Carme López, “Quintela”
By Matthew Blackwell · April 03, 2024 Merch for this release:

In the northwest of Spain, the bagpipe is an embattled instrument. Galicians fiercely defend the 800-year tradition of their bagpipe, the gaita gallega, from the pervasive cultural influence of the better known Scottish version. The gaita marcial, a Galician-Scottish hybrid, has caused unending controversy since its invention in the 1990s, while details like the dress of the players and the material of the instrument’s reeds are hotly debated. But the tradition also has to adapt to survive: in the 21st century, women gaiteras like Cristina Pato and Susana Seivane have reinvigorated the Galician bagpipe, rescuing it from a stultifyingly male-dominated past.

Carme López joins these efforts with a new perspective, boldly reinventing the gaita gallega on her debut album Quintela. Though she’s academically trained, she approaches the bagpipe like an alien artifact whose potential is unknown. A prologue and an epilogue demonstrate López’s skill at playing complex melodies in a more traditional style, but in between she deconstructs the instrument into its constituent parts. On “QUÉ? A Betty Chaos,” she builds a track from air passing through the bagpipe’s hide bag, with high, keening notes hovering over a whispering background. The percussion on “CACHELOS. A César de Farbán” is played with the bagpipe’s reeds clattering together, lending an improvisatory feel to the track’s gentle undulations.

The centerpiece of the album consists of two long drones that are inspired more by ambient music than Galician folk. López plays pure tones that slowly transform and evolve, deploying the bagpipe’s ability to wander across microtonal ranges to create dense layers of sound. She avoids the bagpipe’s brash, piercing upper registers in favor of a subdued, contemplative hum. At times these tracks sound like a church organ and at others a modular synth; play them for a friend and they will never guess their actual origins.

In this, López has much in common with bagpipe experimentalists like Yoshi Wada who have found new contexts for the centuries-old instrument. But she shares even more in the practices of drone pioneers Éliane Radigue and Pauline Oliveros, whose work foregrounds close, attentive listening over long durations. Tracing the subtle shifts across Radigue’s monumental drones requires intense focus; Oliveros’s Deep Listening philosophy encourages dedicating that same focus to everyday situations. Applying these ideas to the Galician bagpipe, which is steeped in rigid traditionalism, feels nothing short of revolutionary. On Quintela, López not only subverts our expectations of what a bagpipe sounds like, she opens entirely new avenues of possibility for the instrument.

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