Thanks to: Karen El-Chaar of Recordante/Flutations. It is through her instructions in renaissance and medieval music (recorder and flute) that I have re-learned the reading and playing of classically based music.Â Michael (Micha) Gartner of Wolgemut. He has gifted me with the knowledge and training specific to the German style medieval bagpipe (dudelsack), my primary instrument.Â All friends and family who showed up to support our first major shows.
Village Faire: Stirrings of the Earth Serpent
There are moments when something significant happens. The weekend of September 19th and 20th 2009 saw that happen for all of Terra Serpentis. The show of support was significant enough. In short, the band came together as a cohesive live unit.Â However something deeper occurred.
Not only did we manage to tighten up and perform well. But it was clear that our music evoked something potent and exciting for the audience. Most of the spectators had no previous exposure or reference point to our music; they enjoyed the historical discourse and background of the instruments. But mostly they responded to the heavy rhythms and buzzing drones.Â And it is that drone which seems to be at the center of a series of coincidences and contemplations.
Meditations on a Drone
Before he began to instruct me on the bagpipe, Micha sat me down for some questions. I’ve found that all good music instructors first ask a student what their intention and reasoning behind choosing a specific instrument is. He said, “Why do you like the bagpipe?”
My immediate reply: it has a presence. This was the short answer. It has evolved significantly since.
The bagpipe generates a very old presence and speaks of something iconic and wild. Any bagpipe requires considerable skill and control to even sound. But the resultant sound is eerily organic.
When heard, people sense a cacophony: animals, voices, other instruments. The bagpipe evokes something in the listener. Either through associative nostalgia or a deeper mechanism. Particularly the great pipe brings listeners to a place that is old, base and familiar. Perhaps the most significant tool in this augury is that texture that many listeners synthesize but cannot quite articulate. It is the interplay of melody and drone.
There is a lot of speculation as to where drone music began, and specifically how one became affixed to an animal-skin bladder bag and horn (what we would now call the chanter). Drones are not unique to the bagpipe.
Drone instruments: the didgeridoo, lur, flint flute, hurdy gurdy, Indian Tanpura (a stringed drone instrument) â€“ are among the oldest known. It appears the purpose of the drone is to harmonize with a melody instrument (usually at a 5th or octave tuning below) and provide a background sound. Musical theory aside it can be supposed that the concept of drone as background texture originated in the early subconscious of the first music makers.
If you get to an area far away from your computer, television, cellphone, and even the hum of the refrigerator you can tune into nature’s songs. Even in rural, quiet there is a constant hum, a frequency and cycle of audible pitches which swell and lulls. These sounds come from the wind breezing over and through reeds, branches, and rocks. Drones come from the murmur of water, from the cyclical shuffling of animal feet and bird wings. Drones were implicit sonic elements in the earliest human creative psyche. It is only supposed – but not outlandish to assume -that incorporating a drone into music stemmed from some desire (conscious or otherwise) to become part of this natural soundscape. We also know that music and ritual have only relatively recently become separate expressions.
Horns and Honey
There are certain sounds that most closely match drone instruments in terms of pitch and tone.Â These are the sounds created by the rapid buzzing of insect wings. Particularly that of the bee. Bees also amplify buzzing by spiracles: small breathing holes located on the bee’s body.
In addition to the traditional buzzing of a bee in flight, Queen bees emit a sound called “piping” when communicating with other bees.Â This piping usually sounds in G or A. Which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the same key pitch as many early bagpipes.
Bees are sometimes attracted to the vibrations of the drone while playing the bagpipe, much to the chagrin of many pipers.
Some of the earliest bagpipe references from Greece and Rome are directly related to the sounds of insects. In the The Acharnians (425 BC) by Aristophanes there is suggested reference to pipes that emulate bees or hornets played by a bee piper. Furthermore Suetonius Tranquillus mentions the piping of Nero and other Roman pipers as buzzing like a wasp.
The significance of the bee was driven home this past weekend while touring a wine and harvest festival in Vermont. I had the pleasure of tasting the product of and speaking with Dana of Caledonia Spirits and Honey Gardens Winery (who by the way make one of the best honey wines I’ve had outside of Northern Europe). Dana and I discussed not only the modern process and climate surrounding the brewing of mead, but also delved slightly into the mythical and cultural significance of the drink.
I was reminded of not only the importance of mead in history but also the importance and deep symbolism associated with bees.
Around the same time that we believe bagpipes began to spread across the old known world, there was a prominent cult of honey and bee.
An entirely superficial search on bees in mythology yields telling wiki results:
â€œThe Homeric Hymn to Apollo acknowledges that Apollo’s gift of prophecy first came to him from three bee maidens, usually identified with the Thriae. The Thriae was a trinity of pre-Hellenic Aegean bee goddesses…
This is but one reference among many to bees in ancient records. Mycenaean priests believed that bees and their honeycombs represented the underworld. Both the Egyptians and native Central Americans had significant legend and symbolism associated with bees and placed religious importance on honey. The bee was thought to especially govern prophecy and the land of spirits. The Bee had particular significance to cults in Potniae. Those of you who followed or recall my City of Gold ambient album may remember a reference to that city’s underworld associations.
The connection of honey to song and poetry has a history in Greece. Plato and Virgil both reference anointment of the lips with it or the consumption of honeycomb (often steeped in herbs of various kinds) to induce both prophecy and eloquence. Honey was sacred to the Delphic oracle and it is suspected that the Minoans were among the first mead brewers. While consumed as a regular beverage, it is suggestive that there was some deeper supernatural importance placed upon the honey wine.
And it likely goes without noting that mead plays an important role in the myths of the northern European heathens. It is referenced as the chosen drink of the god’s supplying Odin the sustenance of pork. And it was mead that granted Bragi the gift of song and poetry. There is also a much later proverb that became popular in the British Isles (particularly Scotland) paraphrased to Mead gives the strength of Meat. In Ireland mead in particular among liquors has associations with the Fianna poetry and Fae Folk.
Perhaps only The Bull has as long of a history of ritualized veneration as The Bee. The worship of the bull and bee do overlap in terms of time frame, culture and intent. And there appears to be some musical development based upon the rituals surrounding these two sacred animals.
The Greeks used what we know as a bull-roarer in Dionysian rites. Bull horns and hooves were used to emulate the sound of a bull during Greek, Minoan, Babylonian and Egyptian Sun ritual. And it is worth noting that in ancient culture while mead represents the spiritual nourishment that grants an infusion of the symbolic the meat of the bull in many cultures (after sacrifice) is often representative of divinely gifted physical sustenance and fertility. And it is supposed that the earlier bagpipe like instruments were in fact horn pipes and not possessed of a the wood chanter we know today.
I was reminded by a friend of the Apis Bull in ancient Egypt. The bull represented the Osiris… the risen God-king. And statues of this holy animal often had a small triangle motif between the horns. This is thought to represent both the sun and possibly a bee. The honey of the latter being equated with the sun and indicative of life and rebirth. Apis is also the genus name for the honey bee. There is also an old Egyptian belief that if you kill a bull, a thousand bees will emerge from the body. This is one of the few definitive connections between the cult of the Bull and that of the Bee.
Drinking horns filled with mead are common ideas in honey wine consuming cultures (most definitely Norse, and most likely Minoan as well). And it is known that these early drinking horns (perhaps with a skin reservoirs attached) were blown for distance communication and ritual.
Bee Stings, Music: Mead and Meat for the Soul
With all of this reference in mind it would not be stretch to conceive that there is ritual origin in drone music that may have eventually merged with the construction of the bagpipe. Perhaps there was even an intentional ritual purpose for the droning bee-like sound produced by bagpipes.
None alive are quite sure how the drone became affixed to the earliest bagpipes. These instruments were likely just a blowing horn attached to an animal bladder or animal skin sack. But it becomes clear upon playing the pipe, and being properly trained by skilled pipersâ€¦ that you are not simply playing a horn with auxiliary sound effects. The drone is an entirely separate instrument that provides the underpinning and harmonizing sound for the melody played on a bagpipe. And it is this element that often evokes some ancestral reflex from listeners.
All of this rumination is referential and supposed. We don’t have any written history or even concrete archeological evidence as to the origin of drone music or bagpipes. But history and hypothesis retorts the question posed at the start of this text.
Why did I choose to play the bagpipe: particularly something as obscure as a medieval (or perhaps more properly termed tribal) bagpipe? It wasn’t simply seeing Corvus Corax in their barbarian outfits come to life like wild pagan heralds. But there is no denying that was part of it. There are dozens of accessible, available, easier and frankly more marketable instruments to choose from. I opted to play this pipe because for all of the required technique and training this instrument evokes something very primitive, mystical and earthy.
It seems to bring to life a very ancient place along with very ancient inhabitants.
The ongoing discussion of bees as harbinger and messenger took on a personal note the weekend of the 09/12. For the first time since I was a child I received a particularly painful honey bee sting on my right hand.Â It itched for days, at times burning. Most reading this will know that I have a firm belief in Totems. And I can’t help but wonder if that sting on my primary playing hand was not an initiation into the timeless Dionysian cult of the drone.