Bagpipes, AI and the future of humanity

Don’t be alarmed if you see an Englishman, sporting a mullet, attempting to play the bagpipes atop a hill — or in the middle of a field — in Queenstown this week.

British musician and comedian Bill Bailey’s popping his resort performance cherry tonight, bringing his new show, ‘Thoughtifier’, to the Queenstown Events Centre.

While it’ll be his first show in the Whakatipu, Bailey, 58, is not unfamiliar with our piece of paradise.

He tells Mountain Scene he and his wife, Kristin, first visited here a few years ago during a Kiwi road-trip.

‘‘I remember thinking, just was we were driving, beautiful mountain after beautiful valley, seeing these extraordinary vivid blue waters, these aquamarine lakes, we actually thought, ‘has something happened? Has there been, like, a national emergency? Has there been some sort of outbreak, because we haven’t seen anybody for hours? Perhaps we should just listen to the radio — has there been an announcement?’

‘‘That’s the thing that struck me, the beautiful isolation and tranquility of it.

‘‘We do have pockets of it in the UK — parts of Scotland, parts of the Lake District, but it’s something I seek out when I go to countries, I’m so looking forward to spending more time there.’’

Which brings us to the bagpipes.

The animal-loving (FYI, his spirit animal’s a pangolin — and if he were one, he’d lead the pangolin resistance against trafficking) classically-trained muso’s known for incorporating music into his comedy.

To prepare for his New Zealand tour, he started learning to play the bagpipes ‘‘a couple of weeks ago’’.

‘‘I had a very nice lady come and actually give me a tutorial, so I’ve got the basics of it.

‘‘In fact, the chanter bit of it, the pipe bit of it, is very similar to the recorder that we all learned in school, so that bit of it, I can sort of find my way around that, it’sjust the kind of strange combination of trying to blow into a bag and squeeze it, there’s a lot going on.

‘‘I’m still very much in the beginner phase — the trouble is trying for find somewhere to practise which doesn’t involve the neighbours ringing the police.’’

It’s been suggested a ‘‘large field somewhere’’ might be the best option, so he’s open to utilising the South’s ‘‘low-density population’’ and entertaining some sheep every now and then.

He also has plans to take the bagpipes on a hike and play for the wildlife here.

‘‘That’s a flipping Instagram hit, right there,’’ he laughs.

Bailey, an avid walker and hiker’s recently been named Just Giving’s ‘Celebrity Fundraiser of the Year’ after walking 100 miles — the equivalent to 161km — along the South West Coast Path, raising more than $230,000 for MacMillan Cancer Support to honour his mate, Sean Lock, who died of cancer, aged 58, in 2021.

It was that walk and Lock who also inspired ‘Thoughtifier’, Bailey says.

‘‘One of the things that Sean was a big fan of was philosophy.

‘‘When we went out walking, we’d talk for hours about everything — every single thing you could imagine.

‘‘He was fascinated by the Stoics, a bunch of Greek philosophers, and they had this great attitude to life, which is basically, ‘there’s nothing much we can do about things, what’s going to happen is going to happen, all we can control is how we think about it … what we feel about it’.

‘‘Also, stoics were very big on nature; they said, ‘we should live in harmony with nature’.

‘‘And I suddenly thought, ‘god, these guys should be around now’ — this is like perfect philosophy for right now, they were way ahead of their time.’’

‘Thoughtifier’, described as a ‘‘magical mystery tour of the human mind’’, along with other pressing matters about whales, biophilia and unrequited love, took more inspiration from modern technology, inspired by an interview with a podcaster who created all the questions via ChatGBT.

‘‘So these two strands of thought [came together] — ancient thought and modern tech — how are we going to try to bring these things together?’’

He’s particularly embraced tech for this show.

‘‘I’ve got an AI chatbot, which is basically me in various different guises, which is quite disturbing, and I’ve got some new bits of musical kit that I’m using.

‘‘I’ve got a laser harp, which is a harp, which, as the name suggests, is made out of lasers, I’ve got the bagpipes.

‘‘For the first time in NZ on my tour I’ll be working with local opera singers … I’ve written a madrigal and I’ve also written a song about our current situation, like, what the hell is normal?

‘‘I’ve also translated a little bit of Carmen, I’ve done a modern-day translation of it for a NZ audience,’’ he chuckles.

While he notes ‘Thoughtifier’ is another ‘‘journey around my mind, I’m afraid’’, it also gets to the nexus of what Bailey thinks the future of the human race is.

‘‘We are so disparate as people, as individuals — this is the age of the individual, hyper-individuality, everyone’s got an opinion, every one’s locked into their own thought, and what we need is a bit more collaboration, and that’s what this show’s about.

‘‘A lot of it’s about me and the audience working together to create something extraordinary.

‘‘That’s how I feel that’s what we need to do.

‘‘Tech, although it’s a bit of a worry — AI, we’re very worried about it and it potentially has implications in the arts — if we work with it … retain the brilliance and random eccentricities and uniqueness of humanness, then we’ll get the best out of it.

‘‘So all these thoughts are swirling around the brain while I’m trying to learn the bagpipes, and then this is the show, this is what it’s resulted in.’’

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