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Folklore and hypnosis:Brìghde Chaimbeul's piping is bringing new life to legend

by Isabel Williams

"There's something about being surrounded by just the same sound for so long. It just creates quite a hypnotic feeling.”

It’s not uncommon for a young school child to take up a musical instrument as a hobby: piano, recorder and guitar are some of the popular choices that spring most immediately to mind. For Scottish born musician Brìghde Chaimbeul, however, it was the bagpipes. At 17 years old, her musical prowess saw her as the youngest winner of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award. More recently, the artist has invested her energy into learning the smallpipes, and last year was invited by alt-pop musician Caroline Polachek to feature on her single ‘Blood and Butter’ from her latest album, Desire, I Want to Turn into You. Now, Chaimbeul is preparing to unveil her new project at the creatively prolific Somerset House Studios in London, an experimental studio and exhibition space.

The musician will be partnering with performance artists Maëva Berthelot and Temitope Ajose in an immersive ode to Cailleach Bheur, a one-eyed giantess who originates from Gaelic mythology. “I suppose in mythology she was a wild character that was roaming the hills and coming in the form of like, the bad weather, dying crops and the trees becoming bare, snow, all these types of things,” Chaimbeul says whilst talking about her upcoming project. “So in a way, she was kind of feared because of that, but also very well respected because of her power and her independence and her wilderness and all this.” As Chaimbeul points out, the character plays a significant role in mythology from across Scotland and Ireland. In folklore, Cailleach Bheur is credited with the formation of great mountains and hills, as well as for bringing in the Winter. “I think what I love about the stories is that they’re always so rooted in the landscape and the environment around us,” says Chaimbeul. “So it’s quite a nice way to reconnect to our surroundings in that way.”

Cailleach Bheur’s figure casts an imposing yet motherly impression across the legends that speak of her, associating her with creation as closely as with death and violence. In a moment that adds a touching softness to her identity, the character is said to have sang as she died. It is because of this that Chaimbeul considers her latest project at Somerset House Studios to be much darker than her prior work. Inspired by Bheur’s myth, she is interested in exploring and expanding upon what she describes as “the thin line between life and death”, the grappling interplay of Winter and Spring that teeters “on the edge of the other world”.

Growing up on the Isle of Skye on a diet of Gaelic singing classes and folk music, Chaimbeul was drawn to the bagpipes for their distinctively mellow, tonal quality. She doesn’t read them as instruments of harsh, pitchy sounds, as they are so often perceived in modern society. “Most people, when they think of bagpipes, they’re like, ‘Ah, a loud instrument that hurts my ears’ and maybe don’t know that there’s a lot more to the world of pipes than just that sound.”

Although Chaimbeul considers her stylistic approach to be very traditional, she finds herself influenced by Bulgarian, Irish, Scandinavian and Cape Breton piping traditions, and is constantly looking to evolve her craft. The characteristic drone sounds that make up the base of traditional piping music create a constant, unchanging, underlying chord, which Chaimbeul builds her melodies on top of. The constancy of this underlying buzz paired with the rich, undulating quality of the layered notes creates a sensation which Chaimbeul refers to as “hypnotic”. During our conversation, she picks up a set of pipes to point out the different components, cradling the bag of air under her arm and setting the three hollow wooden drones and chanter across her shoulder. It’s evident that playing the instrument is a full-body experience, and she gives a chuckle when I refer to her swaddling it like a baby. “Yeah, it’s very like physical in a way that it feels very connected to your body,” she agrees.

Polachek’s track ‘Blood and Butter’, which sees a solo from Chaimbeul towards the end of the last chorus, is distinctively different from the music that Chaimbeul makes herself. Co-produced by Polachek and Danny L Harle, the single pairs African drums with acoustic guitar before building to introduce rippling synth chords, inviting Chaimbeul ’s pipes into play during the final instrumental. It’s an unusual combination to be sure, but there’s something about the deep resonance of the lower notes that pairs beautifully with Chaimbeul ’s seering, almost deceptively electronic sound. She was invited by Polachek to perform a longer improvised solo during her live set at the Hammersmith Apollo, which was received by rapturous applause. It’s a demonstration of the instrument’s genre-spanning potential, something Chaimbeul is hoping will open doors to those that may be interested in electronic or trance-like music.

“There’s a lot of places where the pipes are taken out of the typical context and I suppose that’s what I like to see, but I think there’s still some way to go in terms of taking it out of just like, a typical Scottish thing, like with the look of it and the production of the pipes and everything. Because of course they are a traditional Scottish instrument, but the typical way that it’s shown a lot of the time, it’s not really what Scotland is like as a place. It’s a lot culturally richer; it’s much more diverse, you know, modern Scotland is a diverse place. It’s an open place. It’s looking to move forward and be an inclusive place.”

When it comes to her own music, Chaimbeul wants her pipe-playing to envelop people in their sound, to draw them in with their dual vibrations. “It can be quite intense, and it’s definitely a listening journey,” she says. “But also it can be quite creepy as well.” It’s true that there is something eerily pervasive about the drones that run through Chaimbeul ’s last album, Carry Them With Us. ‘Cronan’ has a heavier, dark bodiedness with scratchy overtones; ‘Bonne Beinn Eadarra’ is drawn out and whimsical, whilst ‘Banish The Giant of Doubt and Despair’ fulfils its name with its uplifting lilting.

“A lot of traditional flutes and pipes, especially from the Middle East, have their own scale,” Chaimbeul says. “So it’s only if you’re thinking of music in a Western context, you think that being set on one drone is limited. […] There’s something about being surrounded by just the same sound for so long. It just creates quite a hypnotic feeling.” By drawing the stories of the Highlands back into a contemporary light, Chaimbeul is melding legend into reality with her music, and hopefully giving a new meaning to the word “drone”.

Tickets to Brìghde Chaimbeul’s show at Somerset House Studios and further information can be found here: https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/assembly-2024

Photographer
Camille Lemoine
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