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Entertainment: Piper plays Celtic music around Minnesota

Dick Hensold plays his Northumbrian smallpipes Tuesday while rehearsing with Andrea Beaton at his home in St. Pauly. Hensold is an internationally renowned Northumbrian pipe soloist, composer and teacher. Jeffrey Thompson | MPR Photo

ST. PAUL — As a bagpipe player, Dick Hensold can deliver the piercing wail of the Scottish Highland Pipes, a sound many are familiar with. But his specialty is the Northumbrian smallpipes, which create a rounder, softer tone with more notes.

The instrument is the perfect vehicle for the 54-year-old Hensold who is devoted to traditional Celtic music. Hensold’s passion is for the style of Celtic music played in Cape Breton, an island off the tip of Nova Scotia where musicians draw on a fusion of cultures.

This weekend, he and Cape Breton fiddler Andrea Beaton gave Minnesota audiences a taste of the island’s music in concerts around the state. The musicians performed Friday in Moorhead and Saturday in Bemidji, and are to perform today in St. Paul.

"It has kind of the lilt of Irish music and the driving beat of Scottish music," said Hensold, of St. Paul.

One of a very few professional Northumbrian smallpipes players in the world, Hensold composes, performs and teaches in North America and overseas.

His devotion to traditional Celtic music includes performing and studying with players in Ireland, Scotland, England and in Cape Breton.

Most of Cape Breton’s roughly 100,000 residents are newcomers compared to the native Mi’kmaqs who’ve lived there for centuries. Thousands of people of Scottish descent arrived beginning in 1790 with Irish and French settlers joining later. The mix of cultures is clear in Gaelic and English road signs, and the Acadian French still spoken in some communities.

Northumbrian smallpipes looks like a small clarinet or other woodwind instrument. The instrument is handmade from African Blackwood with finger holes and metal keys

When he plays, Hensold’s right elbow squeezes a bellows strapped to his waist that pushes air across the reeds in the four pipes – the three drone pipes and the chanter.

Because of the bellows, Hensold doesn’t have to blow to power the bag pipe, but he has a lot to think about.

"Just for the eight fingers the fingering system is challenging," he said. "On top of that you have your left little finger and your right thumb is running even more notes than the eight original notes."

Hensold said he has long been captivated with the sound of a drone as a base, layered with melodies and harmonies.

"These long notes were great, and I wanted them to go on longer," said Hensold, who has a bachelor’s degree in music from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. "Basically, I’m a drone person."

Hensold, who was born and raised in suburban Chicago, became infatuated with baroque music as a teen.

"You probably can’t believe this about me, but I wasn’t very popular in high school," he said with a laugh.

He imagines that his classmates considered him an ‘early music geek [and wondered], what’s wrong with him?’ "

His geek status was enhanced when he embraced the bagpipes. Today Hensold plays seven types of bagpipes for his solo show and owns others along with an array of whistles and recorders.

In concerts this weekend, he and Beaton, along with guitarist Dirk Freymuth will play a mix of their own compositions.

Beaton, 33, has a musical pedigree that is deep and wide. She’s part of the extended family that includes Buddy MacMaster and Natalie MacMaster who are pillars of Cape Breton’s traditional Celtic music scene.

Although rehearsal time has been short, Hensold said that’s not unusual for Cape Breton musicians. If the players don’t know the tune, he said, they know the basic form of the music and improvise.

For many of the songs, there is no sheet music. But Hensold said that’s not a problem for skilled players who know the form, can improvise or play by ear.

Still, the largely unwritten tradition could affect the music’s chances of survival.

"The rhythms of the style are so subtle you can’t notate them," Hensold said. "So for the most part they’ll write tunes down and they’ll learn tunes, but you can’t learn it from a book."

Article by Dan Olson of Minnesota Public Radio