It is a truth universally acknowledged that, out of all musical instruments, bagpipes make the most infernal noise. That, and an out-of-tune violin. The problem with bagpipes, though, is they maintain their infernality no matter how adept you are at playing them. One of my favorite recent cartoons is a drawing by Sam Gross, that pictures the devil sitting atop his throne, looking over the suffering masses under his command. In front of him is a bagpipe player. “You’ll be in charge of the music down here,” reads the caption.

I’m hardly alone in my sentiment. Alfred Hitchcock was said to have remarked, “I understand that the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equalled the purity of sound achieved by the pig.” In the 1800s, American writer Oliver Herford, who frequently coined amusing turns of phrase, wrote, “The Irish gave the bagpipes to the Scotts as a joke, but the Scotts haven’t seen the joke yet.” And in my all-time favorite ode to the instrument, the English humorist Jerome K. Jerome described the travails of a certain friend who was trying to learn how to play. I can’t help but quote here the entire passage from Three Men In a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)—but feel free to skip, if you’ve had your fill of bagpipe humor.

I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes, and you would be surprised at the amount of opposition he had to contend with. Why, not even from the members of his own family did he receive what you could call active encouragement. His father was dead against the business from the beginning, and spoke quite unfeelingly on the subject.

My friend used to get up early in the morning to practise, but he had to give that plan up, because of his sister. She was somewhat religiously inclined, and she said it seemed such an awful thing to begin the day like that.

So he sat up at night instead, and played after the family had gone to bed, but that did not do, as it got the house such a bad name. People, going home late, would stop outside to listen, and then put it about all over the town, the next morning, that a fearful murder had been committed at Mr. Jefferson's the night before; and would describe how they had heard the victim's shrieks and the brutal oaths and curses of the murderer, followed by the prayer for mercy, and the last dying gurgle of the corpse.

So they let him practise in the day-time, in the back-kitchen with all the doors shut; but his more successful passages could generally be heard in the sitting-room, in spite of these precautions, and would affect his mother almost to tears.

She said it put her in mind of her poor father (he had been swallowed by a shark, poor man, while bathing off the coast of New Guinea - where the connection came in, she could not explain).

Then they knocked up a little place for him at the bottom of the garden, about quarter of a mile from the house, and made him take the machine down there when he wanted to work it; and sometimes a visitor would come to the house who knew nothing of the matter, and they would forget to tell him all about it, and caution him, and he would go out for a stroll round the garden and suddenly get within earshot of those bagpipes, without being prepared for it, or knowing what it was. If he were a man of strong mind, it only gave him fits; but a person of mere average intellect it usually sent mad.


That is all an admittedly lengthy preface to a certain encounter I observed yesterday early evening in Washington Square Park. As I crossed from West to East, I heard that telltale wail coming from a young woman who hardly seemed large enough to be making such a racket. I sped up, so as to pass the danger zone with the utmost alacrity. But just as I neared her, she stopped playing. A forty-something man had approached her and was holding out a stack of bills, saying something earnestly. Her face went from perplexed, to livid, to that point past livid where you may well use the bagpipes as a weapon. As I soon gathered from the conversation, he was offering her $40 to shut up and leave. I prepared for combat. But to my surprise, she took the money, packed up her instrument, and trudged out of the park. $40 was far more than she’d made in however long she had been playing (I sneaked a peak in her case before moving along; it didn’t look like much more than a few scattered singles), and apparently, she decided the trade-off was worth it.

I have to admit, I’d fantasized about doing something similar many times. I’d role-play the scenario in my mind, and, satisfied, walk on. Now that I’d seen it actually play out, though, my reaction was decidedly mixed. At first, I was elated at the relative silence—and thought it quite amusing that someone would actually have the nerve to do this. But then, I felt really bad for the girl—and guilty at my initial amusement. On the one hand, she had just made more money from not playing than from playing. But on the other hand, what an awful thing to have happen to you. Quite the ego blow. On the third hand (my hands are multiplying for this), she chose to play the bagpipes to begin with. What was she expecting? On the fourth hand, what a callous assertion of dominance on the part of the not-so-gentle man: a bribe? A statement that he can get her to do his bidding by giving her enough money?

Possible mitigating circumstances: a good friend of mine, who lives right by Washington Square and walks there multiple times a week, affirms that said female is a frequent presence in the park. Maybe the man had been storing up his anger for months before it finally became too much? And this was just the final outburst? Also, there is that sign that prohibits all unnecessary noise around the Washington Square area (and what else is a bagpipe?)…

Another possible mitigation: maybe my reaction was so (eventually) negative because he was an older man and she, a younger woman. Would it have been more acceptable coming from a fellow NYU student (I actually don’t know if she goes to NYU; just theorizing based on location)? A younger female? Someone else?

Plus, she didn’t need to accept the money. Just as he was perfectly free to offer, she was perfectly free to tell him to go to hell, where, presumably, he would be met with an eternal bagpipe soundtrack—a worthy punishment.

Still, it does leave me with a very bad taste in my mouth—and an unresolved dilemma. Is such behavior ever justified? Is the man to blame? Am I reading too much into all of this?


Image credit: Bagpipe, Andrea Contratto, Flickr, Creative Commons license. Unnecessary noise sign, Jens Schott Knudsen, Flickr, Creative Commons license.