Art with a difference

The Daniel Liebeskind extension to the Royal Ontario Museum under construction, Dec 2006.

Toronto, like many North American cities, is experiencing a building-boom just now. Fortunately, a lot of it is by really well known architects, including two Frank Gehry ventures and a couple of Daniel Liebeskind projects. The most prominent of Liebeskind’s is the very controversial extension to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) that I pass every day that I bike to work. I’ve been following its progress over the last two years.

A lot of people don’t like it. The ROM is this hoary neo-Romanesque pile that houses the requisite and predictable mummies and dinosaur bones, and which has suffered from declining attendance over the years. So they raised private and public money, finally, for Liebeskind to do his thing, which is to shake things up and get people talking. Liebeskind has relatively few completed projects, but those that have been erected, like the Jewish Museum in Berlin, get a lot of tongues wagging. Positive or negative, his buildings get a reaction.

Which it seems to me is what the best art is originally all about. Bland and safe buildings, paintings or music may play to the masses and generate income, but no great artist became great by playing it safe. I like Liebeskind’s ROM extension because it’s a jarring mass of angular glass and steel jutting dramatically out of this familiar, “museum-like” structure. The very art housed in that museum is there because at one time it too was dramatic and jarring, and that’s the statement Liebeskind makes. It’s unsettling to those who eat roast beef and Yorkshire pudding every Sunday afternoon and wish Toronto would be made up once again of only WASPs.

You know where this is leading: competitive piping and drumming. Our greatest, most memorable and highest-impact exponents are those who do things differently. The Strathclyde Police under Iain MacLellan were one of the greatest competition bands ever – maybe the greatest. They certainly set a new benchmark for tuning and tone, but did they advance the art? Will it be remembered for more than having its name engraved on a lot of major trophies? Conversely, there are bands and soloists who may have paid a competitive price for challenging the art.

For my money, give me quality with a difference. Give me Liebeskind, Calatrava and Gehry. Who do you think are the bands and pipers and drummers today who are making a lasting artistic contribution?

Game on

My wife always delivers the goods, and this Christmas was no exception. Under our tree for me was double boxed-set of St. Louis Cardinals DVDs just released. There’s every game of the glorious 2006 World Series in one set, and the other is a group of about 10 discs with Cardinals’ greatest hits, starting with Bob Gibson‘s 17-strikeout masterpiece in Game 1 of the 1968 Series with the Tigers.

I suppose I should have been working on the next pipes|drums feature or readying the next exclusive interview, but yesterday I spent two hours watching Game 3 of the 1987 World Series against the Minnesota Twins. I started with this because I never actually saw any of the ’87 Series. Why? Because I was living in Scotland as something of a bagpipe bum at the time.

Back then you had to rely on the International Herald Tribune to get scores about two days after the games. I sometimes would splurge to buy a rare copy of USA Today, which one newsagent on Edinburgh’s High Street carried, and my Dad used to mail wads of clippings from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. There was no internet or satellite TV, and the 1984-’87 baseball seasons are pretty much a big void. I’ll always remember sitting in my room in Andrew Stewart Hall at the University of Stirling‘s halls of residence when I learned of Bob Forsch’s September 1984 no-hitter via one of those clippings envelopes.

Game 3 of the ’87 Series was a pitching gem by John Tudor, who for three years was unbelievably good. This was a game that I listened to, along with all of the others, on a little short-wave radio, barely catching the Armed Services Network as it whistled in and out. Back then, between stints of busking on Princes Street, I worked at Mama’s, a restaurant in the Grassmarket then owned and operated by a couple of Canadian actors, Angus MacInnes and Phil Craig. (It’s still there, even though they sold around 1990 and returned to very successful careers in film and TV.) I would work until closing, and then stayed up until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. to listen to the games.

Missing that Series was particularly hard. I graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1985, followed the Twins and went to a lot of games at the Metrodome. I got to know the Twins as well as the Cardinals, so the two teams meeting the World Series was a personal convergence.

I guess I’ve given up a lot of “normal” things in preference of abnormal piping pursuits. But at least one of those absences was finally filled yesterday.

Tie one on

Iain MacDonald (Saskatchewan) is always good for ideas, and his response to Bruce Gandy’s response to my recent blog on autographs got me thinking about my collection of pipe band neckties.

To be honest, I ‘m not sure whether the tradition of trading band ties still happens much. Used to be (and perhaps still is) that, like footballers after international matches trading shirts on the pitch, pipers and drummers would often swap ties with members of rival bands in the beer tent or on the ferry home.

My vintage Duthart-Shotts tie.There are two types of people: collectors and non-collectors, and I am definitely in the first group, whether baseball cards, pipe-music books or vintage British railway posters. When I played in Scotland I amassed quite a collection of ties from Grade 1 bands. I never did attain a Strathclyde Police tie, since back then they seemed far too grown up to do that sort of thing. I always wanted to acquire a Muirheads tie, and wonder actually how many of those exist.

It wasn’t until the 1970s and the rise in popularity of non-number-one-dress that band ties became prevalent, of course, and I’m a proud owner of ties from now-defunct bands: Monktonhall, Woolmet & Danderhall, Toyota, the RUC, ScottishGas. I often wear the Eagle Pipers Society tie I scored from Martin Docherty, the former Fear-an-Tigh of that erstwhile organization.

But by far my most prized tie is the 1979 Shotts & Dykehead model given to me straight off of the collar of Alex Duthart. Like the autograph hound I used to be, I probably brashly hinted that I liked his tie and, like the altogether brilliant guy Duthart was, he thought nothing of presenting it to me.

I have maybe 30 ties in my collection, but I wonder who out there has the largest assortment of pipe band ties. If you think you might have a collection worthy of a feature article in pipes|drums, drop me an e-mail message and let’s talk!


I posted a poll recently asking if readers had ever asked a piper or drummer for an autograph. Being an
avid baseball fan as a kid (and now), I kind of just thought that when you meet famous people you ask for
their autograph. (My Dad used to counsel me that a handshake is worth a lot more, and he’s right, but try
telling that to a St. Louis kid in the 1970s who meets Lou Brock.)

I’m not ashamed to admit that I went up to Bill Livingstone in 1979 at Maxville and asked him to
autograph a Piobaireachd Society Collection book that I had handy. Bill had recently won one of
the Medals, so I figured he was a World Champion. I remember him, in his very Bill way, finding “Lament
for Mary MacLeod” in the book and saying that it made perfect sense for him to autograph that page. My
Dad, of course, had his omnipresent camera and telephoto lens trained on the scene, and now I have the
pictures to prove it, Bill with jet-black, Harry Reems-esque moustache; me with middle-parted blond hair.

But I also recall a piping school I attended in 1981 where there was a young, very cool snare-drummer
from Houston. Can’t remember his name. We were sitting around and other drummers were talking about
what kind of sticks they used. The drummer I mentioned said he wasn’t sure what sticks he played, but he
thought they were a “Mex Dumphy” model.

Mex Dumphy? people asked. He took them out and showed the autograph on them: “See, Mex Dumphy,”
he said, and pointed to the embossed autograph that he somehow deciphered as Mex Dumphy, which of
course was Alex Duthart’s signature. (I also remember him insisting that in the AC/DC song, “Dirty Deeds,”
Bon Scott wasn’t singing “done dirt cheap,” but “thunder chief.”) It wasn’t so much his misreading the
autograph as it was not knowing who Alex Duthart is, which is like a budding ballplayer being unfamiliar
with Babe Ruth.

I haven’t asked for an autograph in quite a while, but I will say that one of my prized possessions is a
poster of the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ 1988 concert at Massey Hall in Toronto signed by every member of
the band.

The minor fall, the major lift

Annabel, Julie and I went to the Toronto Symphony’s rendition of “The Messiah” (the best parts, that is) on Sunday at Roy Thompson Hall. It’s meant to be a Christmassy-type-thing, and I had heard that lots of families attend and some even make it an annual thing.

It was very nice and all, and few things are more musically impressive than a 130-member choir gi’in’ it laldy over top of belting brass and full strings playing like the clappers.

Annabel, who’s six, held up well and only fidget-kicked the old dear in front of her a few times. Just one glare from the hard-core symphony-files, at least that I noticed. She kept busy counting choir-members and eating mints by the handful.

But I also noticed how old the audience was, even for this performance that’s supposed to cater to the masses. I scanned the audience at one point in one of the mournful bits (it’s not that pleasant a tale, of course), and I could have sworn I was back at Eden Court Theatre listening to the Clasp. Every other auldyin seemed to be dozing off, mouth agape, while the music – exquisite as it was – droned on.

It was comforting, though, that MacCrimmon and Handel seem to touch people in similar ways and attract an exceedingly, um, mature audience.

“Classical music” of the pipes, indeed.

My-land dress

Here’s a thing: if Breton pipe bands can compete at the World’s wearing their national costume, and Pakistani bands can wear the yellow and red satin tunic and trousers, and Spanish pipe bands are allowed to wear the ornate ensemble of their homeland, why do New Zealand, Australian and Canadian bands have to wear the cultural dress of the Scots?

Shouldn’t Canadian bands be able to wear toques, Hudson’s Bay coats, and boots from Roots?

Shouldn’t bands from the United States be allowed to compete wearing the uniform of middle-America: Dockers, Oxford shirts and tasseled loafers?

Given the Ali G. / Borat analogy below being at least partly true, then New World non-Scots bands wedging themselves into Scotland’s ethnic dress – while Old World bands are allowed to play Scottish bagpipes, drums and music in their national attire – is even stranger.

I say New World pipe bands are allowed to compete in Scotland wearing blue jeans, t-shirts, baseball caps and Nike training shoes. What sort of inter-continental discrimination is this?

Borat & District

I’ve been a fan of Sasha Baron Cohen’s comedy for a while. It’s just plain funny when someone of a completely different culture tries to become something he’s not. Ali G. is ridiculously hilarious because the character is all London Eastender, but pretends he’s some “West Coast” rapper with a penchant for world events. Borat is a Kazak dropped into Americana chasing the all-American Canadian blonde bomb-shell.

It’s no wonder so many Scots think non-Scots trying to adopt their piping and drumming culture are daft. I mean, the whole piping thing was ethnic music and entrenched in the Scottish culture for hundreds of years when suddenly the rest of the world started becoming, in effect, a hoard of Ali G’s trying their damnedest to fit in.

Borat is looking for the “authentic” American experience, and it’s instant comedy. Aren’t non-Scottish pipe bands competing at the World’s also pining for the authentic Scottish culture experience? No wonder the Scots so often don’t know what to make of all the over-zealous, over-earnest outsiders hilariously determined to fit in to a culture that just is not their own.


Every year it seems that some fashion pundit predicts that tartan is in. It’s been going on forever, and, outside of Catholic girls’ schools and Britney Spears fan clubs, it’s never, ever true.

Same thing with kilts. For at least two decades, people have been predicting that men will wear kilts frequently. Dreary articles about “utili-kilts” quote fashion industry shills saying how “comfortable” a kilt is.

What a load. They are not comfortable, and anyone who’s been to a pipe band contest will know that pipers and drummers, if they can get away with it, wear the thing as little as possible.

Tartan and kilts as fashion must-haves? Hasn’t been true since Queen Vic was frolicking with John Brown in between her stag (the deer, that is) parties. Never will be true as long as good taste and common sense prevail.

Anonymously yours,

It continues to confound me why so many pipers and drummers have such strong opinions but are either unwilling to express them in public, or, if they do, sign their name to their thoughts.

Jim Roberts has frequently and quite rightly voiced his disappointment that so many pipes|drums articles have anonymous sources. While journalists tapping sources who will speak only on condition of anonymity is as old as journalism itself, it’s frustrating that after all these years pipers and drummers are still deathly afraid of the very organizations to which they belong.

No matter how miserable conditions might be, the thought of them being even more miserable because of political – which in our domain generally means judging – retribution because they rocked the boat is far worse. In effect, the population is afraid of the monarchy. The body of the church is afraid of the archbishop. The comrades fear the Kremlin. What in God’s name kind of antiquated situation is that?

The only way to effect change is to be heard in numbers, and for recognized leaders in the art to stand up and set an example. Question authority.


I’m trying to figure out how readers might be better notified when new content is posted on the site that isn’t linked to the Home page but, for now, I want to be sure that people see a couple of new pieces:

By The Left . . . is a really humourous bit by the redoubtable Bill Livingstone. Hope you enjoy it.

And I put together a new Editorial based on thoughts jangling in my head for a month or so. I work in a marketing and communications world, and I tried to make it not too obscure.



Forgotten Password?