You too

Ever since I saw U2 at the 200-seat Graham Chapel at Washington University in St. Louis in 1980 I have been a fan. It wasn’t until 1990 or so when I realized that they were the world’s biggest religious-rock band, putting acts like Pat Boone, Cliff Richard and the redoubtable Stryper to shame.
Bono and company have been preaching the gospel in so many words in almost every one of their songs. “Mysterious Ways” is of course about the Virgin Mary; “I Will Follow” about JC; “Elevation” – religious salvation or the resurrection itself. I could go on. It’s all subliminal (or subliminable, as some would say) lyrics under a barrage of usually sensationally creative music and structure.

The beauty of the lyrics is that they can be interpreted in different ways. One person’s heavenly elevation is another person’s acid trip, and the “she” in “Mysterious Ways” could well be about a high school crush. U2 understands that to keep fans and evangelize newcomers you have to be subtle, and let ambiguity take its course. Even the band’s name is ambiguous: a high-flying spy-plane, or maybe “you too” can join the team.

I don’t really care; I just like the music.

But I wonder whether there has ever been any subliminal messaging in pipe music. Has a band ever tried to sway judges by enveloping in its medley musical directions to give them the benefit of the doubt? Are there any instances of using a single tune to win a prize because of the tune’s non-musical significance?

Drums vs. pipes

The news that Field Marshal isn’t playing Pearl drums any more got me thinking again. It’s a rare day when a band communicates that it’s changing bagpipe stuff. Top bands get free chanters, just like they get free drums, but, for whatever reason, bands don’t like to talk about what chanters or reeds or bags or whatever they play.

Maybe there’s far less risk to a band that announces that it’s dropping one make of drums for another. Perhaps judges who are drummers don’t seem to care that much what you’re playing, but maybe many piper-judges take brands into account before the band plays a note.

Not sure what the answer is, but, being on the receiving end of news from bands, talk of chanters or reed changes are few and far between.

Comments please!

Favourite 2006 movies (fillums)

  1. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
  2. V for Vendetta
  3. An Inconvenient Truth
  4. Thank You for Smoking

Note: With a six-year-old, we don’t tend to go to the movies a lot. We prefer intsead to wait for DVDs since the viewing and sound experience is much better at home. The ones we do go see are often kids’ movies. Case in point: thought seriously about putting Charlotte’s Web on the list.

What are your picks?

Cap in hand?

So polls show that most Scots and most English would like to see an independent Scotland. Freakin’ right, I say.

If you don’t have your independence and a right to a national identity, what do you have? I’ve admired Ireland forever, well before the whole Celtic Tiger phenomenon. The Irish were proud enough to fight for their independence, and they won it. They paid dearly through 60-odd years of economic squalor, but a happier and prouder race you’d never meet, money or no.

My Dad was a card-carrying Scots Nationalist (even though he didn’t live there and was way more Russian than Scottish). When I went to Stirling University for a year in the 1980s and was disappointed to find there wasn’t a local chapter of St. Louis Cardinals supporters, I of course signed up with the University SNP Club.

Bizarrely, within a few meetings they tried to draft me as President. I shite you not. It was then that I decided I could use the time better practicing pipes not politics, so I quietly stopped attending meetings and all the whistful student reminiscing about the time the Queen was pelted with eggs when she visited Stirling Uni in 1972.

I still believe in Scottish independence. I also believe that, economically, it would bring a lot of problems. But some things you just have to stand up for on principle, dang the consequences.

Fareweel to a’ our Scottish fame,
Fareweel our ancient glory!
Fareweel ev’n to the Scottish name.
Sae famed in martial story!
Now Sark rins over Salway sands,
An’ Tweed rins to the ocean,
To mark where England’s province stands —
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Depth of vision

The December issue of Piping Today, the quarterly print magazine of the National Piping Centre, arrived today. It’s by far the best publication that comes out of Scotland. (Price is $9.25 per issue for Canadians.)

In it is a puff piece about the Competing Pipers Association and its president, Simon McKerrell. Simon’s a really smart person, a lovely piper and a nice guy, but he says something that caught my attention. Talking about the always contentious selection process for the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering. The contentiousness usually revolves around non-UK pipers not getting in to the big events.

“Major prizes from overseas are taken into account,” McKerrell says in the article, “but the depth of field in Scotland ensures that the emphasis is placed on the Scottish track record. The depth of field in the other countries is just not great enough.”

To generalize that the Scottish games circuit is better than those of British Columbia or Ontario is, in a word, uninformed. I’m not sure if Simon has ever competed in these places, but I believe he has not. A quick browse of some of the Scottish games results from last year, and one will quickly see that the “depth of field” at most events is not that great. And the judging can be mysterious, if not downright laughable.

Scotland has no system for judging. Scotland has no unified grading system for competitors. Scotland has no set requirements from one competition to the next. Scotland does not even provide formal feedback to competitors. And from this rather haphazard approach comes superiority?

Simon’s sweeping statement essentially says that where you live has a great deal to do with whether you get to play at the big events (which, by the way, have become much bigger than they ever could have been exactly because of the interest of foreign players).

You only have to look at the rapid popularity and sound organization of events like Winter Storm to see that other non-Scottish options to Oban and Aviemore will be a reality quicker than these places may realize. But strangely, it seems that many of the Scottish events would be fine with that.

Just thinking . . .

. . . since the new Triumph Street band is looking for a sponsor, they should approach “The Donald.”

It’s a perfect fit: he loves building things, has no trouble getting rid of things he doesn’t like (“SFU: you’re fired!”), and won’t mind currying favour with a few judges along the way.

Call it “Trump Street.”

Favourite CDs of 2006 (in order)

  1. The Information – Beck
  2. Show Your Bones – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  3. The Greatest – Cat Power
  4. Scotland: The Music & The Song – various
  5. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – Arctic Monkeys

Disguise that blessing

The long-rumoured news of the remaining RMM2 members creating a new Triumph Street (Harry Tung reported on it weeks ago in “Trailing Drones,” by the way) has got to welcomed by all – including the SFU organization.

For years, the BC scene has been dominated by the SFU bands, and it still is. It’s a remarkable piping and drumming machine that people want to become part of, and with which they want to remain, and full credit goes to Terry and Jack Lee and Reid Maxwell for leading such a successful program.

But there have been detractors. Where the British Columbia circuit used to boast three of four Grade 1 bands and a good number of Grade 2 bands, the numbers had dwindled to only SFU in Grade 1 and three bands in Grade 2. The fact that Maple Ridge is now linked with the SFU organization indicates that that band will remain in Grade 2 as long as the relationship continues.

So breaking away to form what is essentially a new band from familiar personnel, independent of the SFU system, has got to be considered a positive move and a good thing for BC piping and drumming – and, I daresay, for SFU’s Grade 1 band. Healthy competition is always good, and no one in any jurisdiction likes a monopoly, no matter how beneficent it may be.

I would hope that the players who now make up Triumph Street remain on good terms with the SFU organization, and indications are that they will. It could be the close to a remarkable series of events, but the start of a new era for piping and drumming in British Columbia.

Piping life-experiences

The number of funerals I’ve played for in the past decade I can number on one hand. When the mother of a good friend died and he asked me if I would add some piping to the memorial I of course said yes.

It’s an honour to be part of an important ceremony connected with a friend or family-member. At least in Toronto, the pipes seem to be an essential aspect of weddings and funerals, memorial services and awards ceremonies. I haven’t met anyone here who does not just like, but love the pipes. At least that’s what they say to me.

But playing yesterday I found to be as pressure-packed as a pipe band competition, when you want to do well for others. I always found solo competitions less stressful than band contests: the only person you can let down is yourself in the solos. I couldn’t help thinking that making a mess of my friend’s mother’s memorial service would let everyone down.

Even though it was just “The Mist Covered Mountains” at the beginning and “Lochanside” at the end, insane thoughts ran through my head: what if the bag failed? What if a reed drops in the bag? What if the chanter falls out? None of those things has ever happened to me, but I didn’t want to wreck one of my friend and his family’s biggest life-experiences.

Ian Whitelaw wrote a great article a few years ago in the print Piper & Drummer about preparing for a performance. I felt a bit sorry for the Michigan piper who played at the late-President Gerald Ford’s funeral. I’m sure he’s better than the insufferable sounds that came from his frozen instrument, but it served as a lesson for all pipers: have a back-up plan, and prepare for the worst.

The service that I played for went fine, thankfully, and I was happy that the pipes could once again make a positive mark on a life-long memory for many.


Over the last 10 years you can count the number of studio-only pipe band CDs on one hand. Bands far prefer the concert recording now, but I think there’s a real creative hole that’s missed.

Where “solo” studio CDs like those from Chris Armstrong, Michael Grey, Stuart Cassells and RS MacDonald are using engineering and mixing to extend the art, creativity on most pipe band CDs stops at the ubiquitous conga drum and perhaps a Celtic-folk-rock combo between drone-tunings. Solo pipers are doing much more with recordings today than bands.
Yes, “live” pipe band CDs are easier to make; they’re cheaper, safer, and more quickly completed – but the end-products are getting repetitive and boring.

It’s time that a band went into the studio for a good long spell and made something that turned the band idiom on its ear. Okay, so it might not be a product that can be entirely recreated on the stage, but, if done well, creativity in the studio will trickle down to live performances, including the contest field.


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