More Scottish than Scotland

Jings!The three of us went to see The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep the other day. It’s a “family” movie set in Scotland, using state-of-the-art special effects and cute humour to re-tell the Loch Ness Monster tale in a slightly new way.

The confession a few years back that the famous “Surgeon’s Photo” of the monster was in fact a hoax must have really dented tourists’ interest in looking for the monster on trips to Loch Ness, which, as anyone who has been there, is a monster of a lake in itself. The movie will help to prop up the legend. (By the way, we could use a MacCrimmon movie: Patrick Og: The Legend of the Urlar. That’s gold, baby. Gold.)

It’s a good movie. If Scots and Scot-a-philes can see past the stereotypes of whisky-swilling workers and dumbed-down accents they’ll enjoy the film, which paints the English as the enemy, even sneaking in a derogatory “Sassenach” label at one point.

But I have to remark on The Water Horse‘s musical score. Once again an intrinsically Scottish movie features Uillean pipes in its background music. I couldn’t detect any Scottish music at all. Not a trace of Highland, Lowland or small pipe anywhere. Not even a Banchory fiddle. The hoary old Chieftains are trotted out once again to supply the music. It seems that Hollywood thinks the sound of Irish folk music is more Scottish-sounding than the real thing. Sinéad O’Connor even wrote and performed the theme song.

Why is it that the sound of the Highland pipe is out of favour with movie-makers? Can’t Eric Rigler, Iain Whitelaw or Lorne Cousin – pipers these days in Los Angeles – set movie producers straight and convince them that they should get it right?

Most excellent 2007

Wake up, Mr. West, Mr. West.

1. Kanye West, “Barry Bonds”
2. Wilco, “Side With The Seeds”
3. Feist, “I Feel It All”
4. Mark Knopfler, “Let It All Go”
5. The Good, The Bad and The Queen, “Hurculean”

1. Kanye West, Graduation
2. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
3. Feist, The Reminder
4. Stuart Liddell, Inveroran
5= Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
5= Radiohead, In Rainbows

Compose yersel

Bruce Gandy looks a bit like Eddie Van Halen, whose son is named Wolfgang.I posted the first of “The Composers” series of articles by prominent tune conjurors today, Bruce Gandy kindly volunteering to take the difficult lead-off spot.

Like most pipers, I’ve dabbled in writing tunes, but probably haven’t composed anything for at least 10 years. Of the maybe 20 things I’ve written, four or five have actually been published, and I once even heard a band play a strathspey of mine.

And, also like most pipers who compose, I never had a game plan when it came to tunes. I just sort of put them together on the chanter repeatedly altering them until I was either satisfied or bored of it.

I’ve known Bruce for almost 30 years now, and played alongside him for 10 of those. I’ve played dozens of his tunes, and, until now, never really thought about what process he might use to produce such frequent gems. I figured he was born with the muse around his head, halo-like.

To get a glimpse of his usual approach was a real eye-opener. Never would I have guessed that he would use a system like the one he outlines in the article.

Driven to distraction?

Not recommended while wearing a 20-pound snare drum.For the three decades I played with pipe bands I think I was reminded a thousand times not to tap my foot in the circle. Pipe-majors and leading-drummers would constantly tell people that they are the only ones allowed to move anything but fingers and wrists.

The thinking was – and I assume still is – that you don’t want to distract the audience or other band members from hearing and producing good music. The focus should be on the sound, not the histrionics of band members. Today, you hardly ever see anyone but the pipe-major in a good band tapping his/her foot.

Which makes me wonder why it is that pipe band mid-sections should be allowed to flourish. Doesn’t it completely contradict the stay-as-still-as-possible ethic instilled in pipers and snare-drummers? If the band is supposed to encourage everyone to focus only on the music, why have a synchronized show going on in the middle of the band?

I’m just asking the question because it confuses me. I’m not saying that flourishing shouldn’t happen. But, as a judge, I am occasionally distracted from the music by the impressive choreography happening between the pipe-section and snare-line.

If complex flourishing is allowed and encouraged in the competition circle, why not have the pipers do a little two-step or the snares execute a wee French can-can? Maybe that too will visually enhance the performance. Maybe not.

Further, if the point is to play music as well as possible, don’t the odds of missing a crucial musical beat increase the more a tenor-drummer flourishes?

I like the display of mid-sections as much as the next person. Some of it is mesmerizingly entertaining. But should bands that are striving to play perfectly tuned and executed music to impress judges also be trying to distract visually?

Dress purrin

Up yours!
Our cat, Lexy (or, formally, “Lexy M. Catskill”) is a 23-pound mound of fatty fur. He will turn 16, all things being equal, in February. He sits around all day seeking warmth, food and a kitty-littered place (thank God) to excrete. That’s all he does. He’s a part of the furniture. No, wait, with his size, he is the furniture.

He was never what you would call a lap-cat. In fact, he’s the anti-lap-cat. He’s more like an attack-cat. He tolerates a bit of scritching on the head, but if anyone pats him below the shoulder-blades, watch out.

At his age, he’s noticeably winding down. He barely even bothers to bite us any more. When he swipes at Annabel, it’s hardly with the vigour he showed as a young feline on the prowl. It’s only a matter of time when the big beast goes to a better place, although, I can’t imagine what would be a better place than what he has here.

Even with his foibles, we will miss him when the time comes to say goodbye. He has an impressively thick, orangey coat. You might now know where this is going.

Would it be wrong to use his fur for a sporran? It’s a shame to waste such a thing, and, it seems to me, that wearing him as part of a resplendent Highland ensemble would be a great way by which to remember him. Re-use and recycle, after all.

Come to think of it, he’s large enough to make one of those antediluvian bass-drummer aprons from. You know, when the big guy in the middle used to don a bear- or leopard-skin back when such things were available and not abhorrent to sane people.

Has anyone ever heard of a kilt-wearer memorializing his or her past-pet in such a way?

Closer to the art

Closer to the Peart.

We are the priests
Of the temples of syrinx
Our great computers
Fill the hollowed halls

– Peart

When I was a kid I absolutely loved the prog-rock “power-trio” Rush. I thought their lyrics were awesome, and no one could beat Neil Peart the drummer, what with his massive kit, gongs, and handle-bar mustache. Way cool.

I probably saw them in concert five or six times when they’d come through The Loo. Along with Clan MacFarlane and Guelph and General Motors, they were part of my interest in all things Canadian, and probably subconsciously had something to do with me eventually landing here.

Actually, I occasionally see Rush’s lead-singer Geddy Lee walking around the downtown area that I work in. He goes to Blue Jays games, and seems like a regular guy with an extraordinary voice, which Rolling Stone once described as “something between Tiny Tim and Donald Duck.”

Listening to Rush stuff now is a cross of humour and embarrassment. They’re so pompous and over-the-top that I have to wonder whatever possessed me to take them seriously. The drumming in particular is awkward and over-cooked – it’s appalling. Peart can play, but he’s too often going at it on his own, jamming far too much into simple melodies, and taking the limelight from the band. His drumming is like his lyrics: self-indulgent and introspective.

Of course you frequently see that in pipe bands. The drum section that in your youth you may have thought was brilliant because of its technical abilities, you later realize is not really contributing anything to the band. In fact, overly complex scores that distract from, rather than complement and highlight, the melody do great harm to a band – any band. You never see drummers older than 40 in any musical genre trying to do too much. They learn that less is usually more when it comes to accompaniment.

Pipe band drumming and ensemble judges should always ask this question first: Is the drumming enhancing or detracting from the melody? If the respective answers are no and yes, it’s not a good drum section, no matter how clever it might sound on its own.

Ya gotta go

Two legs at a time.The first summer that I went to Scotland to compete was 1983 as a wide-eyed 19-year-old. I somehow made my way around the country to compete at various games until I had to start my third university year in Stirling.

Montrose was the first contest I ever played at in Scotland. It was a hot day and the competitions were held on the links course. My bass drone stopped while I was tuning in one event, so I figured I’d just shlump off, not knowing the protocol, which was, I was told by a prominent piper there, like any other place: “take it out, flick it, and resume tuning.” Hmmm. This place was no big whoop. I was on my way.

Really memorable was the Skye Gathering. I can’t actually remember how I got there, but it must have been by train and bus. Here was an event where some of my piping heroes were actually competing at or judging. Iain MacFadyen was still competing then, as were John MacDougall, Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald and Gavin Stoddart. I was amazed that the Scottish system allowed me to compete against these iconic folks, and I’m still amazed that today any piper older than 18 can compete against Clasp-winners at most Scottish events.

But a vivid memory of that day was actually in the toilet at the Skye Gathering Hall. I was, um, relieving myself, when the great John D. Burgess sidled up in the, um, urinal, beside me to do the same.

Good God. Talk about stage fright. John D.’s LPs were what I played constantly as a learner-piper. The old blue-covered album he made in the late 1950s was in constant rotation at my house, me listening to his inspiring playing of “The Hen’s March,” “Parker’s Welcome to Perthshire,” and, most of all, “Lament for the Children.”

Later I got my hands on his records with him on the cover festooned with medals, powder horns and of course a sporran that looked like Dolly Parton’s wig. Man, this guy was the Willie Mays of piping, and now he was peeing right next to me!

Well, I got over it, but I couldn’t wait to tell friends that John D. Burgess actually was willing to share a toilet with me at the Skye Gathering Hall. But what Montrose and Portree served to tell me was that solo piping and pipers everywhere operate pretty much the same. If your bass stops, take the reed out and give it a flick, and even the greatest pipers put their kilt on two legs at a time.

Talk smart

For the last two days I attended a really good conference on social media. There were speakers from Yahoo!, Dell, IBM, as well as several lesser-known players and experts. Much of the content was on blogging and forums and online comments. (By the way, one of the more prominent bloggers bragged that his gets about 150,000 visits each month; blogpipe gets about 120,000.)

Given my recent post wondering why prominent bands prohibit their members from contributing to online discussions, two things at the conference jumped out at me.

Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and IBM, to name a few companies, don’t just permit, they encourage, every one of their employees to blog and discuss things online. IBM has about 330,000 employees, and about a tenth of them run a blog. Imagine having to track what 30,000 employees are saying.

Thing is, IBM doesn’t track them. They trust their employees not to divulge secrets and to conduct themselves in a responsible manner. They don’t worry about it.

Microsoft’s official blogging policy is “Blog smart.” That’s it. Sun’s official policy is “Don’t be an idiot.” I’m serious.

What corporate problems have these companies had after three or so years of employees blogging and contributing to social media? None.

Why do these companies want employees to contribute to online conversations? Because they know that the ones who will are those who are passionate about what they do. It can only be good for the company, and so far it is.

Microsoft and IBM, for example, have gone from being seen as closed-mouthed and secretive to being sharing and genuine. The social media policy of these organizations has resulted in an improved overall image for their brand.

So, yeah, pipe bands should act like today’s smart businesses, and contribute to the dialog.


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