I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made object never equalled the purity of sound achieved by the pig. - Alfred Hitchcock
Free jazz and bagpipes share the reputation of being unlistenable squalls - totally unfair, of course, as they both can be quite listenable squalls. And like chocolate and peanut butter, bagpipes and improvised music have a history of comingling. John Coltrane and Albert Ayler both played them. Rufus Harley made a career of jazz pipes (and even played on Laurie Anderson's first record). And Paul Dunmall perhaps did more than anyone to carve a space for the instrument in free improv.
David Watson, a native New Zealander who has long lived in New York, has piped with Otomo Yoshihide, Ikue Mori, Christian Marclay and Gunter Mueller, and is playing Dec. 12 at Freddy's in Brooklyn with superminimalist drum-tone generator Sean Meehan. He has two recent bagpipe records: Throats (Ecstatic Peace) with Shelley Hirsch and Makagami Koichi, and Fingering an Idea (XI), which features no less than a bagpipe sextet.
Glacial is an unreleased trio recording with Tony Buck (The Necks, Kletka Red) and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), a great and well-titled hunk of sound that someone ought release soon.
Dutch band The Ex epitomizes the punk spirit better than just about any band playing today, and they've been doing it since 1979. Not just in the bangin'-three-chords sense, tho they certainly can do that, but in the anarcho freedom anything goes, even if it means making records with free improvisors, even if it means bagpipes. Their 1989 album Joggers & Smoggers included Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, members of the ICP Orchestra and, on two tracks, piper Jeroen de Groot.
OK, so the track with Ranaldo track and The Ex song aren't very punk. OK, so being in a punk band doesn't automatically make everything you do punk. OK, so there wasn't even a chorus. OK. Vancouver band The Real McKenzies are real punk, and they bang out chords and they have songs you can sing along to and, yeah, there's a bagpipe. The group was founded in 1992 by singer Paul McKenzie, allegedly after he was "subjected to an Andy Stewart record which was playing in one room and intertwining with the vulgarity of a Sex Pistols album emerging from another." They can be gimmicky, sure but "Pour Decisions," from their 2005 record 10,000 Shots is a right real bang-up punk song with good knee-jerk lyrics.
Optical*8 was the main '90s project for Hoppy Kamiyama, who went on to be the gram-pot (a word he made up, meaning "idea man") behind The Pugs and Ex-Girl. There were two versions of the band, a New York lineup with Marc Ribot, Dougie Bowne, Sebastian Steinberg, EJ Rodriguez and Steve Eto, and a Japanese version with Otomo Yoshihide, Reck (James Chance, Lydia Lunch, Friction) and Masafumi Minato, who has gone on to do a lot of Jap metal. This track, from Bug (1994), is the Japanese lineup, plus Gerald Muirhead on pipes.
Birchville Cat Motel is another New Zealander, Campbell Kneale, who mad layers tracks into a throbbing, swirly mayhem. When notified about the TFGTSI bagpipe entry and asked if "Piss Perfume Overkill," his tracks with pipes, could be used, he said, "Er... Do I [use bagpipes]? i cant remember. if you can hear em you can use em. Thanks." Well, the record cover says he does, anyway.
Along with his audio installations, Germany-based Stephan Mathieu has released 16 albums of digital compositions, recordings of acoustic instruments which are edited and reworked using some processes that sound very smart. The end result is something like the lush crackling of some of Fennesz's work. His 2005 disc The Sad Mac includes the track "Smile," with Mathieu playing pump organ and Michael Weiss's bagpipes, hurdy-guydy and ocarina, along with lute, horn and spoken word. Mathieu describes it thusly:
During painting a portrait bards and acrobats where in attendance to counteract the model from sinking into melancholy. A pump organ plays "a motor's endless drone", a fragment from Luigi Pulci's "Morgante a cura di Emilio Piccolo" is read by an italian waiter. Music tinkles the eardrum.
At this point, the careful reader may be growing dismayed at the lack of traditional music. Well, here's some traditional salsa, from Doug Schulkind's 2004 marathon premium. Says Mr. Schulkind:
Combining rumba with reels, son montuno with ceilidh tunes, this Scottish conflagration has the hots for Latin music. And speaking of hot, check out the scorching bagpipes - doing the violin's charanga part no less - on this track from 2000.
Penultimate in our spottily exhaustive examination of the bagpipes in modern society is Yoshi Wada, a Fluxus artist who worked with George Maciunas and Pandit Pran Nath. His work incorporates vocals and bagpipes with instruments of his own devise, such as the "Alligator" and the "Elephant Crocodile." He released two records: Lament for the Rise and Fall of the Elephant Crocodile in 1982 and Off the Wall (for two bagpipes, adapted organ and percussion) in 1984. They've never come out on CD, but are available over at the ever excellent UbuWeb.
And lastly, from the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Music, a peek into the future: robot bagpipes.