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Matt Seattle - the Nine Notes that shook the World by Dave White Issue 34 September/October '99


Musician, composer, writer, publisher and music historian, Matt Seattle is also a modest and rather self-effacing man, albeit an enthusiastic and articulate champion of his 'adopted' instrument, the border bagpipes. Now relocated from the ex-mining district of Wansbeck, Northumberland, Matt is currently based in the pretty Scottish borders town of Peebles. A well-known figure on the North East folk music scene for many years, Matt has been and still remains - despite his move north of the border - a member of popular Northumbrian ceilidh outfit, The Blue Moon Band. While less familiar on the national stage than in his old Northumbrian stamping ground, Matt is perhaps better known for his music publishing activities and for his talents as a writer and composer I spoke to Matt recently about the release of his first recording, 'Out Of The Flames'.

"It came about because I discovered this old bagpipe music - the William Dixon Collection, of 1733 - and I published it as a book, 'The Master Piper, or Nine Notes That Shook The World'. I publish books as Dragonfly Music - both my own things and for other people - Blowzabella, The Yetties, Brian McNeill, John Kirkpatrick. I work as a publisher though I have my own angle, researching bagpipe music, and as a publisher I'm able to follow up the research, releasing it to an eager public." Matt laughs. It's not something that will earn him his fortune after all, though that was never the intention.

"There is a public for this stuff. Obviously it's not huge, but there is an interest in it. Anyway, I'd done this book and thought that while that was fine, no one was really going to sit up and take any real notice without a recording to go with it. I mentioned this to Robert Fripp, who's an old friend and kind of a mentor. I'd met him back in 1974, probably. I had some guitar lessons from him. We kept in touch, sporadically, and I'd never presume upon knowing him but he offered to put the album out for me if I recorded it. It was an offer I couldn't pass up." Fripp came to prominence back in the 70s with rock band King Crimson. Never your regulation-issue rock'n'roller even then, Fripp went on explore more wide-ranging musical territories while continuing to maintain the King Crimson brand name. Along the way, he married pop-punk turned actress and TV personality, Toyah Wilcox, and launched his DGM label, now home to Matt's debut album.

"I'd also become acquainted with Steafan Hannigan - a very interesting man, very diverse - and when I mentioned I wanted to do this album, he offered to produce it. Again, I felt it was an offer I couldn't refuse and he'd more or less agreed to do it as a favour. I definitely felt it was worth taking him up on, because he knows about making recordings and I don't." The studio work commenced in the summer of 1996, and took place intermittently until the end of 1997. "It was a long time, yes, but not in terms of actual time spent recording - there were lots of gaps in between. We actually planned the album before we started. We knew pretty much what tracks were going to be on it, though one thing I couldn't help but be aware of was that my own playing improved over that time. By the end of the recording period I was feeling much happier with my own playing."

As for the significance of William Dixon's songbook, Matt asserts: "I'd been aware that there was something missing in the written records of border piping - the manuscripts and collections that have come down to us - so I was able to recognise its value and how unique it is, in relation to all the other bagpipe music of the British Isles. It's not doing anything, sitting in a book, though! It has to be played, and I believe that the musical ideas are, in a sense, as modern as anything else that we've got." That might well sound like a contradiction in terms, saying that something from the eighteenth century can be modern, but there are definite musical ideas I've found in it which don't appear in the other bagpipe traditions, and which genuinely resonate with someone like myself, who has come through a rock and jazz education. I don't find it stodgy or old fashioned in any way."

As for William Dixon, the inspiration behind Matt's album, information is somewhat sketchy. "We don't know much about him. I've been able to trace, through parish records, that he lived in Fenwick, by Stamfordham, in south Northumberland, just north of Hadrian's Wall, so - real border stuff (laughs). It's disappointing that we still don't know anything about who he was or what he did - in terms of his occupation. We can be pretty certain of his locality and that's about all. He's a real enigma."

"I'm 99% sure that that's where the man operated from. If anyone else can find out more information, then great! I am pretty certain that the collection was written down in Northumberland because of the tunes that are in it. It's got 'Lads Of Alnwick', 'The New Way To Morpeth' and 'Show Us The Way To Wallington'. How it ended up in Scotland is a bit of a mystery. But because it was in Scotland, people who would've been looking through these old music collections in Scotland would not have recognised it for what it was. If it had stayed in Northumberland we'd probably never have lost sight of it - we'd probably always have known about it."

"Some people just don't want to believe it - they won't accept it as valid. For example, I've heard people say that the same style of piping would have been played from the Isle of Skye down to Jedburgh in the borders, which is rather strange because they certainly wouldn't have been speaking the same language. And when you look at the William Dixon music, and at the earliest written highland pipe music, you can see that the preoccupations of the people who wrote it were totally different. With the highland music there's a great desire to clarify the very complex grace notes sequences that are used. With William Dixon there's a great desire to clarify the tunes and their variations, and no attempt at all to describe grace notes. That difference tells you something rather obvious."

"In the repertoire Dixon recorded, a lot of the tunes are ones whose names we know but they are, in many cases, significantly more fleshed out versions and he's also got tunes which are unknown elsewhere. Out of the forty tunes, maybe there are ten which were previously unknown." Some of the more familiar tunes would have been part of a border piper's repertoire, presumably? "There's 'Lads Of Alnwick', which really never stopped being played, but the fact that it was recorded by this man in 1733 gives it an even greater kind of pedigree, if you like, than we thought it had."

"And it's the same with a lot of the tunes. There's a version of 'Dorrington Lads', which was known as the border gypsy piper's showpiece, and we never really had a convincing version of that. William Dixon has a version of it which takes up two pages on my computer-generated script! It has fourteen strains - or parts - to it. The obvious thing to say about it is that it is a mega piece of music - there's just a lot to it. We're not talking Beethoven but, certainly, something which - within traditional music - is unusual and unique in its scope, length, development, and in its intellectual power and emotional effect. We're talking about some real good stuff here. It's not your rinky-dinky humpty dumpty-type tune."(laughs)

So how did you come to take up the border pipes? "I'd been playing fiddle for some time. I was pretty dissatisfied with what I'd been doing on the instrument, and even what I might possibly aim for with it. I was at Rothbury folk festival, some time around 1986 - '87, and I was at a pipers' session. Anthony Robb and Chris Ormston were playing some of the old Northumbrian pipe tunes - with variations - and that proved a real turning point for me. The border pipe music and the Northumbrian smallpipe music are really branches of the same tree. The two instruments are different but, because of the nature of the respective scales that they can produce, there is a lot of common music between them. So, a tune like 'Lads Of Alnwick' is both a Northumbrian pipe tune and a border pipe tune. William Dixon wrote that tune down ('Lads Of Alnwick') but no one knows who actually composed it. Dixon compiled the music to which he had access, in written form, which was very unusual at the time because people weren't writing this stuff down until much later, really. The first significant collection of Northumbrian pipe music - smallpipes - didn't happen until about 1800, so he's unusual in every way - more unusual in that he's writing music for a bagpipe which, essentially, didn't really survive the border pipes."

"They pretty well died out. For some reason people didn't carry on playing the instrument. I suspect it was a more difficult instrument to keep going, in purely practical terms, than the Northumbrian smallpipes." Keep going? "To keep the instrument's reeds going, to keep tuned, all that kind of business. Even in this century it's taken several false starts before people have succeeded in making credible border pipes which work well. There was an attempt in the 1920s and 30s, within the Northumbrian Pipers Society, to get the border pipes going again, but they never really got it right. And they certainly didn't have the repertoire." The smallpipes were common to both sides of the border. They were even made in Edinburgh, and other places."

How about other studio recordings of border pipe music? "There's a wee bit. The person who's done the most so far is Gordon Mooney, who really got the border pipe revival going in the first place, back in the early 1980s. Gordon is based in Lauder, and recorded an album for Temple Records called 'O'er The Border'. It's his slant on the border music. He's really the only person, apart from myself, who's taken the border pipes and treated them as an instrument with its own repertoire. Obviously Gordon didn't have the William Dixon music to work with, but when I discovered the music and showed it to him he was very, very keen on it, and most supportive of my endeavours to publish it and get it better known. He certainly recognised the value of the music straight away. Gordon was a big help to me, by establishing the border pipes as a legitimate instrument with its own repertoire."

So you'd been inspired, by the likes of Tony Robb and Chris Ormston, to take up the pipes. How did the discovery of the manuscript, and your part in it, come about? "Well, I had attempted my own reconstruction of a border pipe repertoire, with the primary idea that the border tunes were played with variations - in the way that the older Northumbrian pipe tunes were played with variations. So I had done this work previously, in 1993. I'd published a book called The Border Bagpipe Book. What I had really done there was, working from Northumbrian smallpipe music and local fiddle music which had survived, attempted a kind of creative reconstruction of border pipe music. That was about as far as I could possibly go."

How long had you been playing the instrument? "I took up the pipes in 1991. I had been playing guitar and fiddle for many years before that. And while I didn't have a long history as a piper I do have, as a musician, and I think it was an advantage that I hadn't played pipes before because I didn't have the kind of preconceptions that a lot of pipers tend to have."

"The way I found the William Dixon music was one of those strange chains of events. Somebody asked me had I seen this collection that was in a library in Scotland - that it might be old pipe music and as such I might well be interested in it. Of course, I was very interested in what this fellow, who was a Scottish fiddle expert, had told me. As an authority on the fiddle, he didn't himself know what the music was. So when I tracked it down, it was located in a library in Perth, and I asked the librarian to read out some of the tune titles over the telephone to me. And when he said 'Dorrington' it immediately rang bells with me, because the tune 'Dorrington Lads' has a kind of legendary status as the tune Jamie Allan played to become an approved piper among the gypsies, and it's also the tune Will Allan, his father, played on his death bed. So the tune has this special significance, on the one hand."

On the other hand, the versions of the tune which were known to have survived weren't anything special, so I asked for a photocopy of the William Dixon manuscript from the library. When it arrived I found there was this great long version of 'Dorrington Lads' which obviously had the kind of quality one would expect of it, considering its legendary status. And it was the first time I'd ever seen anything like this. Looking through the collection I very quickly realised it was not a collection for Northumbrian smallpipes. That was clear for technical reasons, to do with the very precise nature of the scale involved in the music - which is a nine note scale, rather than an eight note scale (the original Northumbrian smallpipe scale)." "So the manuscript had come to be hidden - whether by chance or design, I don't know. We do know how it came to be in the library in Perth. It was presented by the Lady Dorothea Ruggles-Brise, a Scottish aristocrat and fiddle music enthusiast. She obtained it from a man called Charles Macintosh in Inver, in 1909. He had the book and he didn't know what to make of it. Mentioning it to her, she was intrigued and expressed an interest in it. Offered money for it, Macintosh took offence and threw it onto the fire. Lady Dorothea retrieved it and it ended up in her collection, eventually to be presented to the library in Perth. It had been that close to being incinerated."

A true story? "Yes, it's documented in her own words. Another interesting aspect is that various twentieth century scholars have noted its existence without recognising what it is, assuming it to be rather unusual fiddle music and not the exciting bagpipe music it actually is. Lady Dorothea did recognise it for what it was. She said it was a collection of pipe tunes from the border country, which is a fairly specific assessment."

"Definitely there are Scottish tunes and Northumbrian tunes, but they are stylistically homogeneous. The style of the music is kind of similar to the old Northumbrian pipe music, except that it's nine-note music rather than eight-note music. And it's nothing at all like highland pipe music, which has the same scale as the border pipes but is stylistically completely different. This has been very hard for many people to swallow - the fact that there could be a style of music on a nine-note chanter which isn't anythiing like highland pipe music. Technical stuff maybe, but because I was familiar with it I was able to say that Dixon's was a border pipe book rather than a Northumbrian smallpipe book. And I was absolutely knocked out by it. You know, I was as high as a kite for about two weeks, reading through the stuff. I transcribed the music from the manuscript to computer in three days, which is rather ironic because it took William Dixon about five years to write it down by hand. Obviously he was doing other things at the time as well (laughs). But I was so keen to get it all down."

"I don't see this music as 'rarefied' in its appeal. In many ways it is, of course, because it's this extremely thin historical strand which has only just about survived, and it's of great interest to scholars of traditional music. But I actually regard it as really funky stuff, y'know - it's just such exciting music, and I would hope that the way I've presented it on my album would appeal to anyone."

Your compositions have been recognised by quite a variety of people. "Yeah, people much more famous than me!" Kathryn Tickell, for example. "Yes, Kathryn's been very good in recording my tunes. I think I have tunes on - four of her albums. I'm very pleased about that. Other people, too - Gordon Mooney, the Irish band Nomos, Scottish fiddle player Pete Clark. I think I might be on an Old Rope String Band album somewhere."

What we can be really grateful for is that we have a written reference work from a very early time. "I suspect from all the evidence I've seen (and haven't seen) that the repertoire which William Dixon wrote down was done so at its creative peak. We even know that one of the tunes in the book had been composed a mere seven or eight years prior to being written down. Some of them are a lot older, but that does give us some kind of handle on when the stuff was being fashioned and put together."

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