David Brewer and Rebecca Lomnicky

Boulevard Music, January 12, 2014

The two worlds of Scottish fiddle & bagpipe

By Roland Sturm

David and RebeccaThe vast majority of Scottish bagpipers in the world today musically reside in pipe and drum marching bands; fiddlers, only in piper-less sessions. Rarely do their paths cross, but the duo of Rebecca Lomnicky and David Brewer merge these two different worlds. Currently residing in Ithaca, New York, they were on the last leg of their first West Coast US tour and I had a chance to see them at Boulevard Music on January 12. It was a terrific show and I hope they come back soon.

The show was scheduled at relatively short notice, so few people knew about it. Being on a Sunday night early in January probably did not help with turnout, so the audience was small, but enthusiastic. Listeners were treated to an outstanding concert that I think people eventually will remember as one of the best of 2014.

David Brewer is a multi-instrumentalist who has toured with the Scottish super-group Old Blind Dogs and with Molly's Revenge across the US, the UK, Canada, China, and Australia. While bagpipes are his calling, he also is a strong soloist on the Irish penny-whistle, and an excellent back-up musician on the bodhran frame-drum and DADGAD guitar. In their duo setting, David switches between all of these instruments, giving their music a range of textures. He also plays 2 types of bagpipes, saving the Highland pipes (which are decidedly not an indoor instrument) for the grand finale. Most of the bagpipe tunes in the concert were played on Scottish smallpipes with a border pipe chanter. Smallpipes have a different sound from Highland Pipes and have a volume more comparable to stringed instruments.

Rebecca Lomnicky played fiddle throughout, mostly playing melody, although taken occasionally a backup role when David played whistle. She is an Oregonion, who won the Glenfiddich International Scottish Fiddle Championship at Blair Castle in Scotland, a prestigious championship covered by the BBC. As well as being the only non-Scot, she was also the youngest person to have ever won the championship.

Their material was all instrumental and mixed 18th century Scottish tunes in new arrangements with more recent compositions. There was a great flow of the concert alternating between high energy reel sets and more elegant or even “stately” tunes. Rebecca excels at the latter which are played slower and more refined than old-time or Irish fiddling. Many people associate Scottish folk music exclusively with the Highland Bagpipe, but there has been a long tradition of fiddle music going back to the 1700s. The fiddle tradition was neither pure “folk” nor “classical” music and many of the best known fiddlers were well educated professional musicians, often enjoying the patronage of aristocrats. I believe one of the tunes she played in that genre played was Lady Elizabeth Cole which was composed by Robert Mackintosh and dates back to around 1790; another was a new a composition by Rebecca dedicated to her Grandma.

David also had contributed a number of new compositions, although he mainly playe backup guitar or bodhran on those. One particular surprising set of David’s compositions was a very Eastern European or maybe Middle Eastern sounding set of reels, very memorable. Another set was composed while they lived in Scotland and it had a vibe very similar to Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas.

Towards the end, David brought out the big guns and it is quite an experience in a closed room! But volume aside, there actually is something interesting about bagpipes, which is the interplay of overtones and resonances. There is no harmonic movement; bagpipe music is very static with constant drones. Unless you have heard Highland bagpipes played well before, the experience is hard to describe. It was a powerful end to a great concert!

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.