Pip­ing up


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller The New Mex­i­can

Robert Sh­laer and the Or­der of the This­tle Pipes and Drums

Mu­sic lovers are not ac­cus­tomed to be­ing handed earplugs when they ar­rive for a con­cert. But then, it is not of­ten that they at­tend bag­pipe recitals, as per­haps a hun­dred souls may do on Satur­day, April 8, at the intimate, re­ver­ber­ant San Miguel Chapel. Nor, in­deed, will it be a mat­ter of a sin­gle Great High­land bag­pipe, which is ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing a great many deci­bels all on its own. Robert Sh­laer will be the fea­tured piper of the evening, per­form­ing a se­lec­tion of solo items; but in the course of the con­cert he will be joined by col­leagues from Santa Fe’s Or­der of the This­tle Pipes and Drums, bedecked in muted MacDon­ald tar­tan. At times the forces will to­tal four pipers pip­ing and three drum­mers drum­ming. It will be loud. The earplugs may well prove use­ful. Pip­ing is in gen­eral a high-volume busi­ness. “Chil­dren are es­pe­cially sen­si­tive to this,” Sh­laer said. “I’ve seen it of­ten at per­for­mances that younger mem­bers of the au­di­ence, maybe ten and un­der, will cover their ears.” Volume also comes into the logistics of prac­tic­ing, which may be overheard at con­sid­er­able dis­tance. Sh­laer, who lives in El­do­rado, ac­knowl­edged that it might be an is­sue, but he has not met with ob­jec­tions — quite the op­po­site. “Our near­est neigh­bor for some years had two chil­dren, who used to come over and sit out­side and lis­ten. But I stop at 9 p.m., to be sure it doesn’t cre­ate a prob­lem. I am blessed with a wife who is very ac­com­mo­dat­ing.”

Prac­ti­tion­ers do have a more re­strained op­tion: play­ing on a prac­tice chanter. It cor­re­sponds to the pipe on which the player’s fin­gers open or close holes in or­der to cre­ate the melody on the full bag­pipes, but it is not at­tached to the bag or other parts that form the in­stru­ment in all its am­pli­tude. “All of us use them some­times to learn pieces, to take lessons on, to prac­tice,” he said. “But I need to work with the pipes. I play them as a full in­stru­ment. I pre­fer to work that way. There are dozens of dif­fer­ent bag­pipes, and the Great High­land bag­pipe is the loud­est of them all. It con­sists of a loud chanter and three drones — bass and two tenors.”

Al­though Sh­laer came to the pipes only seven years ago, he has been in­volved with mu­sic for decades. Back in the 1970s, he built copies of 18th-cen­tury flutes and recorders. (Also prom­i­nent in his back­ground are neu­ro­phys­i­ol­ogy, sen­sory psy­chol­ogy, da­guerreo­type pho­tog­ra­phy, and bagel-mak­ing.) “I used to play recorder and pur­sue Baroque mu­sic very se­ri­ously,” he said, “but I be­came quite deaf and could not hear well enough to be in an en­sem­ble. Then a very good friend died, and there

was a piper at his funeral, at the Na­tional Ceme­tery here.” It so moved him that he in­tro­duced him­self to the piper, who set him up with an in­struc­tor. Now Sh­laer is a reg­u­lar at a pip­ing clinic mounted an­nu­ally in Flagstaff, and he trav­els to Los An­ge­les for pe­ri­odic lessons with Aaron Shaw, a notable of the bag­pipe world.

“Pipers don’t re­ally care about his­tory and mu­si­col­ogy and names and at­tri­bu­tions,” Sh­laer said. “I’ve been to pro­grams where they play through all their pieces and never men­tion who wrote the things.” He is not like that. He finds in­ter­est­ing sto­ries lurk­ing behind the tunes, and he will share some of them with the au­di­ence at this week’s con­cert. When Pasatiempo phoned him, he hit the deck run­ning with tales about the pieces he’ll play, like “The Green Hills of Ty­rol” (“ac­tu­ally by Rossini, tran­scribed for pipes”), and of leg­endary pipers such as Norman Ma­clean, who “lived a rowdy and dis­so­lute life, was briefly the piper to Brigitte Bar­dot but was fired al­most im­me­di­ately be­cause he couldn’t keep his hands off her, since he couldn’t con­trol his drink­ing.”

We made bold to broach a po­ten­tially del­i­cate mat­ter — that in Scot­land the in­stru­ment is clas­si­fied as a weapon of war­fare. “Oh, yes, I know that is said,” Sh­laer af­firmed in a re­signed tone. “It is part of the cre­ation myth of the Great High­land bag­pipe. In the early 1700s, there was a tremen­dous prob­lem with re­bel­lion in the High­lands. The English put down the re­bel­lions with edicts of pro­hi­bi­tion against weapons and High­land dress. Nowhere in there can I find ev­i­dence of pro­hibit­ing the in­stru­ment, though. In 1746 was the Bat­tle of Cul­lo­den. A piper named James Reid was cap­tured there and tried as a traitor. His lawyers ar­gued that he never had weapons on him — noth­ing but his in­stru­ment. But the court de­clared that, since the High­land reg­i­ments al­ways had bag­pipes with them, bag­pipes must be weapons. Peo­ple latched onto that.”

The con­nec­tion to com­bat has di­min­ished some­what since then. To­day, play­ers of Great High­land bag­pipes may open-carry their in­stru­ments with im­punity, even in a sa­cred space like the San Miguel Chapel.

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