The Big Music Society is the brainchild of pipers Calum MacCrimmon and John Mulhearn. Both are keen and accomplished exponents of Piobaireachd (pibroch), the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Also known as “Ceol Mor” (the Big Music). Piobaireachd consists of a central theme, around which variations are woven, and is often seen as a very restrictive discipline. Innovators such as the late Martyn Bennett have taken steps to bring Piobaireachd into a modern setting and The Big Music Society exists to continue that work. To that end, at this year’s Celtic Connections, John and Calum presented an evening’s music from two very different, but entirely innovative performers of the music.
First on stage were New York band Blarvuster. Fronted by accomplished piper Matthew Welch, Blarvuster is a chamber ensemble/rock band hybrid featuring Matthew’s multi-textural compositions and an ever evolving collective of experimental musicians. For tonight’s event, Matthew was joined by a core band of three – Will Northlich-Redmond (electric guitar) Ian Riggs (bass guitar) Brian Chase (drums). The syncopated opening of High Street soon gravitated towards a full-on freeform funk. It may sound and feel reckless, especially among the seasonal diddly overdose in a wintry Glasgow, but the timing is tight, and the craft undeniable as Welch & co. launch into one of his own compositions for pipes.
Having warmed up his band, and his audience, Blarvuster moves on to the main event – The Fingerlock, and this is where exploration of the Piobaireachd begins in earnest. After a totally traditional opening, where John & Calum enter from the rear of the room, playing the central theme, Blarvuster insinuate their way into the general sound then open their funk machine wide. And the fun really begins. The music moves in peaks and troughs throughout their 30 minute exploration. Minimalist Phillip Glass-like cadences accompanied by Will’s guitar traversing a spectrum that ranges from a throaty rumble to primal scream, in a performance that exhibits a startling range, especially given the scarcity of pedal effects. There are snatches of conversation between pipes and guitar, or saxophone and guitar when Welch switches instruments. There’s a loose form that’s embellished and expanded by the band and directed (controlled would be too strong a word) by Welch using a combination of countdowns, gestures and probably telepathy.
The Rock/Jazz fusion of the band is brought down to a minimum through the periods where Welch launches into a canntaireachd (the ancient form of vocalising pipe music), the free-form accompanies his equally uninhibited, intricate and tense variations – whether on pipes or on sax. Those labyrinthine meanderings themselves become increasingly complex towards the conclusion, with occasional stops, physical moulding of the sound as it escapes the chanter and a conclusion to mirror the opening, with John & Calum taking the Piobaireachd itself out of the room.
Gorgamor The Giant Gecko closes the set with its Balinese influences, tight, tight rhythms and just a touch more canntaireachd (I think) for good measure. There’s no denying how well disciplined this band is. Timing is everything and it really is spot-on – every time, thanks to that supreme efforts of that rhythm section.
Unsure whether I was enthralled or traumatised, I’ve sought out Balrvuster’s music since, and it’s kept me coming back for more. For Piobaireachd aficionados it could be either the rapture or purgatory, for less generically specific music fans, like me, it’s certainly something to think about. Despite the ever changing menu available to those who feast on the delights Celtic Connections offers, I’ve thought about it, listened to more, and find Matthew Welch’s singular experiments remind me of when I first heard Martyn Bennett try out something new and daring. Blarvuster isn’t an attempt to continue in the same vein, or to emulate Martyn’s work; but it’s just as exciting, just as daring.
Just because it’s bagpipes doesn’t mean it’s trad; just because it’s Piobaireachd doesn’t mean it’s classical. No hand signals required.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Below are Blarvuster performing The Fingerlock at Switchboard Music Festival in 2014
An interview with Matthew Welch via New Music Box discussing his influences – Indonesian gamelan, Scottish bagpipes, and indie rock.