Sunday, June 29, 2008

Musician first... competitor second


Why is it that highland bagpipers are so competitive? Does it have something to do with our heritage? We have some inherent need to prove we are the best. I can't think of any other type of music where competition is so important that it literally is the driving force for musical innovation. Irish pipers have, to a great extent, avoided this path and often speak of highland piping as "the darkside", snickering at the regiment that we put ourselves through to become slaves to the "unmusical" gracenotes and such.

I tend to laugh at these type of comments... but at the same time I see their point. As highland pipers we must always remember that we are musicians first, competitors second. The problem today is that so many pipers are taught to compete before they even come close to understanding the music. The strictness of competitive style piping can result in some of the most amazing music. (example)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErtFfLCNtz8

If we lose sight of the music we become fodder for bagpipe jokes and perpetuate the myth that bagpipes have to sound like this.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJm_bSTJI4U&feature=related

Take the time to learn about the music you are playing. Learn the history and evolution of the different styles of our music. Learn about the great players of the past and how they contributed to the music we have today. Learn about music theory. Learn how to get the best sound out of your instrument. When you play in public be polished and professional and you will be regarded as a musician and not a novelty.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

There is one pipe band classic that really deserves another listen...



I must say that for a piper who was taught so far away from a piping "hotbed" I was really lucky to be to be exposed to some of the best piping in the world very early on in my study of the pipes. This exposure included two visits from the SFU pipe band in my home town in my first two years of playing. Why did SFU come to Utah you ask?... I don't know, but they did, and it really opened my eyes!

This type of exposure is important in the musical development of pipers, but it can be as simple becoming very familiar with the best pipers in the world and studying their recordings. Listening to the best bagpipe albums was always a major part of my study from the beginning.

For me, the first such recording was the 78th Fraser Highlanders "Live in Ireland" recording. As a brand new piper, listening to this album was eye-opening. It was like candy for my ears, a drug that I instantly became addicted to. For lack of better words, it was magical. To create this type of music is why I became a piper.

Lets take another look at the recording itself...
The album gets started with Bill Livingstone playing a slow version of Lord Lovat's Lament. The sound of his rich drones and sweet chanter combined with controlled expression evoke emotion. Moments later Reid Maxwell's drums corps and the entire pipe corps strike up to a brisk, march rendition of the same tune. A lovely opener, and to this day I cannot hear this tune without making the 78th Frasers association.

Today, there are better ways of capturing the sound of the pipes and drums in recordings, but there is something about this album that makes you feel like you there. The sound of the pipes are quite nice and pitched significantly lower than today's top bands. The debate over pitch is another topic for another day, but nevertheless, the lower pitch creates a harmonically richer, more full sound that is displayed nicely here.

The next track features an example of a competitive medley. In the early 80's the 78th Frasers pushed the existing boundaries and basically set the tone for what is still being done today in the medley format. Some of the highlights of this particular medley include "Inspector Donald Campbell of Ness", the highly musical and highly technical jig was always a wonder for me as a young player. Donald MacLoed's Craig-a-Bodich and John Walsh's clever, round style reel also add to this set.

The next set features 3 outstanding 6/8 Marches. Young players take note of the expression, particularly the 8th note accentuation. This is what gives the 6/8 march its "swing" and is so often overlooked with new players. The distinctive "up" swing is actually given more than it's written value when played at these fast tempos, but when practicing slowly, set the metronome to triple time and make sure that the 8th note gets it's full value.

Track 4 is the first solo set... what else can I say, when I was young I wanted to be Bruce Gandy. I thought his solo was the most amazing thing ever at the time. The highlight must be the "Galtee Ranger". The bend on C and D was so cool at the time, but hearing so many bad players try to play tunes like Terry Tully's "Pumpkin's Fancy" has lessened my liking of this. Nevertheless, Bruce Gandy was and is today one the world's premier players and the musicality of his light music playing is evident here.

Track 5 features the popular slow air "The Cliffs of Doneen" and two hornpipes in the traditional dot-and-cut style that is not heard as often today, being replaced with the round, more modern style reel/hornpipe hybrid. Not much to say here, just good piping.

Track 6 was a preview to the world of the first band in history from outside of Scotland to win the world championships. This amazing feat happened only three days after the recording was made. As for the winning set itself, classic MSR all the way. This is about as difficult as music gets in piping. Charlie's Welcome has always been one of my favorite reels to listen to (not to play).

Track 7 is a solo by Michael Grey. My particular favorite is Colin MacLellan's not often heard jig arrangement of the classic strathspey "The Piper's Bonnet". Again, here is a display of amazing dexterity and musical control.

Track 8 begins with a lovely arrangement of the Irish love song "My Laggan Love". The harmonies are very nice and the low g to low a slide at the end is tastefully done. This leads into a nice hornpipe and jig set.

Bill Livingstone may very well be the best living piobaireachd player in the world today. Although he didn't get his official start in Ceol Mor until the age of 27, he was lucky enough to be taught by some of the best players of the 20th century. Donald MacLeod and John Wilson just to name a couple. Here Bill plays the ground of "Lament for the Children". Although not technically difficult, this piece is a prime example of why piobaireachd is so difficult to master. With this piece there is little separating between the player and the instrument. The classic melody is played in a way that is extremely beautiful and heart felt. Absolutely masterful, but not very much appreciated at the time I first listened as it would take years to learn to appreciate the subtitles of the "big music". Nevertheless, this small glimps into piobaireachd prompted me to further study which has since evolved into a passion.

Track 10 features the Frasers championship winning medley selection. There is not much I can say here, just sit back, close your eyes, and imagine the band on Glasgow Green making a huge splash in the pond of competitive piping. Perhaps that day should have happened years earlier, (possibly with the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band). But in 1987, the Scottish judges could no longer postpone the inevitable reality... that they weren't the only ones that could play the pipes, and play them well.

Track 11 is more 6/8 marches. Highlighted for me by Willie Ross' great tune "Leaving Port Askaig".

In track 12 Reid Maxwell is featured, but as a young piper I was too busy listening to great unison playing of the piping duet accompaniment.

"Journey to Skye" is a suite of sorts; a very memorable listening experience. Another prime example of how the Frasers not only pushed to competitive boundaries, but also the musical limitations of ensemble pipe band performance. One funny note, if you listen carefully, you can hear an early chanter towards the end of the performance when the pipes strike back in after the drums were featured. An old acquaintance once passed on what is probably a non-credible bagpipe folklore that the errant piper was Bruce Gandy taking his eyes off the pipe major for a second. Is it true?... I have no idea, but pipers LOVE to speculate! ;) Journey to Skye is a great musical accomplishment and a very pleasurable listen.

As a young player, track 14 was probably the one that I hit the repeat button the most on. More than any other, this set defined what the Frasers were all about. Great music... classical and modern, played in a way that is musical, exciting, and pleasing... doing what has never been done, but at the same time, honoring tradition. "The Mist Covered Mountains" breaking into G.S. MacLellans's greatest masterpiece "The Little Cascade" to this day is one of the most memorable moments in all of my bagpipe listening.

Track 15 is the encore... so enjoy! Other pipe bands take note, this is what Clumsy Lover is supposed to sound like! A great tune by Neil Dickie, but probably the most butchered tune of all time.

Well, I know I was a bit long winded, but I'm allowed to do that, it's my blog! So, if it's been a while since you've had a listen or if you have never listened, don't be deceived by the tacky yellow cover. "Live in Ireland" is the best selling pipe band recording of all time for a reason... It's really good! It opened up my eyes to a whole new world of listening, and more importantly, it showed a young piper who didn't know any better what our music is supposed to sound like.

John