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MATT SEATTLE - Geordie Syme's Paircel O' Tunes

MATT SEATTLE - Geordie Syme's Paircel O' Tunes
Dragonfy Music ISBN: 9781872277356 

This book is many things: an impressive tome, a labour of love, a re-imagining of the Border piping tradition, a compendium of tunes, a treasure trove of hints and nuggets of information on how and why to play them, and on what sets the Border piping tradition apart from other piping traditions and from other music in general. Geordie Syme's Paircel O' Tunes is much more than a tunebook, but there are also things which it is not: it is not a manual or tutor for Border pipers, and while it sets out a view of the tradition based on Matt Seattle's 20 year association with the Border piping revival, this is not a prescriptive or proscriptive work - or at least not overly so. Much is left to the individual's interpretation and abilities, and many things are deliberately vague, partly because they cannot easily be written down, but also because - in the words of one of Syme's successors, late 18th century piper Thomas Scott from Jedburgh – “thare isnae jist the yae richt wey o't, thare's mony richt weys, an a guid piper'll aye play it a wee bittie different ilka time”.

In attempting to capture the character of Border pipers and piping, Seattle has researched manuscripts and print publications from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, and has left many passages in their original dialect transcriptions, from the older Southern Scots of Syme's time to the modern Scots dialects of Hawick and other Border towns and villages. The Scots language of Robert Burns is better known but subtly different, and anyone with an ear for language should be able to follow these quotations without recourse to the widely available Scots dictionaries in print or on the internet. Similarly, any piper worth his drams should be able to fill in the gaps in the tune transcriptions, which are deliberately set in standard musical notation (not Highland bagpipe form) without the addition of the grace notes required for open-chanter piping where the instrument sounds continuously.

But I digress, a failing Matt avoids admirably. Who was Geordie Syme, and why should we be interested in him? George Syme was piper to the Duke of Buccleuch in the mid eighteenth century, and the official Town Piper of Dalkeith, quite a well-to-do place in those days. He was widely acknowledged as the finest Border piper of his time by later writers, but little direct evidence of Geordie's music survives now, which itself tells us something: this was an aural tradition, rarely written down, perhaps because each piper had his own way of playing the tunes, or perhaps because the actual pipes differed in their scales and compass. Matt Seattle has assumed an almost fully chromatic scale, and a range of an octave and a half from low G to high C#, certainly achievable by a good player on modern pipes, but quite an achievement for a player almost 300 years ago. Several melodies here, including the Galashiels anthem Soor Plums for which Syme was famous, make use of all or almost all of this range, although most sit between A and A, or between B and B, making them playable on most bagpipes, and in first position on the fiddle.

Where do these tunes come from? Most are from manuscript sources, intended perhaps for fiddle or recorder, found in the libraries of the Buccleuch family. This explains, for instance, the 16 minuets - popular in the eighteenth century, but not the first dance form one might associate with bagpipes, not even in the French tradition although Lully and Couperin used pipers in their courtly dance settings. One of the conundrums in the Border piping tradition is that it sits at a crossing point between so many traditions: the Northumbrian pipe and fiddle music, the Scottish lowland fiddle and song traditions documented by Burns, the aristocratic music of the big houses, and even the highland piping tradition whose bearers fought and marched through the Scottish borders during the Jacobite uprisings of the 17th and 18th centuries. Seattle includes pieces such as The Battle Of Sherriffmuir and Johnny Cope - both local to Dalkeith - which are well known in Highland pipe settings. The provenance of other pieces is more debatable: for example, the very old pipe tune Go To Berwick Johnny has obvious border associations, but its origin may depend on where Johnny started from. Coldstream? Newcastle? Edinburgh? Somewhere farther afield?

With over 170 melodies in Geordie Syme's Paircel O' Tunes, there's room for a wide range of sources. Songs of the Borders and of Robert Burns' Ayrshire home are plentiful, and Seattle gives words for many of these: The Lads Of Saltcoats, Gallowa Tam, Logan Water, The Lass Of Livingstone and others. One of the functions of local or travelling pipers was to play the popular music of the day, both songs and dance music, and a characteristic of many piping traditions was the addition of variations to these relatively simple melodies. Tom Clough's Northumbrian variations on Oh Dear What Can The Matter Be are an extreme example of this art, and Matt includes Border piping variations on five Scots tunes: Tail Toddle, Corn Rigs, The Mill Mill O, Ca' The Yowes and John Anderson My Jo. These form the last section of tunes, before the detailed notes and references and index, and are perhaps intended as a final test for those aspiring Border pipers who will use this book as a stepping stone to mastery. In between the simpler song tunes and these complex variations are sections of airs and dance music, from rants to slip jigs, 3/2 hornpipes to driving reels, drawn from both sides of the border, and with more than a touch of Irish music in places. Indeed, the first and third melodies printed here both have echoes of Turlough Carolan's music: but since Carolan was something of a musical magpie himself, there's no knowing where he got his tunes from.

As a source of music playable on the Border pipes, and an insight into that repertoire, Geordie Syme's Paircel O' Tunes rivals the 18th century William Dixon collection (also available from Dragonfly Music) and outdoes it in several respects. Firstly, it contains four times as many tunes, and much information besides. Secondly, it sets those tunes in a context, relating them to music and other events of the time, and to the neighbouring traditions which influenced Syme and his successors. Thirdly, this volume benefits from another half dozen years of Matt Seattle's experience as a journeyman and master piper, and shares his wisdom and understanding. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly for pipers, pound for pound this book is far cheaper than the Dixon manuscript which is only half the size and almost the same price! So if you want to get your hands on Cauld Kail In Aberdeen, Fresh Fish On Friday, Lumps Of Pudding, Montgomerie's Maggott, Eppie McNab or even Wanton Towdie, this is the way to do it.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 119 of The Living Tradition magazine.