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Carme López – Quintela (Album Review)


British and Irish bagpipe music has suffered from something of a reputational problem. There are probably many reasons for this, but one of them is likely something to do with effort. The strange relationship between drone and harmony, which characterises pipe music, requires a different – and initially effortful – way of listening. We leave our comfort zone in the presence of bagpipes, and it sometimes takes a bit of a journey to get back there. The tide, though, does seem to be turning. Young and experimental musicians like the smallpipes player Brìghde Chaimbeul have played an important role in bringing their instrument to a wider audience while bridging the gap between traditional and contemporary compositions.

The story in mainland Europe seems to be a little different. Bagpipes are a staple of German, Balkan, Portuguese, Romanian and Breton traditions, amongst many others, and their place in the contemporary music of these cultures appears to be less aesthetically controversial. One of the historical cradles of bagpipe music is Galicia in northern Spain, where the tradition can be traced back to the mid-13th century. Galicia remains a hotbed of modern piping and is the home of teacher, composer and improviser Carme López. Her debut album Quintela exists both within and far beyond that tradition: she recognises that her instrument has been used in extremely narrow, musically conservative ways in the past and is determined to reimagine it through contemporary, avant-garde and feminist lenses.

Quintela is structured as a musical narrative, with four longer sections bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue, Cando a pena me mata, a alegría dame alento, sets up a kind of tension between joy and grief, with high, cascading notes breaking out of the underlying drone. It is immediate and arresting, which is perhaps a surprise, given how unconventional it is, but it shows clear early evidence of López’s ear for melody. The first of the longer sections, QUÉ? A Betty Chaos begins with the rough clicks and short breaths of an instrument in a state of semi-repose. It’s soon engulfed by a cinematic landscape of wild screeches and whistles. Deep, groaning notes then take root and the pipes’ natural drone is manipulated into a series of faults. Despite its necessary slowness, it feels urgent, modern.

MATICOLO. Aos cans da casa: Piri, Sil, Duma e Mouri has more meditative beginnings. López is influenced by the work of Éliane Radigue and Pauline Oliveros, and it shows: she is fluent in the language of a particularly complex, feminine brand of contemporary music where subtle tonal shifts signify and reflect changes in the listener. When done properly, this kind of music can feel like a collaboration between composer and listener, and López gets it just right, building a nuanced world from minimal organic ingredients. On AVÓS. A Pepe e Manuela, she attains a kind of wistful softness through the perfectly judged layering of sound. The effect is reminiscent of a church organ but more welcoming and without any sense of bluster or hubris.

The most outwardly experimental piece is CACHELOS. A César de Farbán, on which she creates a skittering percussion from the improvised knocking of the bagpipes’ reeds against each other. The key elements here are friction and focus: the physical friction between the instrument’s constituent parts could easily be read as a metaphor for the agitation between the contemporary and the traditional, but more crucial is the sense of deep focus that these sounds imply (and which they demand from the listener).

The explicit tensions between the bagpipes’ past and future are at their most playful in the album’s epilogue, Inflorescencia, where an uncharacteristically quick melody trips over itself, sabotages itself in the name of experimentation. It’s all done with evident glee: even on Quintela’s most sombre moments, there is a sense of joy and of purpose. That may well end up being the legacy of this remarkable album: the joy and openness that is available if you are willing to play – and listen to – the bagpipes in new ways. 

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