What can you tell me about "An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise"?

Every once in a while, there is a frantic, web-wide note by a piper, music director or conductor of a symphony looking to help a piper perform Peter Maxwell Davies' wonderful piece of music, "An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise."

If you are the piper, congrats on the gig!  It's a really nice program piece. You probably need to sort out what is worth worrying about and what isn't.  The music is the music - don't worry about key - you can't transpose, so all you can do is play the notes anyway!  The piece is really quite easy - the embellishments are a bit odd, but nothing that a good grade IV player can't handle.

The HUGE HURDLE (and why everyone panics about this piece!) is that you must tune your drones and chanter to A=440 Hz.  Basically, your drones and chanter will tune to A on a piano.  If you play in a band,  then you probably tune to B-flat= 450 ish or A=475 ish.  This means you'll have to drop your pitch by about a half tone.  This is a HUGE drop in pitch for a bagpipe.

We'll address the chanter and drones separately:

Chanter:  You have at least four choices. 
You can buy a chanter that is tuned to concert A I have one and it cost about $250.  They are made by a few vendors.  Mine is McHarg and the other vendor is McLellan.  I think that Hamish Moore may make one also.  (I also have an old Lawrie that is nearly perfect B-flat.)
I don't know if you can rent one.   I've heard that Boosey and Hawkes (They published the music) have a chanter for rent, but I was told that it isn't plug-and-play. (Ask the conductor if you want to pursue this route.)   I might be tempted to con$ider the rental option - with a depo$it and a rental fee.
You can "adapt" a chanter. For the performance, I got an abandoned chanter that I didn't care about.   I got an old chanter that had been broken and badly epoxied back together - $10 from a buddy.  (The chanter had been affectionately called the "Frankenchanter".)

I made a  "long" reed by adding (with epoxy) an extra staple to a "normal reed".

I set/balanced the chanter. (Find the combination of low A/Hi A with a combination of setting the reed, dremel tool/file (for HiA), tape and rushes (thin pieces of wood - like bamboo skewers) inserted up the bore as needed. Most GHB players don't use rushes, but it works well to flatten the pitch if you try it!) Tune the notes in-between with tape or rush adjustment.

Plan on spending many hours on this!

You can modify a "normal" chanter with tape and rushes. I found out afterward that this "can" work.  It takes lots of knowledge and lots of work.  If you are good with reeds and willing to experiment, it might be worth a try.   You'll learn a lot about rushes, too!


Drones:  You have at least three choices.
You can buy pipes that tune to concert A from a few makers. Again,  Hamish Moore makes a set.  Oddly enough, the poor quality mid-east bagpipes can tune pretty close to A, but they are generally unstable with poor tone.
You may be able to weight the drone tongues. Adding tape or some goop to the tongue makes them heavier so that they can't vibrate as fast.  This will drop the pitch.  This didn't work for me and just made a bagpipe that was very sensitive to pressure - not a good choice for high profile performance.
You can sleeve the top lower drone sections. This is what I did.

At this point, you have an instrument that will play, but it probably won't feel "normal".  In my experience, you'll need to practice strike-ins over and over because it'll play very differently than a modern GHB. The tone probably won't be as rich as you are used too, but don't sweat it.  Remember that you'll have a full orchestra for harmonics!

The performance difficulties aren't over yet.  You'll need to overcome a few things.  You'll need to strike in a half second early if your conductor says so (it's a long distance for the sound to travel.  I had to ignore what I could hear as I waited and follow the conductor!)  Once you're playing, you won't be able to hear the orchestra as you walk in, so the conductor may end up conducting you - with a time shift!  You may also have to negotiate stairs as you make your way to the stage - blinded by having a spotlight in your face.

If you make it through, it's a heck of a lot of fun to look back on.  For me it was one of the most memorable 92 seconds or so of my piping career!!  

Copyright S.K. MacLeod 1996-2016