Carlos Núñez

World-renowned Galician musician Carlos Núñez is celebrating the fact that he’s finally getting to collaborate with English artist Philip Pickett. The two are promising that their show, Two Pipers Piping, will blow fresh life into Scottish and Irish tunes not heard in more than 300 years.

“This music’s been asleep for centuries, and will be born again on the stage,” Núñez, a master of the recorder and the Galician bagpipe (the gaita) told Celtic Life. “What I love about this music is that you can feel London’s spirit pulsing through it.”

Accompanied by two musicians who work with Núñez and others from Musicians of the Globe, a troupe Pickett founded in 1993, the duo will play five performances in England and one at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections between January 29th and Feb 6th. The shows will blend jigs, reels, hornpipes and ballads as they might have sounded in the streets, taverns and theatres of Restoration London.

The tunes have great vitality and complexity, reflecting the energy of the Restoration era, which began in 1660 with the return of King Charles II to the throne.  The Restoration was a time of cultural exploration after the strictures of the puritan years. Theatre burgeoned, supported by the new king and his mistress, the actress Nell Gwyn. Many Scottish and Irish people worked in London. Their interest in Celtic tunes was natural, and Londoners also romanticized Celtic culture.

Those years were also a time of geographic exploration. Núñez said that some of the harmonies and rhythms heard in London were created on the boats of pirates and adventurers – famous names like 16th century English sea captain Sir Francis Drake, who always took at least five volunteer musicians on an expedition.

“Some of this music was born in the galleons,” Núñez said. “It holds the tone of battles, of travels to North America.”

Other popular melodies and rhythms were medieval but they were re-interpreted in the 1600s with new harmonies and techniques.

Pickett, who is a recorder player, conductor, and interpreter of lost performing traditions, said Londoners would have heard Scottish and Irish musicians perform and then interpreted the tunes in their own style. While researching the music, he uncovered many Scottish and Irish tunes published in London in the late 1600s that blend Scottish and Irish idioms, still heard in today’s Celtic folk music, with a London/English influence in the harmonies and rhythm.

“The fashion continued well into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with composers such as Haydn and Mendelssohn writing pieces inspired by Scottish and Irish music heard in London,” said Pickett.

He was excited by the tunes as soon as he began researching them, and Núñez’s involvement heightens that excitement. “It’s extraordinary to hear what Carlos does with these simple pieces – adding ornaments, altering rhythms, bending notes, you name it.”

Núñez said Pickett is a rare breed – a classical musician with a sensibility for traditional music. The two have long wanted to collaborate. They first met in the 1980s, when Pickett visited Núñez’s home town of Vigo to perform songs by the medieval Galician composer Martin Codax. Sixteen-year-old Núñez was amazed when Pickett began to play the gaita.

“When I met Phil I saw this serious musician, who was performing all over the world in big concert halls, head straight for the gaita, for my instrument, and start to play it… He was playing this monster, this non-domestic animal. I couldn’t believe it!”

It was a shock to see Pickett play the Galician pipes, but Núñez realized that the gaita resembled the pipes played in England in the Middle Ages – an era Pickett understood intimately.

For Núñez, the music he and Pickett will soon perform is a perfect fit for the earthy, ancient sounds of the 1,000-year-old gaita. He said his interpretations will be guided by the innovative spirit of the Restoration and the reactions of audiences.

“Traditional musicians know that it’s never one genius composer who creates the music; it takes many individuals, many generations,” he said. “Music is energy and it changes, music moves.  We will play with the freedom of traditional musicians and bring our personalities and variations to the music.”