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Matt Welch Writes Experimental For Bagpipes

Matt Welch Writes Experimental For Bagpipes
Bagpipes usually conjure up Scottish highlands and traditional folk music, but not for composer Matt Welch. The multi-instrumentalist composes and performs experimental new music on the bagpipes in our KPBS studios.

Matt Welch will perform his solo compositions for bagpipes at SUSHI Contemporary Performance and Visual Arts. He performs Friday night at 8pm as part of the Fresh Sound music series. Sushi is located at 11th and J Streets.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. It's a sound that is unmistakable, even startling. It's no accident that the drone of bagpipes has been linked with military maneuvers and regimental parades. No matter what, the bagpipes will get your attention. But, the same traditions that have preserved the bagpipes have also limited the instrument's growth. My guest Matthew Welch is working to change that. Matt Welch is a composer and multi-instrumentalist. In addition to being a master player of the bagpipes, he also composes for this difficult and distinctive instrument. We begin with music, a live performance of one of Matthew’s compositions for bagpipe. This is “Traversing Mad-hatten.”

(audio of Matt Welch performing live his composition, “Traversing Mad-hatten”)


CAVANAUGH: That was Matthew Welch on solo bagpipes, performing his own composition “Traversing Mad-hatten.” Thank you for that. Matthew, thanks so much.

MATT WELCH (Composer/Piper): Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you’re a new music composer. That piece is the most experimental, the most new of the three you’ll be performing for us today.

WELCH: That is correct.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about writing this composition.


WELCH: Well, I was always kind of interested in trying to find a way to improvise on the bagpipe and one of the most difficult things about improvisation is when you’re always forced to make a choice that involves sound on the instrument, you know, other improvisers like saxophonists or any kind of normal instrumental setup…


WELCH: Yeah, slightly normal. You can always have the choice of silence. And I don’t really have that. And, well, I guess I could do that but I kind of wanted to set up the situation where I would be playing sort of – The traditional set up of the instrument is with a continuous sound.


WELCH: And just set something up that – But it wouldn’t completely be free improvisation. I wanted something to sound somewhat the same from one performance to the next but when you actually listen to them, they’re, you know, there’s certain little small cells that the piece is built out of and then I just sort of stack them up or repeat them or put them in different juxtapositions and that way I get to have a little bit of freedom or a lot of freedom with it and it can kind of fit into any context, you know, free…

CAVANAUGH: I’m – Excuse me.

WELCH: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested in your title “Traversing Mad-hatten” because to me, I know that you just told me you lived in New York. I come from New York City as well. That sounds exactly like trying to get across town.

WELCH: Exactly. Yes. Yes, wherever you run into, you know, even if you’re just walking around, if you run into a stop light, you always, you know, look the other – If you need to cross the street…


WELCH: …like you make it happen as quickly as you can. And – Or it was kind of inspired by various – It was like learning the subway system when I first started traveling to New York and, you know, there’s myriad ways that you can get from one point to the next and sometimes that’s all in, you know, trying to be as efficient as possible when you live there but when you’re first there, you’re kind of thinking that it’s kind of fun to explore the different…

CAVANAUGH: And with that continuous – that continuous sound, that continuous level of sound that the bagpipe gives you, that’s also the background of the city.

WELCH: Oh, yes, pretty much. Yeah, just the beeps and the hums. It all kind of turns into one big drone.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Matt Welch. He has just performed his composition for solo bagpipes. That choice of becoming a master on the bagpipes, that – where did that happen for you, Matt?

WELCH: Well, I actually started playing the instrument in Florida where I was – I was living in Pensacola, Florida, and not the Mecca of piping exactly. But I kind of, you know, I had always wanted to play music and I always wanted to try to figure out a way to convince my parents how to, you know, how I could get involved with music and stay – keep my grades up in academia and stuff like that. They were definitely interested in me becoming something else, I think. But I think playing a strange instrument, I think they hoped that it would be a phase.


WELCH: And – But one day I just decided that I have – had to have an accordion and I played accordion for about six months and then kind of decided that it was close to what I was looking for but then – then I just got obsessed with bagpipes. You know, like kids get a – develop an obsession and it comes out of nowhere. But I didn’t have a family heritage or – I had the heritage but my parents didn’t play, which is how most people get…

CAVANAUGH: How most…

WELCH: …into it.

CAVANAUGH: And is that one of the reasons that the – we think of the bagpipes as being one of the most traditional kinds of instruments because it is kind of a family, it is kind of a, if one can – clannish kind of activity coming from Scotland. And yet you come to it fresh with the idea that you can translate the bagpipe sound into modern music.

WELCH: Yes, absolutely. And the myth is that you – it takes seven years to play the instrument and seven generations.


WELCH: So that’s sort of typically the way people get involved with the instrument. It’s, you know, most of – Most of my friends that were players, their parents were players and that type of thing. But for me, it was strictly about – I think in the beginning it was, but I didn’t realize it, it was about music and music that sounded different. And so I kind of gravitated towards the sound and then learned all the – all of the traditional music because that was sort of the pedagogical process. You didn’t – not like the piano where you can kind of go in various different directions right from the beginning.

CAVANAUGH: What are some of the disciplines of the bagpipe that you simply need to know in order to play the instrument?

WELCH: Well, there’s your typical – Probably what you hear mostly in pipe bands that are – you hear the typical marches. Marches and then also there’s the dance genres, strathspeys, reels, jigs, hornpipes and stuff like that, that kind of cater towards those specific contextes (sic) but the oldest form of bagpipe music is what’s called Piobaireachd and that is music that is composed by pipers probably – as far as we can date back historically, like the Piobaireachd seems to have existed when the instrument was played. And so it’s kind of the classical music of the bagpipe. And some people don’t, you know, in North America don’t always learn that tradition because they want to play the fast, catchy stuff, which I was very attracted to but Piobaireachd was a very deep music that had a very evolved form. And it kind of also took advantage of the fact that the pipe’s continuous sound in its own way and that it can have a very long, lamentish melodies.

CAVANAUGH: You’re going to play an example of that for us.

WELCH: Yes, I’ll be playing the “Lament for Donald of Laggan.” I’ll be playing the ground of this. This is the opening section of the piece and what the piece normally would continue on to is a set of variations upon the melody. The melody sort of functions as a backbone structure throughout a number of variations that get ornamentally more complex. I’m not going to go into that because it can be rather hard to listen to sometimes. It’s very akin with some modern minimalist music.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I can’t wait to hear it. And as you get set up, let me tell everyone once again that this is Matthew Welch and he’s playing the “Lament for Donald of Laggan.”

(audio of Welch performing “Lament for Donald of Laggan”)

CAVANAUGH: That was Matthew Welch and he performed the “Lament for Donald of Laggan” on solo bagpipe. And it’s a style of – an old style, an old folk style of Scottish bagpipe music called the Piobaireachd style that we were just talking about before you started. You know, Matt, that is – it sounds and it looks like it takes a tremendous amount of skill to be able to do that. Is that one of the reasons people don’t want to learn it?

WELCH: Oh, to play Piobaireachd?


WELCH: Yes, it’s – Well, a lot of people are bored by it.


WELCH: They find it very – too repetitive. That first section is, you know, is just one of many sections that kind of harp on a consistent theme. So it takes a lot of endurance to listen to, first. It takes a lot of endurance to memorize. And of course it’s one of the most difficult traditions in terms of learning the ornamentation, the finger work, which is slightly different than the contemporary styles. And then the worst part is it really exposes the tuning of the instrument. The tuning of the instrument is very delicate, and it’s very hard to blow and to keep the tuning stable. And I think that’s one of the most difficult but probably the most rewarding part of it, is that you get to a point where you can relish in the sound of your instrument.

CAVANAUGH: And how does being able to do that sort of work towards your compositions of more modern music? How – What are the links there?

WELCH: Well, actually my whole thing with piping was that I was so interested in it that I began to compose in the traditional forms. At that point, I was thinking of it really as a way to expedite my learning of the tradition. You know, if I could replicate it on paper as well as – you know, anyway, I really got into the Piobaireachd tradition and then I didn’t really know that most people don’t write Piobaireachd. It’s a very – There are only a handful of piping composers—and there are a lot of piping composers out there—there are only a handful of them that actually try to write the Piobaireachd style. And what I had noticed, getting deep into the Piobaireachd style, was that it was pretty innovative from tune to tune. And I tried to kind of replicate this in my approach to writing. So at the same time as I was trying to look at the tradition and the structure of it, I was also thinking about how I could put my own stamp on it and create innovations within it. And then before I knew it, I was interested in being a real composer and so it just kind of – and that kind of reflected back and forth, the innovations that were coming through, that I was hearing in experimental music and then I wanted to kind of meditate on that and then put that into – back into the tradition and sometimes with a little bit of cloaking and, you know, sometimes it sounded more modern but it was actually based on a traditional device or vice versa.

CAVANAUGH: Now when I first introduced you, I introduced you as a multi-instrumentalist. One of those multi-instruments is the Balinese gamelan, is that how you say it, the gamelan?

WELCH: The Balinese gamelan, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Describe this instrument. I know that you play this as well. What – Describe it. How does it sound and what does it look like?

WELCH: Well, the Balinese gamelan, the word gamelan kind of literally means – ‘gamel’ means hammer. So it’s a percussion instrument and – but also the word ‘gamelan’ often refers to a set of percussion instruments. And basic – that the basic principle of gamelan, most gamelans, is another Indonesian word, ‘gong.’ So it’s a gong tradition, hanging gongs of various sizes, that are all tuned specifically and, oh, and then the next level are small gongs that are laid horizontally and flat and then they’re played with – they’re all embossed so they all have a tip coming out of the middle of the gong and then – so they developed a system where – various sizes for melodic gongs. They have structural gongs, melodic gongs and then also there’s – the other side of it is kind of a xylophone/vibraphone-like instruments where you have these slabs or keys that are suspended over tuned resonators in a row and of, you know, graded sizes. And the great thing about gamelan is – Oh, it’s – so it’s mostly made out of bronze and its sound is very, very shimmery. But like bagpipes, and me, you know, I also was heavily involved with the bagpipe band tradition, which is a very loud, outdoor type of thing. Gamelan is kind of a – has a similar appeal.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you see, one of the reasons I asked you about gamelan, not only because in itself it’s terribly interesting but – and it also reinforces your attraction towards odd instruments.


CAVANAUGH: But also because I want to entice you to do another performance for us on the bagpipes. I know that while you were studying in Bali to learn the gamelan, you composed a piece for bagpipe based on a visitor that you had…

WELCH: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …in the place you were staying.

WELCH: Well, Bali is a, you know, a very tropical, you know, it’s a tropical paradise. There’s a lot of interesting creatures that are there. And in my bathroom, when I lived there the first long stretch, I had a – like a foot long gecko. I think it was a gecko. It was a very multicolored reptilian thing that would crawl along the walls. And for some reason it liked living in my bathroom. So I started calling him Gorgamor, the Giant Gecko. And then, you know, it – I had a lot of time by myself when I was in Bali the first – that trip, and so I started composing a lot of – you know, I brought my bagpipes with me and started writing some stuff that was influenced by the sounds I was hearing and yet another cross-cultural experiment began.

CAVANAUGH: Will you play us that comp…

WELCH: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …osition, please?

WELCH: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Again, this is Matt Welch and his composition, “Gorgamor the Giant Gecko.”

(audio of Welch performing his composition “Gorgamor the Giant Gecko”)

CAVANAUGH: That’s Matthew Welch performing his own composition for bagpipes, “Gorgamor the Giant Gecko.” Matt, do you think the gecko likes the bagpipes?

WELCH: Yeah, I didn’t see him too often, just only – only occasionally I’d pop in the bathroom and then he’d, you know, scatter off.

CAVANAUGH: Scatter off. Well, I tell you, this has just been fascinating watching you play and having you perform for us like this. I want to thank you so much.

WELCH: Oh, thank you. It’s been a pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know that Matt Welch will perform his solo compositions for bagpipes at SUSHI Contemporary Performance & Visual Arts. He performs Friday night at 8:00 p.m. as part of the Fresh Sound music series. And, of course, Sushi is located at 11th and J Streets. If you’d like to comment, please go online, Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.