“Bountiful and heartfelt creativity…”
“The ensemble’s border-busting music is original and catchy. . . Blarvuster is worth sticking around for.”
– The New York Times
“Ultra-refined, globally sourced chamber music, exquisitely ethereal, made up of delicate, transparent textures that hum with expressive tension. If Mr. Welch were a chef, he’d be the kind who pushes the boundaries of molecular gastronomy, transforming earthy ingredients into translucent beads of pure flavor.”
– The New York Times
“Blarvuster is a characteristic leap of the imagination… makes you truly believe that whole Celto-Indo funk fusion tradition has been around for years.”
– Wire Magazine
“Blarvuster leaps vast geographical distances, imagining statistically implausible musical melting pots that sound utterly natural”
– Time Out New York
“Unsure whether I was enthralled or traumatised, I’ve sought out Blarvuster’s music since, and it’s kept me coming back for more. Matthew Welch’s singular experiments remind me of when I first heard Martyn Bennett try out something new and daring. Blarvuster is just as exciting, just as daring.”
– Folk Radio UK
“Welch found a path to something I never thought I’d hear: the bagpipe as a lyric instrument, capable of poetic expression as well as martial aggressiveness. Welch showed how its challenges — when faced with imagination, physical strength and mental concentration – can be transcended.”
– San Diego Union-Tribune
“Welch’s music is stirring, urgent and pulsating… with a strong sense of place, built on solid musical values.”
“Among Welch’s performing virtues I would include stamina—he played for over an hour and a half without a break—as well as technical and interpretive prowess that tamed an unyielding instrument to his will. If there were skeptics in the audience, I am willing to bet they were won over by his commanding performance.”
– San Diego Story
“… some serious bagpipe wizardry… as far as I can tell, Matt Welch must be the Eddie Van Halen of the bagpipes.”
– Pop Matters
by John Hohmann
May 10, 2018
Welch’s music is stirring, urgent and pulsating. He has imbued his jazzy score with a perfect degree of exoticism that grows from memory rather than harsh reality. This is a sophisticated composition with a strong sense of place, built on solid musical values.
Riveting instrumental work: The musicians were consistently magnificent. Ben Holmes on trumpet was especially notable. His stolid presence, which would have, inadvertently, been center stage had there been a conventional stage, grounded the evening. With flawless technique, he employed several mandrels to produce steady, penetrating and remarkably diverse sound. Joe Bergman, Chris Graham, Mark Utley and Joe Tucker on percussion and drums provided rhythmic support and crucial atmospheric detail. Ian Riggs was solid on bass guitar with foreboding but forward moving playing.
And Here We Are points to the value of organizations like Experiments In Opera. This appears to be a work that is finding its way, or perhaps forging its own path, in the genre. It wholly deserves the opportunity to evolve that EIO has provided. There is abundant merit to the composition… this is an experiment that could occupy a place of note in opera’s future.
FOLK RADIO UK 2016
First on stage were New York band Blarvuster. Fronted by accomplished piper Matthew Welch, Blarvuster is a chamber ensemble/rock band hybrid featuring Matthew’s multi-textural compositions and an ever evolving collective of experimental musicians. For tonight’s event, Matthew was joined by a core band of three – Will Northlich-Redmond (electric guitar) Ian Riggs (bass guitar) Brian Chase (drums). The syncopated opening of High Street soon gravitated towards a full-on freeform funk. It may sound and feel reckless, especially among the seasonal diddly overdose in a wintry Glasgow, but the timing is tight, and the craft undeniable as Welch & co. launch into one of his own compositions for pipes.
Having warmed up his band, and his audience, Blarvuster moves on to the main event – The Fingerlock, and this is where exploration of the Piobaireachd begins in earnest. After a totally traditional opening, where John & Calum enter from the rear of the room, playing the central theme, Blarvuster insinuate their way into the general sound then open their funk machine wide. And the fun really begins. The music moves in peaks and troughs throughout their 30 minute exploration. Minimalist Phillip Glass-like cadences accompanied by Will’s guitar traversing a spectrum that ranges from a throaty rumble to primal scream, in a performance that exhibits a startling range, especially given the scarcity of pedal effects. There are snatches of conversation between pipes and guitar, or saxophone and guitar when Welch switches instruments. There’s a loose form that’s embellished and expanded by the band and directed (controlled would be too strong a word) by Welch using a combination of countdowns, gestures and probably telepathy.
The Rock/Jazz fusion of the band is brought down to a minimum through the periods where Welch launches into a canntaireachd (the ancient form of vocalising pipe music), the free-form accompanies his equally uninhibited, intricate and tense variations – whether on pipes or on sax. Those labyrinthine meanderings themselves become increasingly complex towards the conclusion, with occasional stops, physical moulding of the sound as it escapes the chanter and a conclusion to mirror the opening, with John & Calum taking the Piobaireachd itself out of the room.
Gorgamor The Giant Gecko closes the set with its Balinese influences, tight, tight rhythms and just a touch more canntaireachd (I think) for good measure. There’s no denying how well disciplined this band is. Timing is everything and it really is spot-on – every time, thanks to that supreme efforts of that rhythm section.
Unsure whether I was enthralled or traumatised, I’ve sought out Balrvuster’s music since, and it’s kept me coming back for more. For Piobaireachd aficionados it could be either the rapture or purgatory, for less generically specific music fans, like me, it’s certainly something to think about. Despite the ever changing menu available to those who feast on the delights Celtic Connections offers, I’ve thought about it, listened to more, and find Matthew Welch’s singular experiments remind me of when I first heard Martyn Bennett try out something new and daring. Blarvuster isn’t an attempt to continue in the same vein, or to emulate Martyn’s work; but it’s just as exciting, just as daring.
Just because it’s bagpipes doesn’t mean it’s trad; just because it’s Piobaireachd doesn’t mean it’s classical. No hand signals required.
Bonnie Wright, Fresh Sound’s founder and artistic director, has spent two decades roaming out-of-the-way places where America’s musical mavericks perform, from Ojai to Knoxville, Tenn. Wright’s commitment to expanding San Diego’s musical horizons has found an ever-growing audience, and the word long ago went out among artists that “playing in Bonnie’s series” offered an opportunity to take risks in a receptive atmosphere, no matter that the fee would be small (although camping out in Wright’s canyon house in Mission Hills would be cool.)
Those risks paid off Saturday evening at Bread and Salt in Barrio Logan, where Wright continues to showcase artists who have appeared over the series’ 20-year history, in this concert a fellow who has quite definitely gone his own way in the new music world: off-handed raconteur, opera composer and virtuoso bagpiper Matthew Welch.
The Scots have made historic contributions in science, design, literature, and the arts. And while it may be true that the Irish were the original creators of the bagpipe (it also may not), the bagpipe must surely stand as the emblem of Scottish musical sensibility.
But what is that sensibility? What fascinates some and repels others about this strange contraption, a cloth bag with pipes angled out of it, breathed into life with considerable physical effort?
In his 90-minute-plus solo performance on Saturday night, Welch laid out his instrument’s contradictory capabilities, displayed its traditions and showed how its challenges — when faced with imagination, physical strength and mental concentration – can be transcended.
The big challenge is the instrument’s nearly unvarying sound color, an in-your-face combination of bass drone and the keening penetration of the melody played on the small recorder-like pipe underneath the bag. The player has a few tools to vary the music, mainly different meters and their divisions into beats, tempo and the grace notes that break up the melody line. Before all of that, however, the pipe must be tuned, an essential process that lines up, one might say, the overtones, so that the listener’s ears will not be “beaten” to death.
Welch’s attention to tuning kept the sound pure in timbre and clean in line, and gave all the traditional music – jigs, reels, marches, even a lullaby – a clean-lined crispness.
As he moved into non-traditional works, his own compositions as well as music by minimalist Philip Glass and jazz legend Anthony Braxton, Welch found a path to something I never thought I’d hear: the bagpipe as a lyric instrument, capable of poetic expression as well as martial aggressiveness. From his experience in Balinese music, he summoned a gamelan-like shimmer out of the instrument that folded two cultures inside each other, and sometimes an evocation of Scottish music’s close cousin, Norwegian folk music, as dance rhythms common to both burbled up in the traditional works.
The bagpipe once called Scotsmen to war, and the peremptory character of a summons often echoed around Bread and Salt’s brick walls Saturday night, so much so that I could have sworn that Maurice Ravel’s ghost must have been aroused, for at one point a phrase and chord progression from the French composer’s “Bolero” seemed to pass by a few times.
But why should that have been surprising? Welch had already shown us that – when your mind is receptive and your ears are open – a black bag and some wooden pipes can indeed rouse the dead and make you want to dance.
Overton is a freelance writer.
SAN DIEGO STORY
As Welch worked his way through early straightforward marches, reels, jigs, and even sophisticated competition pieces such as “Highland Wedding,” his thesis became clear: because the bagpipe’s foundational drone limits modulations and thematic development outside the tonal bounds of the drone, the basic building block of bagpipe music is the single phrase repeated over and over with nuanced rhythmic variations. Or the Gospel of Minimalism according to Philip Glass and Terry Riley.
Inasmuch as the native habitat of the Great Highland bagpipe is the verdant Scottish moors, bringing such a sonically penetrating instrument indoors risked too much of a good thing in a contained space, but the large hall of Bread and Salt proved sufficient to accommodate Welch’s vibrant, unrelenting sonority.
Among the Welch’s more engaging contemporary offerings, Anthony Braxton’s “No. 217” stood out for pushing the envelope by introducing more sinuous chromatic melodies and edgy bent tones. Although Glass’s basic five-tone theme in “Two Pages” (1968) did not color outside the lines, Welch unleashed the dramatic power of its unrelenting drive. Welch’s own boldly assertive “High Street” suggested urbane sophistication in its spirited variations. However, Canadian composer Michael Neale’s “Where Do Elks Accumulate?” proved less inventive than its clever title.
Among Welch’s performing virtues I would include stamina—he played for over an hour and a half without a break—as well as technical and interpretive prowess that tamed an unyielding instrument to his will. If there were skeptics in the audience, I am willing to bet they were won over by his commanding performance.
This solo recital by Matt Welch was presented by Fresh Sound on Saturday, September 16, 2017, at Bread & Salt, 1955 Julian Ave., San Diego. The next Fresh Sound program is slated for October 27, 2017, and will feature the Michael Dessen Trio in the same venue.
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
San Diego’s visionary Fresh Sound concert series of cutting-edge music will kick off the second half of its 20th anniversary season with a Saturday concert by solo bagpipe virtuoso Matt Welch.
His 7:30 p.m. performance at Bread & Salt in Barrio Logan will be followed by an Oct. 27 concert by trombonist and electronic music maverick Michael Dessen and his trio. The group teams Dessen, a UCSD graduate who now teaches at UC Irvine, with flutist and fellow UC Irvine music professor Nicole Mitchell and fast-rising San Diego pianist Joshua White, whose new album is due out soon.
The Fresh Sound fall concert series will conclude with a Nov. 20 solo piano recital by Canada’s Vicky Chow, who is a key member of the New York-based Bang On a Can All-Stars. Chow also performs in the piano duo X88 and in the New Music Detroit ensemble. She has worked with the International Contemporary Ensemble, which was founded by flutist and San Diego native Claire Chase.
Welch, 40, has a doctorate in music from Yale University and counts Anthony Braxton and John Zorn among his most illustrious collaborators. He is one of a handful of bagpipers who uses the storied Scottish wind instrument to play envelope-shredding music that is often fueled by improvisation.
Rather than restrict himself to reels, jigs, laments, strathspeys and other traditional bagpipe styles, Welch draws from classical, rock, avant-garde, Indonesian Gamelan music, minimalism, microtonality and more. His dazzling skills and extended techniques on a challenging, often cumbersome, instrument have led to him being hailed as “the Eddie Van Halen of the bagpipes.”
A co-founder of the nonprofit Experiments in Opera, Welch is the only bagpiper who cited by Huffington Post as one of the “14 artists changing the future of opera.” As notable a composer as he is a performer, his works include the string quartet piece “Siubhal Turnlar,” the opera “Borges and the Other” and an opus for orchestra and Highland bagpipe, “Sudamala.”
The music of Matthew Welch, who began a weeklong residency at the Stone on Tuesday, draws on a world of influences. His opening set, performed by the ensemble Cantata Profana, packed in references to Highland bagpipes, Balinese funerary rites, Minimalism, Borges, Beckett and Buddha. Yet much of the resulting chamber music is exquisitely ethereal, made up of delicate, transparent textures that hum with expressive tension. If Mr. Welch were a chef, he’d be the kind who pushes the boundaries of molecular gastronomy, transforming earthy ingredients into translucent beads of pure flavor.
Take “Ulrikke,” inspired by a Borges short story, for instance. It is a work for cello (here played by John Popham) and percussion (Doug Perry) in which, as Mr. Welch described it in opening remarks, “Bagpipe lamentation and Balinese cremation music elope.” Bagpipes are famously loud and piercing; gamelans are known to take up lots of space. Here, each was represented impressionistically, the gamelan’s shimmering sound evoked by a vibraphone, its complex but purposeful rhythms by a marimba. There appeared to be echoes of bagpipe music hidden amid the flickering harmonics played by Mr. Popham at the opening of the work; later phrases blended a whiff of Scottish folk music with a stately Baroque gait.
Despite its Scottish name, “A Bhoilich,” too, revealed only the faintest reminiscence of Highland music, this time sublimated into quiet notes played on a clarinet (Gleb Kanasevich), vibraphone and piano (Dan Schlosberg) in overlapping ripples of sound. In “… with regard to harmony …” the violinist Jacob Ashworth produced an unhurried sequence of tremulously sustained notes that prompted equally quiet, fragile responses — often single notes — from the guitarist Arash Noori and Mr. Schlosberg at the piano.
Music so sparse can be difficult to pull off in a performance space like the Stone, on a corner of the Lower East Side where traffic noise, laughter and sidewalk conversations filter in from outside. It’s a testament to the skill and concentration of the musicians that the audience was spellbound.
Mr. Welch’s interests in Minimalism and rock music came through in two works, “The Secret Labyrinth of Ts’ui Pen,” in which a mixed instrumental ensemble repeats wavelike motifs that gradually grow more exuberant, and “Dhammapada Cantata,” given its premiere on Tuesday.
Based on Buddhist texts and featuring a driving score and declamatory vocals by two amplified singers, the baritone John Taylor Ward and the mezzo Kate Maroney, “Dhammapada Cantata” is strongly reminiscent of some of Philip Glass’s music. The performers gave it a vibrant and colorful reading.
After the subtlety of the instrumental chamber works, this was a radical shift in energy. Coming performances of Mr. Welch’s music this week will show more of this side of his output, as well as a full gamelan and Mr. Welch himself on the bagpipes. But I found myself wishing for more of his ultra-refined, globally sourced chamber music.
SIGNAL TO NOISE MAGAZINE
Bagpiper Matthew Welch released his striking debut Ceol Nua just past the age of 25, and followed it up three years later with Dream Tigers, one of 2005’s best. The multi-talented New Yorker’s work is marked by the exploration of intersections between incongruous ethnic musical traditions. As always, his cross-cultural collisions on Blarvuster sound both excitingly novel and uncannily natural. On the first six tracks, Welch’s bagpipes lead his sextet through verdant Celtic terrain, buttressed by a rock rhythm section and peppered with Indonesian flourishes. It’s Welch at his most straightforwardly melodic, the joyous arrangements fluidly serpentine, their beauty intricately woven like a Celtic knot. Welch’s debut as a vocalist, though, may provide the bumps in the road for some listeners. He sings wordless canntaireachd (a system developed to aid bagpipers in the communication of music without pipes at the ready), whose high pitch and nasal quality doesn’t mesh as well with the music as his bagpipes, though they add a nice bit of gristle to the smoother tracks. Blarvuster ends with Canntaireachd Masolah, a 30-minute Eastern-influenced opera in four movements. Welch’s canntaireachd meshes more organically this time around, and the music has a moody and mysterious air that communicates emotion with nary an understandable word. Welch’s music is equally appealing intellectually and aesthetically, and Blarvusteris another strong entry in an already impressive oeuvre.
– Adam Strohm, Signal to Noise
“Of all those bagpipe playing singer/composer/improvisors we know, Brooklyn based Matthew Welch is by far the greatest, and Blarvuster is a characteristic leap of the imagination. The opening ‘suite’, played by a sextet including guitarist Mary Halvorson, folds Celtic dance steps into Indonesian modes with a funk backbeat, and Welch’s hollering vocals makes you truly believe that whole Celto-Indo funk fusion tradition has been around for years.”
– Philip Clark, The Wire
“Matthew Welch is an exciting young composer, saxophonist and virtuoso piper who has discovered the hidden nexus of the Celtic and Balinese musical traditions. Matt’s second CD for Tzadik presents two exciting new projects: a beautifully orchestrated opera expanding on the language of minimalism with honesty and originality, and his dynamic touring band Blarvuster, which blends the complex skirls and rhythmic subtleties of the Highland pipes with a vibrant rock sensibility. Featuring the best out of yet another new generation of downtown musicians, this is lush and exotic new music from a fresh new compositional explorer.”
High resolution photos and Blarvuster Album cover for download: