to figure it out. It depends whether they are set in a related key, if the rhythm works, if they can flow into each other.
My favorite track on the album is “The Old Woman’s Dance/The Skylark’s Ascension”, which seems to make use of the technique to shift from a minor to a major key in-between the two tunes with quite a glorious feeling as a result. Does it?
Yes. The first tune is based around B flat while the drone is singing in C, so it has this underlying tension the whole time. But when I go into the next tune, the drone and melody are in the same key, so it releases the tension.
Do you combine Scottish and Bulgarian tunes?
I haven’t done this on the album or in other recordings, but you can play around with it, starting with a slow Bulgarian tune and make it flow into a Scottish tune. Maybe I will try this more often.
What did the recording process of the album look like?
It was recorded this time last year, in the East Church of Cromarty in The Highlands, a rather old building. The acoustics were really good for the pipes because we wanted some natural reverb so the drones could fill up the room. We recorded for three or four days with microphones all around the church and recorded every track live until we were satisfied with the result. It was very cold in the church; I had so many hot water bottles (laughs)
To me, the album has a sort of contemporary feel. Still, you’re playing very ancient music. Do you agree with this? Do you know why?
Hmmm. I think the tunes are timeless, even though they are very old. The instrument hasn’t changed over the years, but you play them in a modern context, with modern recording equipment. This can change the idea of how old music should sound. There is a lot of room to use modern techniques to make it work in today’s musical society, without ruining the melody. Obviously, you can add lots of contemporary musical elements such as drums and bass, but in my opinion that changes both the basis of the melody and the musicality of the melody. When the melodies were first written, they couldn’t have even imagined the recording techniques, so that already changes it and makes it more contemporary, even when the melody is exactly the same.
What can we expect from your concert in Ghent?
I’ll be playing a solo smallpipes set with music from my latest record and some other traditional songs. They could originate from Scotland, Ireland, Bulgaria, Galicia…
When I checked your tour dates, I got the feeling that you’re with one foot in the avant-garde/experimental music scene, and with one foot in the more traditional folk music scene. Is it that way?
Yes, I think so. When I was bringing out my album, I didn’t want to put the label of folk music on it. I just wanted it to be music that anyone who is into different genres would want to listen to, and let them decide what they think it is. It think “avant-garde”people like it because of the drones, and the uneasy phrase structures of the moldies – they sound like they go round and round. At the same time it’s traditional pipe music, so there’s a lot of people who love the instrument that are listening to it. I’m really glad that it is able to go into different audiences, because I don’t agree so much with putting music into boxes. Music has different styles, but it’s still music at the end of the day.