The epicentre of my research is the seemingly extinct bagpipe (object – musical instrument) in the geographical territory of Finland.
I’m questioning the prevailing idea that there was never any bagpipe in what today we call Finland. By looking into physical evidence such as iconography, archaeological remains, surviving bagpipes in the neighbouring regions, and established folk music repertoire, I am (re)tracing the ancestral instrument, and (re)building what could have been its “undisturbed evolution” to our days. By “undisturbed evolution” I refer to envisioning alternative outcomes to the Säkkipilli story, by looking into the cases in Europe that did not end in “extinction”. Around Europe, bagpipes that survived were kept alive by adaptation processes that seem to have been absent in Finland. Such processes range from “relative stagnation” - due to geographical isolation and/or fierce cultural resistance - to “rapid mutation”, perhaps arising from a need to remain musically, culturally, artistically, politically or commercially, relevant, in an ever-changing context.
Estonia is a particularly interesting starting point for my research, as it is nowadays the brightest light in the Baltic Sea, piping scene. After a remarkable resurgence of the Swedish bagpipes in the early 2000s, it is now Estonia that has established the country as an undeniable piping region in the international concert stages. Both regions have experienced a complete extinction phenomenon in the first half of the 20th century but were left with a treasure trove of old instruments in private collections and museums.
However, pipers like the Swedish Anders Norudde [b. 1960] founder of the influential folk music band “Hedningarna”, have been vocal about the fact that the Säckpipa and Torupill currently being played and recorded, bear little resemblance with the instruments in the Museums. Many researchers around the world have express concerns that these artistic performances will inevitably leave a massive international audience with a distorted idea of what the flavour of a particular set of regional bagpipes may offer the world.
This phenomenon, where there is a clear design dissonance between current and old bagpipes, is not rare and has been repeatedly documented by researchers around Europe when looking into their own local bagpipes. Consensus lays somewhere in the middle – While there is certainly room for the modern instruments, performers of “historically informed” folk music should not remain “misinformed”. On the other hand, practitioners and composers of new folk music would benefit from having access to a solid foundation of knowledge and practice of early piping.
However, in this effort to shade scientific light into the matter, not much has been written about the Estonian Torupill.
Besides the work of Igor Tõnurist, in his 1976 article entitled “The Estonian bagpipe”, only the occasional blog post/article may be found. Most active in the publishing efforts is Cätlin Mägi (in the photo), that recently published a CD and booklet (2020) on the repertoire of the famous folk player Juhan (Johannes) Maaker (also known as the “Torupilli Juss”). As with most countries, the available tacit knowledge on bagpipes circulates by word of mouth and is left largely unwritten or unpublished.
Tõnurist in his paper of 1976, informs us of a clear and unquestionable cut in the piping tradition with the death of the last Estonian Bagpiper Aleksander Maaker (1890-1968). In piping traditions around the world, until the first half of the 20th century, it is not unusual to document that pipers still played with instruments that were a mix of ancient inherited bits and pieces, and replacement parts to keep the instruments fully functional. This was the case of Aleksander Maaker, allegedly using pieces of his uncle’s bagpipe (Juhan [Johannes] Maaker, the “Torupilli Juss”). This trend of handed over instruments stopped with the death of the last folk pipers, in Estonia with Aleksander, as is attested by the subsequent manufacturing of completely new Torupills started in 1970, in an attempt to bring back Estonian piping traditions.
Therefore, in what concerns my research of the Säkkipilli in Finland, only the bagpipes made/played before Alexander Maaker, may offer true insight into early piping in the region.
Accepting the kind invitation of Leanne Barbo, bagpiper, music and dance teacher at the Music Academy of Tallin, I took advantage of a lift in travel restrictions of August 2020 to conduct one-week surveying of the Estonian Torupill.
We visited the Estonian National Museum, the Estonian Museum of Theater & Music in Tallin, and we even went to the island of Hiiumaa, to measure a sole, but important instrument housed in the island’s museum - The Aleksander Maaker bagpipe.
Everywhere, museum curators and staff were open and forthcoming in sharing the available information. However, to the best of our knowledge, the work I and Leanne conducted during this week has never been done before. The bagpipes in the museum seemed undisturbed and as they were left by the last piper who owned them.
The amazing data collected is still being treated to be included in my research on the Finnish Säkkipilli. An overview of our survey of bagpipes in the Estonian museums will be published as soon as possible on a peer-review paper.
Similar field research trips will occur to Sweden, Latvia and Lithuania, as soon as the travelling restrictions are lifted.
Will the full research finally reveal that bagpipes are not Finnish, Sweden or Estonia, but rather a continuous phenomenon, where the baltic sea, the travellers and Islanders play a fundamental role?
What the museum instruments immediate demonstrate at a glance, is that in Estonia has not one Torupill tradition but at least two. We could recognize that two completely distinct typologies of chanters were present and seem to go hand in hand with specific designs of bagpipes, restricted to particular areas of Estonia. The research is ongoing.
Most of the instruments we surveyed revealed a consistency of design. There were some missing parts on the instrument, but in most cases, an inference can be made by looking at the available pieces within every single instrument, and imagine a complete instrument. In that effort, looking at instruments of similar design/typology, side by side is of great value. If one piece is missing in one instrument, it may be present in another bagpipe, therefore dissolving - almost completely - any doubts of how the instrument looked originally.
A natural skin or seal stomach is used as a bag. No leather seems to have been used. Stocks are tied to the natural reservoir, for the chanter and drone, but display no stock for the mouthpiece. When more than one drone is present, a common stock is used to accommodate both drones. Therefore, three, and only three, bag orifices seem to have been present in early Torupill, regardless of the number of drones. Early photographs also attest to it.
All the mouthpieces are of very crude construction when compared to the rest of the instrument. A crude tube, connected directly to the bag, allowed the piper to breathe air into the bag. So far, only Aleksander’s Torupill presents a finely crafted mouthpiece.
In the aural traditions of other pipers around Europe, a true and tested bagpipe would be treasured and handed down to the next generation. If an “heirloom” system would organically be in place, chances are only the person that could get their hands on a bagpipe would end up learning how to play. Several generations of pipers might have gone by, without the need to arise for a new, full bagpipe, to be produced.
Perhaps this could account for a gap in bagpipe making tradition at a historical period could explain cruder making skills and designs.
Be it as it may, cases around Europe demonstrate that it is certainly by looking as much into the past as possible that we may found the richest set of data, to inform our research.
Gonçalo Cruz is a Musician, Researcher & Maker of Bagpipes & Woodwinds.
Gonçalo has been involved in the revival process of local Gaita bagpipes in Portugal, by researching, playing, teaching and building bagpipes as well as maintaining a professional bagpipe making workshop that he has now moved to Helsinki, and transformed into a “Woodwind Research Lab.”
His research interests are in the disciplines of Music, Ethnomusicology, Organology, as well as Art & Design, History & Archaeology, with a special interest in the subjects of Instrument Building, Tuning and Temperament.
As an artist, Gonçalo has worked as a music composer and guest musician on live and recorded performances, interpreting an array of European bagpipes, flutes and whistles. Although his bagpipes & flutes ground him in the folk music universe, his original compositions are meant as storytelling, always evocative of images, clearly influenced by cinema soundtracks. Gonçalo is keen on developing the concept of “Music as Design”, and is often involved in music projects that involve video production and the visual arts.