Northumbrian Smallpipes - Blankenheim 2006 (by Peter Andrews)
Monday to Saturday at a somewhat damp and grey Blankenheim could be one day with variations. Insulated from television, newspapers and radio (except for those who listen surreptitiously in their cars), punctuated by predictable meals, well-worn woodland walks, and bunked retreat at night among perennial visitors, its new notes assume extra-ordinary importance. Andy May, encumbered by a world tour followed by concerts in Holland, with little space between, arrived only on Monday evening, though, as it turned out, with a well-planned supply of material. So for the first afternoon we played amongst ourselves. Uwe Seitz' gentle ministrations were sorely missed as he felt he must play midwife to a clutch of emerging goslings rather than surgeon to our peipz.
But the core was still three of the Heilbronn set: Andrea, John and Boris. Two pipers travelled from further south: Elisabeth and Uli. Sheila came again from the depths of Pennsylvania, Tonny from Amsterdam/Oman, Dave from Luxemburg, Ina from Gießen, and I from Cologne. We few, we happy few, to play without the distraction of too many demands: ten is a good number for integration. To know one another, and a general plan of action, allows each of us to make suggestions without reservation, and we are near enough to a general level of performance to agree on what is possible. So we played our way into general concord.
On Tuesday, then, Andy set us off with a canon on "John the Red Nose", and then taxed us with learning two pieces by ear, all very well to those like John and Tonny who have, to the rest of us, an uncanny knack of memorising music without apparent effort (Tonny sits by Andy watching his fingers like a hawk, so is it, after all, visual?), but more than dis-concerting to me and, it seems, not a few others. Yes, it does test the willingness to learn, and does make one question what that entails, but several were honest enough to admit that, a few days later, they could not remember a thing – a happy reassurance that the lapse was not entirely due to senility on my part. Andy was, in any case, kind enough to name the pieces afterwards. In the afternoon he acted the guide in exploring traditions with us, part Billy Pigg, and then the less familiar ranges of Swedish melody.
On Wednesday, starting slowly with "Alloa House", but ending with an inevitably frenetic "Cameron Highlanders" he faced us with the nature of variations, and in the afternoon set us to do our own, which we then played for general approval - or secret disdain? On Thursday each of us had half an hour with him for particular problems, ranging from a string of questions prepared in advance to the insidious misery of defective drone reeds; I ended up with two made good from a top-up card that Andy sacrificed for the purpose. On Friday, more variations followed – something very pippy from Galloway (is Andy imaginable pipless?). In contrast to the caution of some other tutors we have had, he steered us in a remarkably relaxed way into two pieces for the concert that evening, put us through our paces, and let us loose with a minimum of fuss. On the Saturday morning we discussed possible new directions for next year, including the aim of playing with other instruments: a head-count of G-chanters was made. It is assumed that his benign presence will encourage us next year.
Besides the usual dancing in the evenings by the more and the conspicuously less proficient, (and where else would we enjoy fourteen musicians at a time?) we were given two treats. Max Erben, who had re-materialised after an absence of what seems a decade, followed the career of Heine (this is his year) in recitation and singing with an inimitable inflection and convincing empathy to his guitar: a one-man version of his two-man show elsewhere. Aly Bols screened a long but fascinating video tape of a reconstituted Stravaganza dei Medici from 1598 performed by the Taverner Consort under Andrew Parrot: an audio-visual wonder that the Medici themselves would have been proud of.
The Friday evening concert included another song by Max, this time on the wandering unemployed of the nineteenth century – more cheerful than it sounds, a lively melodeon piece composed by Dagmar Lindlar, and soulful Hispanics from Wim Dictus. Each group, smallpipers, hurdy-gurdists, and accordionists was led in by an impressive display by the tutor responsible, before showing what it could do under his guidance. Cliff Stapleton as hurdy-gurder was new, with an engaging inability to predict what he would play. Aly's hordes performed four or five figures, including a Bulgarian line dance, an Hungarian round dance for girls (with inexplicably a man amongst them, albeit long-haired), and a Sicilian round change-dance that was perplexing to watch, let alone demonstrate. Bruno Le Tron as accordionist was augmented by a virtuoso display on the clarinet (and later saxophone) performed on an empty stomach (he had only just arrived), by a fellow-Breton. All acquitted themselves with satisfactory honour. The accordionists went on to provide tunes for all to dance to, with admirable endurance.
This year an attractive buffet was provided, so the kitchen, too, recovered an honour that was rather in danger of being lost. It being the twenty-fifth year since the meeting had been first convened by Volker Heidemann, some of its founders felt the need to admit their increasing age: Aly, Christina and Gudula played a trio of perhaps septuagenarians armed with parasols, doing their best to defy time with a nimble step and an eye for the boys. The sun did shine after all.