Take a deep breath. The bagpipe is an ancient achievement: an idealised human lung, which need never pause its exhalation. Its music is legato: it works on an unbroken ground of successive notes, controlled via the tireless “chanter”, emitted through the reeded “drones”. In Scotland, embellishments and variations on the sonic ground are governed by complex, formalised tradition. The Highland pipes also carry cultural weight: as a symbol of Scottishness, and as a feature of military combat as late as the 1960s.
David Watson is the guitarist credited with kick-starting New Zealand’s avant-garde scene, before leaving for New York in the late 1980s. Whilst mastering the guitar, Watson undertook an unusual apprenticeship in Highland bagpipes. On Wax and Wane (1997) he switched between guitar and bagpipes, while Fingering an Idea (2007) gave each instrument its own disc. This new project, Ask the Axes, is ironically axe-free.
Like many high-flying improvisers, Watson thrives on collaboration. Over the last thirty years, his collaborators have filled an enviable address book. Alongside John Zorn, Christian Marclay, and Otomo Yoshide, sits percussionist Tony Buck. Buck is one-third of Australian jazz experimenters, The Necks. He appeared on Watson’s Skirl (1999) – a very different album of guitar-free exploration. Twenty years later, we are treated to a fully-fledged collaboration of these two Oceanians.
Ask the Axes consists of two long tracks, where the ancient tradition of bagpipe drones meets modern abstraction. Fans of drone music are doomed to be asked – by a friend, partner, or curious stranger – why they enjoy single, hour-long, unvaried sounds. However, aficionados recognise the power of drone to reward sustained attention. Track 1 swaddles the listener in Watson’s resonant pipe playing, until the slightest fluctuation becomes a powerful gesture. The fundamental bass drone remains stable for twenty minutes, but overtones approach, multiply, and recede. Buck enters with rhythmic rattling, followed by distant thunder, then soft sleigh bells. He lends structure to Watson’s piping, which arrives at pandemonium around the halfway mark.
A tried and true method of grabbing attention is the drum roll. It demands stolid belief than something great, noteworthy, or alarming is about to take place. On track 2, Buck sustains his opening drum roll until our belief is shaken. Sometime later, he renews the roll, ushering in a final ten minutes of inquisitive free jazz piping. On both tracks, the moments of chaos are made powerful by a long, unwavering build-up.
For many of us, bagpipes recall only the kilted buskers we’ve passed by, on the streets of Edinburgh, London, or elsewhere. We may wonder where else this stately instrument ventures, beyond the familiar tourist spots. Watson’s music has gradually been shaping an answer. His piping is revelatory, and it benefits from Buck’s skill of gradually unfolding new horizons through patterns of sound. (Samuel Rogers)