The Piper’s Weird

The other day, I was talking to a friend about Chinese musical instruments and he told me about an interesting one called a hulusi, which is a kind of pipe with a couple of drones – a bit like a bagpipe without a bag.

This discussion reminded me of an idea I had several years ago to try and make a mini-bagpipe out of a rubber glove and a few tin whistles.  I decided fairly quickly, as I recall, that it probably wouldn’t work as the tin whistles (being fipple-flutes) would require a more directed airflow than it would be possible to provide by blowing the air into a bag (i.e. the rubber glove) and then letting it feed into the whistles (which would be sticking out of each finger).  However, it did occur to me that it might work to tape a couple of whistles together and tape over some or all of the fingerholes of one of them to provide a drone that could be played simultaneously with the other whistle by sticking both in your mouth at once.  I promptly forgot all about the idea until the discussion about the hulusi reminded me of it.

A couple of days ago, I spent a few minutes with a couple of the tin whistles from my fairly extensive collection (18 at last count) and a roll of insulating tape and came up with my shiny new instrument, which looks something like this:

Magpipe Mk I

Of course, the most important thing about a musical instrument is arguably not how it looks but how it sounds, so I’ve whipped up a quick recording that you can run past your ears if you choose to do so.   Here it is to download in MP3 format – it’s a tune called The Piper’s Weird (aka Macrimmon’s Farewell), which I discovered a long time ago in The Scottish Violinist, an anthology of tunes compiled, and largely written, by J. Scott Skinner.

Speaking of that tune, or rather its title, I’ve never been sure whether it’s a genitive construction (i.e. a weird [thing] belonging to the piper) or a description of the piper himself (i.e. a contraction of “the piper is weird”).  In any case, I think it’s a rather beautiful tune – although my rendition on my new pipes perhaps fails to do it justice.

I don’t know whether this new instrument will catch on, and I’m fairly sure I’m not the first person to put such an instrument together, but I think it could do with a name.  The first idea I came up with was to call it the Magpipe – a sort of munging together of my name and the word “bagpipe”, since it’s a bit like a bagpipe (in having a drone) but not quite (since it has no bag) and it was invented by me (though, as I say, probably not uniquely).  On the other hand, as it’s a strange wee beastie and the aforementioned tune was one of the first that I played on it, I’m thinking of calling it instead a Piper’s Weird (or just Weird for short).

Whatever you call it, I think there’s some mileage in the concept, although it’s certainly better suited to some tunes than others.  I’m thinking of trying to add a second drone, another tin whistle with the holes taped down to sound an A (the existing drone is a D, since both whistles are in D and the drone has all the holes taped down).  It would be possible to add or remove an extra bit of tape on the next hole (or find some removable plug for it) to enable that drone to be switched to a G instead.

One interesting feature of the drone on this instrument is that, since it’s controlled by the same airstream as the chanter (i.e. the non-drone whistle) it will either play the fundamental tone or overblow to the first overtone depending on how you direct the airstream (roughly speaking, how hard you blow).  I’ve noticed that the drone usually seems to jump to the higher octave somewhere round a G or an A on the chanter, although that seems somewhat variable.  It’s possible that with practice it might be possible to gain some control over where the octave jump happens, but the variable octave drone seems to be a fundamental characteristic of this new instrument.

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