Scottish piping finds a place at Oella landmark Bagpipes: A museum dedicated to the instrument will open Sunday at the old mill beside the Patapsco River.

September 02, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

James R. Coldren isn't taking his retirement quietly. With his long, waxed white mustache bristling, kilt swinging and bagpipes skirling, he's charging ahead.

The 73-year-old mechanical engineer has created what he says is the country's first bagpipe museum, at the old Oella Mill across the Patapsco River from Ellicott City. He plans to unveil it at 1 p.m. Sunday in the first of a series of open houses.

Visitors will be able to hear recorded pipe music from around the world, inspect his collection of bagpipes and see occasional live performances by area pipers.

"It will be a hands-on museum, at the discretion of the director, which is me," said Coldren, who moved from New Jersey to the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville three months ago. "If there's enough interest, I'd be willing to bring in a teacher to give lessons."

Coldren said he hopes to create a center of piping interest in the Baltimore-Washington area, which has several active bagpipe bands and a number of top solo competition players.

Although most people associate bagpipes with Scotland, they are among the oldest instruments known and are played in many countries in various forms.

The last twenty years has seen a worldwide explosion in the popularity of Scottish piping.

"A lot more people are playing bagpipes than ever before," Coldren said. "I think that in general it is people going back to their roots in folk music. Most piping around the world is done for dancing. Only for the Highland pipes is most of the music written for marches. The British Army took them around the world."

Coldren's collection includes 56 sets of pipes, dating from the 1850s to the late 1980s, and thousands of indexed bagpipe tunes. Most of the music is from books published over the past century, but many of the other tunes were available only in manuscript in libraries and private hands.

"This will be a Museum of Bagpipe Music. I estimate there are about 10,000 tunes for the great Highland pipes, and that doesn't count about 400 pibrochs [classical bagpipe music] which aren't indexed in there," he said.

Coldren began playing drums and then the pipes with the Thistle Gildry Pipe Band in New York City in the mid-1960s. He soon ran into a problem familiar to pipers: hearing a tune he wanted to learn but having no idea where to find the music for it.

So he began indexing tunes from his own band, from others and from published music collections. He copied music with a portable machine at Highland games and other piping events.

In 1966, Coldren published an alphabetical index of bagpipe tunes; since his pioneer effort, several others have published tune indexes.

Coldren has files with some 37,000 index cards listing tunes, including different settings, and their source. He has the music for each one and will search out tunes for pipers on request.

He also has more than 500 long-play records, 560 audio tapes, 225 compact discs and a shelf of videotapes featuring pipe music. Recordings include bands in Denmark, Spain, Germany, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Coldren began to collect bagpipes about 10 years ago. Half are the familiar style known as the Great Highland Pipes, with three tall drones playing a steady chord for the melody played on the nine-note chanter. But he also has a set of Sicilian bagpipes and a playable replica set of a Renaissance bagpipe illustrated in a painting by Peter Bruegel.

One set of pipes is a poignant reminder of the many British Army pipers who died playing their comrades "over the top" in World War I. A silver plaque says the Royal Scots Regiment presented them to a man to replace those of his son who was lost in 1915 at the Battle of Ypres.

There also are miniature and half-size pipes made for playing indoors; bellows-blown Irish uilleann (elbow) pipes and Irish Brian Boru pipes with keys like a saxophone to increase the range of notes.

"Most of the music I have is also in the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh has a bagpipe collection, but it's not open to view," Coldren said.

Coldren's first wife, Patricia, died in 1969, forcing him to drop out of the band to concentrate on his work and raising their five children. In 1984, he remarried and retired as a leading designer of plastic containers for the Johnson & Johnson company.

This year, he and his wife, Virginia, moved from New Jersey to Charlestown. Mrs. Coldren's daughter, Lisa Jensen Wingate, found a place at the old mill suitable for Coldren's collection.

"It's just great here," he said, gesturing around the high-ceilinged, airy -- and already cluttered -- room.

The Bagpipe Music Museum is at the Oella Mill, 840 Oella Ave., Ellicott City 21043. Telephone: 410-313-9311.

Pub Date: 9/02/97

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