Pipes Dream

B agpiper Durant McCurley considers himself a “street player” in a part of the country where holiday parades are heralded with pipes. But his itinerancy takes him to less expected places. Asked to close the festivities for the International Food & Beer Festival in Clinton, he mustered a contingent of his bandmates from New Haven’s own Gaelic Highland Pipe Band. Five pipers and three drummers clad in kilts, plaids and glengarry bonnets filed onto the festival’s pop-up stage, conferred among themselves for a moment, then burst into “Scotland the Brave.” People who had been milling at tables or waiting at the food trucks looked on in wonderment. Simultaneously magisterial and plaintive, the pipes had instilled in their audience a sense of occasion.

A few days earlier, as part of an Independence Day celebration on Block Island, McCurley piped and marched with Taggart Pipes & Drums. Taggart is a subset of the Highland Pipe Band, launched in the 1990s to perform musters and marches during the warmer months that older pipers sit out. “We had to walk about a mile,” says McCurley, who, after 30-plus years of playing, is beginning to realize he’s becoming one of those older pipers. “When we were young, we could blow these things up, yeah, yeah, yeah! Everybody thinks it’s the lungs, but it’s your stomach muscles. And your lip. You got to keep your lip pressurized.” Meanwhile, as with many instruments conscripted into ceremonial service, pipers on the move must support and stabilize an apparatus that wasn’t originally designed for portability.

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The next day, McCurley would be playing a wedding, by himself, and weddings are what occupy many of the non-holiday weekends on his schedule. “They usually have a receiving line, so I play while they’re doing the receiving line. I’ll play outside. They go in. They come out. Sometimes they’ll come over and thank me and stuff like that. And sometimes they’re so happy, they make me take pictures with them.” At weddings, in his own finery, the piper is the visual extension of the sound he is able to summon from his improbable, appendaged instrument. McCurley has a repertoire of 100 or so Scottish, Irish and military tunes ranging from old to ancient, and he will play them faster or slower to match the occasion, but the piper and his pipes are often what the occasion is remembered for, regardless of what they played. “I’ve gotten people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you played our wedding 12 years ago!’”

McCurley, who lives in East Haven, has ancestors in several of the great Scottish clans. “I’m a Heinz 57,” he says with a laugh. Among other things, this means that when a group of pipers decide among themselves what colors they’ll wear, he may conveniently already have the ancestry to match. “In my family tree, I’ve got King James. He was a Stewart. And his colors are red, white, green, black. Those were the Stewart colors… I can wear a MacDonald because I have family in the MacDonald clan. A couple other clans. Sometimes they intermarry.”

But his devotion to the bagpipes has more to do with his own past than his ancestors’. He conjures for me the moment he fell for the pipes. “I worked for SNET”—Connecticut’s ancestral telephone company—“in ’85, I think it was,” McCurley says. “And one of the guys in the group at work was leaving, so… we had a little party night… And we wound up at the Irish club in East Haven… It’s like nine o’clock and the moon’s out and I’m tingling because I hear the sounds… They’re all outside and they’re playing.” “They” were the Gaelic Highland Pipe Band, then in their 17th year. “I just fell in love right there with the pipes. And I went over to the lead guy and I asked him how would I learn, and he goes, ‘Well, you join the band. We’ll teach you how to play.’”

It takes, by McCurley’s reckoning, seven years to harness the unholy racket a bagpipe can make in the wrong hands into a tune that will bring tears to a glass eye. And he had to learn the pipe and the bag separately, as if they were two different instruments. “When you first start off, you use a chanter,” he explains. “It’s like a recorder. It’s got the same notes as your chanter on the pipes.” He learned to play highland tunes with his fingers, the pipe in his mouth. “Then it took me about eight months before I started blowing the bag up.” The bag in a bagpipe is a reserve of air, whose steady release produces the lusty harmonic wail as it vibrates the reeds in the drones—the long pipes on top. “So sometimes [my teacher] would give me two drones to play, and I would practice in my backyard. Because… you got to learn how to keep them steady. Instead of going ehn ehn ehn.” He imitates a wan flutter, each note slightly off. “Over time I had all three drones going.”

The last step, which the bagpiper never stops refining, is the constant integration of all these elements into a tune. The actual chanter is located at the bottom of the bag, so the blowing and the fingering occur in separate hemispheres. And simultaneously, the piper is steadily filling the bag as it empties, and pressing the bag with the crook of his arm to maintain pressure and tone whenever he takes a breath. And sometimes he’s also walking. It’s little wonder the old-timers stick to cooler weather.

McCurley has played at gatherings of hundreds of pipers. The Gaelic Highland Pipe Band has fielded as many as 10. Taggart Pipes & Drums marches with a few less, but that offers little relief from the discipline of careful tuning so they sound harmonious. “And there’s basic finger movements—a D throw, a birl. Those are all supposed to be the same in all pipers, because we’re supposed to be able to play together.”

McCurley also plays with Scotch On The Rocks, a subset of Taggart Pipes & Drums, with two other pipers and two drummers. And the smaller the band, the wider the variety of events they might be asked to play. “We opened for Rod Stewart one time,” McCurley says, referring to the Scottish singer of “Hot Legs” who may also wear the Stewart colors.

McCurley’s solitary gigs come as a natural consequence of his own visibility with the instrument. He remembers practicing on the Guilford Town Green during his lunch break. “And this guy comes up, he goes, ‘Oh, do you play funerals?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He goes, ‘Look, our cat passed away and I’d like you to come down and play at his funeral.’ The guy had the cat for like 14 years, which is why. So I said, ‘Sure.’ … So I went down and I played the best I can, because I know it means something to him and helps him maybe a little bit.” Perhaps because of how much the sound of bagpipes reflect and ennoble the feelings of the grieving, funerals are the events he plays with the least hesitation. “When I first started, I’d go in and sit and they’d have the eulogies about their whole life… It really tears you up. So when I do a funeral now, I really don’t want to know who they are. But I know, playing, what it means to the family, so I do my very, very best.”

He gets other such bookings through word of mouth and through online platforms like The Bash and GigSalad. Sometimes, like the cat’s funeral, they just materialize. One night after finishing a gig at Yale, he was walking past the restaurants in the theater district, still wearing his kilt and toting his instrument. “And one of the waiters pulled me in and said, ‘Hey, come here. Play for this guy.’” MCurley was ushered into a dining room, “and there was Robert Wagner having dinner.” The star of Hart To Hart and It Takes A Thief was in town performing at the Shubert, and it was apparently the waiter’s idea that the famous actor’s patronage of his restaurant should be celebrated with a bagpipe serenade. “And Robert Wagner said, ‘Hey, can you play “Danny Boy” for me.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I got his autograph somewhere.”

As for all the other diners in the restaurant that night, I would wager their memories are marked less by the sight of a handsome television actor dining among them and more by the sound of McCurley’s pipes.

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 1 features Durant McCurley during a performance at the International Food & Beer Festival with the Gaelic Highland Pipe Band. Image 2 features the whole contingent.

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David Zukowski got his start writing for the Arts & Culture section of The Telegraph in southern New Hampshire while attending graduate courses in Albany, New York. He doesn't do that kind of driving anymore, but returns to New Hampshire often to climb mountains.

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