neo-medieval german piping

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The wild side of G
NYONE who takes in one of Germany’s popular medieval markets or
festivals is very likely to encounter a
brazenly noisy, leather-loined, bared-torso
style of piping that is unique, if not for its
technical finesse, then certainly for its antics
and its origins.
Welcome to German neo-medieval folk: a
vigorous pipes and drumbeats-led performance genre — part apparent parody, part
fantasy-inspired self-indulgence — that,
having simmered for some years under the
weakening grip of the German Democratic
Republic’s communist regime, erupted into
West Germany with the fall of the Berlin
Wall in 1989 and the country’s ensuing reunification.
While early music was being politely
expressed by classically-trained members of baroque consorts at sedate venues in the Federal
Republic of Germany, across the border in the
GDR Roman Streisand was giving the Highland pipes an in-your-face makeover. If the
rumours, gossip and an admiring oral tradition
are to be half believed, he was a charismatic
FABULA AETATIS whips up some medieval market ambience … “It’s a kind of distant mirror to yourself and
it offers a lot of people space for fantasy and fantastical imagery, like Lord of the Rings, and a different way of
looking at things — so it’s a re-creation scene, but across a relatively big gap.”
wild man who occupied a big farmhouse where
he spit-roasted whole beasts, hosted feasts,
irritated officialdom and was waited upon by
a retinue of pretty young acolytes.
He dropped the pitch of the Highland pipes
to the old tonic of A, said Thomas Zöller, a
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professional piper and graduate of the BA
(Scottish Music — Piping) degree course in
Glasgow, Scotland, who now operates a piping school, the Piping-Academy, in the town
of Hofheim, near Frankfurt.
“He changed the scale because medieval
tunes were played with a minor third — some
tunes are in Dorian mode, which means you
need F sharp, some are in minor mode using
F natural and you get both notes on the medieval German pipes by cross fingering on the
upper hand. But you can’t get a major third;
it’s always a minor third. It’s played with an
open fingering style.
“And he changed the drones, widening the
bore to take them down to A, and gave them
a rougher sound.”
The chanter is conically bored and belled,
and there are usually two parallel-bored
drones: a big, showy bass drone with a widelyflared bell that is carried over the shoulder,
and a smaller, less dramatically belled tenor
drone, also carried over the shoulder. A third
drone, pitched higher than the tenor, is sometimes added, lying across the player’s arm.
The tenor drone or drones are supplied with
turned, wooden plugs so they can be shut off
when they are played with other instruments.
Their sound would be lost anyway, and the
diminished demand for air makes it easier
on the piper.
Said professional piper Brian Haase who
stars with leading neo-medieval groups like
Fabula Aetatis and Cultus Ferox: “There are
lot of stories about Roman Streisand. He
was a part of the scene that kick-started the
whole movement back in the 1980s in Eastern
“I was only 13 when the wall came down,
so it was before my time but there are stories
about the difficulties of the folk movement’s
being connected with freedom. A piping
colleague has told me about gatherings in
Leipzig. They would be picked up by the
GDR police and driven home to where they’d
come from.
“Immediately after the wall came down,
there was a big, six-week gathering in Berlin
where people lived out a whole ‘medieval’
thing — the dress, music, wildness, eupho-
Photo: Mike Paterson
Photo: Mike Paterson
f German piping
ria, squalor and freedom — and it was a very
intense time.
“After that, it exploded: a mixture of freedom, fantasy and excitement. The wilder,
louder medieval music of the east contrasted
with interest in the West where you had groups
like Ougenweide, a ‘Teutonic musical collective’ formed in the early 1970s that played
‘pastoral folk rock compositions with medieval
influences’. It was a big band in Germany
for a long time during the folk revival, and it
was more concerned with authenticity, and
quieter with recorders and seated audiences
and so on.”
Said Thomas Zöller: “The markets have
become very big.
“I tend to believe every culture needs a folk
tradition. It’s something people can feel they
originate from and identify with. In countries
where unbroken traditions have been handed
down, there’s no need to go back 1,000 years
to re-define yourself and your musical origins,
so you probably won’t find such a strong early
music tradition.
“But in Germany where, due to the Nazi
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IT was at such a market in Leipzig in 1995
that Brian Hasse, then training as a telecommunications engineer, was first attracted to the
medieval piping scene.
“I don’t recall there being many medieval markets around at that time, but I knew about a big
one held in Leipzig, and went with a friend.
“We dressed to fit in. And it was there I heard
the pipes and the music. It triggered something
for me, a connection. I wanted to learn, not
for professional reasons, just for the sake of
capturing their audiences with a very wild and
lively performance… they are leaping about
and moving and very testosteronic in their
“Some of the most successful professional
bands have taken it to another level, combining
it with electric guitar, double basses and drum
kit and have created this genre called medieval
rock: In Extremo, Tanzwut, Schandmaul…
“They do big gigs in Germany and internationally with pyrotechnics, fire, three or
four pipers, a whole rock band line-up, a bit
of bouzouki or harp maybe, but mostly pipes
and a rock band. And they combine it with
Photo: Mike Paterson
era and that recent history, and people having
identification problems, leapfrogging back to
the medieval period provides a solution. It’s a
kind of distant mirror to yourself and it offers
a lot of people space for fantasy and fantastical
imagery, like Lord of the Rings, and a different
way of looking at things — so it’s a re-creation
scene, but across a relatively big gap.
“Because of this, the markets have become
a big thing appreciated by a lot of people in
Germany. Each year, almost all of the old towns
hold a medieval market. There are costumed
jugglers, story-tellers, art shows and presentations, traditional trades and crafts, even jousting
and martial arts, and they usually have two or
three stages for music and musicians walking
around as well.
“There’s typically a procession at the beginning and a big finale in the evening with the
musicians all playing together, with bands
playing individually on stage or in the street
between. It’s all there.
“There are two or three big organisers who
are contracted to mount medieval markets in all
the different towns, and they book the bands.
“There are maybe 10-20 big medieval bands
in Germany and a lot of small bands.
“Some of the troupes you see at the markets
are very concerned with authenticity when
it comes to costumes, weapons and all these
things, and do a lot of work to achieve it,” said
Thomas Zöller. “But you also get people doing
whatever appeals to them.
“You might get an ensemble that sets out to
play early music in a way its members believe
is more authentic, and they maybe incorporate
a dudey or hümmelchen (traditional German
bagpipes), but you would find them performing
their concert in the local church — you won’t
see ensembles like this on the market stage.
“There, it’s the people playing these chunky
medieval pipes, an invented instrument, going
for the fun and the dancing.“
PIPER BRIAN HASSE … “I’m not sure where it’ll go.
The big thing that is needed in German medieval piping is
improvement in the technical area”.
the instrument.”
Said Thomas Zöller: “The main difference in
Germany is that there’s greater awareness of the
connection between the piper and the instrument because there is a lot of show happening.
A Scottish piper stands or marches and it is very
precise and accurate. In medieval piping it’s the
other way around. Pipers tend to not have much
technique and there are blowing weaknesses,
and there’s no general system that is taught.
“Most of these people are self-taught and
there’s no standard gracing system, and there’s
a lot of experimenting when they approach the
“On the other hand, they are very good at
CLEMENS Bieger has been making pipes for
eight years. He has a studio in Hattersheim,
Okriftel, having learned his skills in the workshop of Kurt Reichmann, a prominent hurdy
gurdy maker in Frankfurt. “He first showed me
lathe work and wood turning.
“At the same time, Thomas Zöller, a good
friend of mine, began teaching and I came up
with the idea of making simple practice instruments for learners, so I began teaching myself,
largely by trial and error.”
Clemens Bieger travelled to Scotland, and
asked pipe makers Nigel Richard and Julian
Goodacre whether either could offer him an
apprenticeship that would let him learn the
“Nigel had just employed someone and
Julian already had someone working with him.
But they were both very nice to me, very open
and helpful, and that was very encouraging,”
he said.
“From Nigel Richard I learned how to use
a metal-turning lathe to make pipes. You get
great precision and some processes are really
much easier to do, but you are a bit limited in
the design because you often have to stick to
quite rectangular designs. You have to find a
design that presents nice optics. I admire Nigel’s
designs: he’s worked on it very carefully.
“And I spent some time with Julian Goodacre
who uses a wood-turning lathe. This is more
difficult; you need more practice. But you are
freer in the way the pipes may look: you can
create more fluid surfaces more easily and, depending on your ability, the finished instrument
can look more crafted. It’s a question of taste.
“So I have metal and wood turning lathes,
and a big metal lathe I use for drilling all the
bores because it has a very big aperture and
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Photo: Mike Paterson
I can put long pieces in there and drill them
very easily. I use gun drills I first saw in Nigel
Richard’s workshop. They are quite expensive
but very good. And, for the conical bore, I have
a very expensive, specially-made reamer from a
toolmaker in southern Germany who specialises
in instrument-making tools. I also have an old
triangular bayonet-style tapered reamer for
small-bore chanters.”
Clemens Bieger works in boxwood, plum,
apple and pear woods. “Cherry is very nice
but it’s not very dense,” he said. “Some people
ask for it because of the low, mellow sound it
“And I have tried other woods. Lilac is an incredible wood but very rare. It is closely related
to olive and has similar characteristics. It has a
very nice appearance and interesting colours.
Because of my original profession as a gardener,
specialising on tree pruning, management and
removal, I have had good chances to very often
get very nice indigenous woods: boxwood, yew,
different fruit woods… I have the opportunity
to choose the very nicest pieces.
“I use some antler horn for ornamentation, ferrules and chanter soles, mostly for
smallpipes. I have some reindeer antler from
the far north of Sweden. It’s hard to get but it
is very beautiful with a clean white base colour
patterned with a very nice grey tone, a bit like
Cararra marble.”
His pipes vary according to the buyer’s requirements. “The standard is two drones but
some people want a single drone, usually to
keep the price down,” he said. “I make the medieval pipes with two drones, a bass and tenor;
some with the fifth as well as the octave, and
some with a third drone, an octave above.”
The medieval pipes are all in A, with the
same tuning, scale, the same chanter possibilities and all have about the same bag pressures
and loudness. A few pipers have an additional
holed drilled in the back of the chanter to
enable them to produce a major third. “The
chanter stock bore is not standardised as in the
Highland pipes, though, so one chanter may
not fit another set but it could be adapted fairly
easily,” he said.
Clemens Bieger makes and fits his pipes’
chanters with double-bladed cane reeds using
Arundo donax, mostly from Sardinia, but also
from France. He uses single-bladed plastic reeds
in the drones of the big medieval pipes and for
the drones and chanter of the mouth-blown
medieval smallpipes he has developed as a
PIPE MAKER CLEMENS BIEGER in his workshop with a set of his neo-medieval pipes… “People have been learning on
recorders, which is a bit difficult because you can just learn the fingering. A practice chanter would be more suitable for the
sound, the pressure, the fingering and grace notes.”
quieter option.
These medieval smallpipes are finding a
new market.
“I sometimes make bellow-blown, canereeded smallpipes, though,” he said. “And I’ve
tried a lot of different things like cane and brass
composites, but plastic is the most reliable and
easiest to make.
And he is developing a medieval practice
chanter. “People have been learning on recorders, which is a bit difficult because you can just
learn the fingering. A practice chanter would be
more suitable for the sound, the pressure, the
fingering and grace notes.”
The medieval pipers like the wood of their
instruments to be dyed black. “People want the
pipes to look ancient,” said Clemens Bieger.
“But you wouldn’t want to use blackwood
because it would be far too heavy and very expensive. It wouldn’t make any sense. You might
want a blackwood chanter for more brilliance
and loudness but it’s not something I would
recommend to people.”
Players also have demanded larger and more
dramatic bass drones.
“In the beginning, the first big medieval
pipes did not have the big bells,” said Brian
Hasse. “But they have been getting bigger and
bigger and the new bands have bigger and bigger bells and the problem is the weight.
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THE neo-medieval repertoire includes a
popular canon of about 30 tunes that, said
Thomas Zöller, seem to be historically genuine, medieval and connected with Germany,
“although it’s hard to tell where a particular
tune originated.
“One source is the 12th century Carmina
Burana – Songs of the Peasants — a collection
of about 240 songs. While that’s only lyrics
and poems, many of them are accompanied
by inflective marks or ‘neumes’ that suggest
melodies, and some have been matched up with
melodies found in later manuscripts.
“And we also have the famous collection
from Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, from
the court of King Alfonso X, ‘El Sabio’ — one of
the biggest medieval song collections — several
hundred tunes, mostly religious songs dedicated
to the Virgin Mary, pilgrimage songs sung on
the way to Santiago. His court included Jewish,
Muslims and Christians; it was a very interesting time musically and culturally. And there
are a lot of Arabic influences. So the repertoire
comes from a mingling of influences.”
And there are a lot of modern and contemporary compositions.
But neo-medieval folk/rock, once indulged
in as an aggressive musical statement against a
controlling state, and carrying with it the risk
of police intervention, has become tamed as an
income-generating adjunct to the flourishing
summer markets.
Said Brian Hasse: “Since it started, the scene
has expanded considerably. By the time I got
into it, it had already begun to commercialise.
There were more events.
“You can get into the scene quite easily because there is such a big demand. There are a
lot of people who have got together, made up
bands and copy what is already out there.
“They can do it because the technique is
not demanding, and they can take over the
repertoire and dress up wildly, under-cut other
bands and play at the smaller markets. The gigs
are there and a lot of people doing it.
“Technical things aren’t as important as the
feeling for it, the show and the fun of it. A lot
of it is about stage presence. What makes a good
band is its level of musicality and the quality
of playing, but there also needs to be ‘soul’ and
Photo: Mike Paterson
“The main thing has been the look of the
instrument: they get pipes with metal accessories and so on but the technical side should
also be important.”
PIPING teacher Thomas Zöller … “I think you could make
much more happen than is happening now, using staccato
effects, grace notes, interesting grace note combinations
and rhythmic ideas. I think it has to happen. It could maybe
become something known more widely as the ‘German
pipes’. Maybe.”
ROBERT KRIESE, a learner piper, plays a set of neomedieval German small pipes developed by instrument
maker Clemens Bieger… “At the beginning I did not like
grace notes. But I had to learn them and now I use them
a lot and the music is much better. Now, I don’t like it
without grace notes; I find it a bit boring.
feeling in what a musician does, and in what a
band does together. This is what’s missing in a
lot of the lesser bands that copy the music of
others; there’s no individuality in it,” he said.
“And the medieval market movement is
getting out of date. But, because it’s called
‘medieval’, you’re hindered in what you do. It’s
always tied to the past and you can’t really go
other places.
“I’m not sure where it’ll go. The big thing
that is needed in German medieval piping is improvement in the technical area and, although
I am not sure whether many of the people who
are playing now actually want to learn more
technique or change their style, there are some
who are thinking about it.”
pipes, much less is happening. You can’t take
it many other places because of the limited
technique, the limited scale with just the
minor third and with most tunes being based
on the tonic (because a mode starting on the
second note of the scale that’s available to you
just doesn’t work).
“So you have far fewer possibilities than
on the Highland pipe with the myxolidian
“The other problem is the players have no
tuition in breathing technique so the drones
are often wavering a bit and the tuning is
not so good.
“There’s never been anyone who’s been
a ‘lead figure’ or taught in this scene. It’s all
about doing it yourself — you have to make
room for yourself by whatever means, and
a lot of things get left behind. And as far
as I know, none of these players have come
through proper classical training on any
Thomas Zöller has three young medieval
piping students — a 12 year-old, a 15 yearold and 17 year-old. His other students are
all older and study Scottish piping.
“But I think more young people are being
inspired to learn medieval pipes now,” he
said. And he is teaching them breathing and
THOMAS Zöller, whose Piping-Academy
caters primarily for the Highland piping interest in Germany, has adapted Highland piping
technique to the German medieval bagpipe and
has begun to teach it.
“In a way,” he said, “the neo-medieval
music’s one-dimensional. It doesn’t have too
many options.
“When you hear it the first time and you
see those half naked guys jumping around
on stage, it has something to it but, on the
technical side, compared with Irish or Scottish
PipingTodayIss32.indd 46
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fingering technique.
“It is to help develop and make more of the
medieval pipe that I have thought through
all of this technically and that’s why I teach
it. Even some of the very good players have
approached me and asked for advice on
“It would be great to see things develop.
And, without interfering with the physics of
the instruments, sound or melodies, there are
a lot of things you can do.
“The open fingering style is different, a
high G or low G grace note are just not possible, and, if you can get the note on some
chanters, it doesn’t sound right.
“So I’ve adapted the rhythmic ideas of Scottish piping technique and transferred them
onto this fingering. So I’m teaching these
technical things to the students.
“I have one student who is very dedicated
and has practised these gracing systems very
He is referring to Robert Kriese who, at 15,
Roddy MacLeod
Gold Medalist
Allan MacDonald
Gold Medalist
has been taking tuition on the medieval pipes
with him for three years.
Robert Kriese saw his first medieval market when he was four and remembers liking
the knights and duelling… “and I liked the
music,” he said. “Then, when I was 11 years
old, I saw Cultus Ferox playing at another
market. I liked it so much I bought a CD
and I bought more CDs of Cultus Ferox and
other bands.
“The medieval pipes have a rough-sounding mystical drone sound and give you a
choice of pitches; the Highland pipe drones
are so clear, I don’t like them so much. The
drone is very important.
“And I began to play on a borrowed set
of pipes.
“Most medieval pipers teach themselves,”
he said. “I would like to play with a big band
in concerts. I have three more years of school
yet but I have played as a stand-in guest with
Fabula Aetatis a couple of times and sometimes I’ve played street music with friends.
“Thomas has been teaching me grace
notes. At the beginning I did not like grace
notes. But I had to learn them and now I use
them a lot and the music is much better. Now,
I don’t like it without grace notes; I find it a
bit boring.
“Grace notes make the music more interesting, they mean you can choose to play a
tune in different; you have a way to improvise
because the player can choose how to place
and use the grace notes.”
Said Thomas Zöller: “Now Robert’s really
into the technique and he uses it to great
“Technically, if you go down the road I’ve
been putting to my students, I think you could
make much more happen than is happening
now, using staccato effects, grace notes, interesting grace note combinations and rhythmic
ideas. I think it has to happen.
“It could maybe become something
known more widely as the ‘German pipes’.
Maybe.” l
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