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Baker's Dozen

Arcane Lore: Alasdair Roberts' Favourite Albums
Neil Macdonald , April 2nd, 2013 07:59

The Scottish folk artist picks out his top LPs, going from Bach to Kraftwerk by way of Bahamian field recordings and 14th-century French polyphonic classical music


Allan MacDonald - Dastirum
Pibroch, or piobaireachd. It's like the classical music of the Scottish Highland bagpipe. Allan MacDonald teaches over at the Piping College, and I had the pleasure of being able to work with him on the record with Mairi Morrison. A friend of mine, Barnaby Brown, put out a couple of pibroch albums and some old Scottish harp music albums on Siubhal. But this originated in the 15th-century on the Isle of Skye, in the court of the MacLeod kings in Dunvegan in northern Skye. It's like the courtly music of the pipes, it's not like jigs and reels, the dance music. They're very long, paradoxically simple, yet complex and elaborate compositions. Structurally the compositions begin with the ground, what's known as the ùrlar. You'll hear the ùrlar for a while, and then it goes on to the second part - the first variation - which is called crunluath. Then it goes through two or three variations where the ground is repeated with extra notes added - grace notes and decorations. In terms of a Celtic art form I suppose it's got an affinity with Celtic knotwork in the same way that it spirals in on itself. Then at the end it returns to the ground. Pieces tend to be very long, maybe eleven or twelve minutes long, and a lot of them are laments, or named after battles. An album that I made, Too Long In This Condition, takes its title from a title of a pibroch tune, and in my own writing I've used pibroch language and imagery before. I wrote a song called 'The Old Men Of The Shells', which is also a pibroch title. I love the music, and sometimes for me it's the only music that really hits the spot. A friend of mine, a piper called Donald Lindsay, said that when someone's playing the pibroch well, you can hear the ancestors calling to you through the drone. I don't play it myself but sometimes I listen to it late at night... Have a dram, blast the pibroch!