ROBERT SHLAER AND THE ORDER OF THE THISTLE PIPES AND DRUMS
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.