Tying a bridle

Woa there, little dawgie.Is it time to create a new competition event for pipe bands? Blogpipe and pipes|drums readers will be well versed in the debate, controversy and, unfortunately, occasional invective about the Toronto Police Pipe Band’s two “medleys.” (I won’t recap what they’re all about, but, if you’re not sure, just poke around the site for awhile and you’ll begin to understand.)

Pipe band people are almost equally divided between liking or disliking it, and many have a hard time juxtaposing something so musically different against the familiar idea of a pipe band “medley.” Judges have admitted that it is a difficult challenge to compare them and thus judge accurately, if such a notion is possible in trying to adjudicate any subjective art.

So, is it time to start a whole new pipe band event? Or, perhaps more accurately, is it time to put musical requirements on the “traditional medley” so as to better allow the existing anything-goes medley to thrive?

Non-UK associations have been challenged to expand musically, simply because of the pressure that the World Pipe Band Championships exerts on their bands. Bands resist most rule changes that may prevent them from preparing for their August Glasgow experience. If it doesn’t happen in the RSPBA, it tends to be rejected everywhere else.

But it seems to me that we can work around this roadblock. At the Grade 1 level, playing requirements could still be two MSRs. Associations that call for bands to submit two medleys, could reduce that to one. Then, a new event could be brought in: the “Freestyle Medley.” It could be an anything-goes piece that lasts maybe up to 10 minutes, with any instruments, provided at least some of them are Highland bagpipes and drums. Bands could assemble however they please.

But how, then, to ensure that “traditional” medley event is preserved? This would be difficult, if not impossible, since there’s nothing much traditional about the structure of non-Toronto Police medleys. Perhaps bands would be required to play only tunes from the familiar Highland piping categories. Maybe an RSPBA-like rule to start with certain tune-types? Perhaps providing a set list of tunes that could be played?

The challenge is more about what a band can’t do, than what it can.

In the 1970s there was resistance when the medley was introduced. But look at what it has done for the art. As the medley evolved bands were pressured to be different and innovative. Where once they feared not having original material, most bands now have budding composers within their ranks itching to create new stuff. Had it not been for the pipe band medley, today’s most famous tune-makers might be unknown and untapped talent. By allowing and encouraiging a freestyle / anything-goes category, a whole new level of creativity would certainly emerge, and that’s good for the livelihood of the art.

Personally, I’m against the idea of formally creating a third band competition category. I have no trouble with keeping the current medley format anything-goes. But it’s clear that not everyone feels the same way.

Perhaps it’s time to seriously consider opening things up, while simultaneously tying things down.

Bloomsday scenario

It’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, after the Georgetown games and the latest musical-envelope-pusher from the Toronto Police. Just like last year when the band came out with it’s “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions,” the comments are again flying around about the band’s “Idiomatica” entry.

I hesitate to call it a medley, since a musical medley, by Webster’s definition, is “a musical composition made up of a series of songs or short pieces,” rather than a cohesive single composition, which I believe “Idiomatica” is meant to be. You can’t call it a “selection” either, as that also involves, I think, selecting various existing tunes, much like a musical medley. Call it a piece, an opus or even an oeuvre.

Semantics aside, it’s bloody difficult to compare what the Toronto Police played against the more familiar formats of other bands in the contest. The pipe band “medley” has evolved more or less on its own, usually by bands dipping one timid toe at a time in the musical froth, trying a “different” tune here, an unusual rhythm there. Heaven forfend that a judge might react negatively.

There are actually very few musical requirements placed on a band in the rules of the world’s pipe band associations. The RSPBA has by far the most strictures, forcing bands to start with a “quick-march” at a certain minimum tempo and with the familiar three-paced rolls and a mandatory E.

The only musical requirement that I know for a Grade 1 pipe band medley under PPBSO rules is that it must be between five and eight minutes long. There are no stipulations as to what should be played or how many of the band’s pipers and drummers (or other instrumentalists, for that matter) can play at one time. In fact, there’s nothing to say that the band couldn’t just stand there, tacit, for five minutes, in homage to Chares Ives or something.

If the Toronto Police didn’t have the musical clean-slate that the PPBSO membership prefers, perhaps they wouldn’t compete with their new pieces, unless it were to make a one-time, “Thelma and Louise”-like statement. I gather they were fully prepared to go down in a blaze of glorious disqualification had they been able to play in the Final at last year’s World’s.

I like that bands are free to push musical buttons and boundaries. I can also appreciate those who feel that it shouldn’t be allowed, that such challenges to the familiar are too much of an affront to our musical “tradition,” whatever that is. It’s a healthy, difficult debate.

After all the talk of the Toronto Police’s “Good Intentions” piece, I was eager to see how many bands might follow suit with their own brave attempts to explore their own new musical limits. So far, I haven’t heard or heard of any other bands anywhere in the world making such an attempt. (Please let me know if there are.) In fact, I’m noticing the direct opposite: bands harking back to material, styles and structures of the 1970s and ’80s, particularly the once-hackneyed-now-retro seamless transition from strathspey-to-jig or jig-to-strathspey.

I might be wrong, but while a lone band is aggressively blazing new musical ground, others seem to be retreating into the past, with the old being new again. Whether that’s a conscious rejection, or just plain happenstance, again, I don’t know.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

In rotation

  • FantasiesMetricFantasies (standout track: “Satellite Mind”)
  • John MulhearnThe Extraordinary Little Cough (standout track: “Captain Jack Murray” feat. Roddy MacLeod)
  • Steve EarleTownes (standout track: “Colorado Girl”)
  • The Ting TingsWe Started Nothing (standout track: “That’s Not My Name”)
  • Wendy Stewart & Gary WestHinterlands (standout track: “Ae Fond Kiss”)

Enemy lines

Up to the line and under the ice.I’ve noticed a lot more cross-band friendliness over the last decade. In fact, it seems that competitors in most competitive genres no longer get too worked up over rivalries – not like they used to, anyway. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing or a completely ambivalent thing, but it is a thing.

Thirty years ago I know that Major League Baseball players (here he goes again with the baseball) would hardly speak to one another. Back in the 1970s and even ’80s a guy would get on base and he wouldn’t even acknowledge the opposing team’s infielder. This was serious business. They were the enemy, and professionalism then meant you don’t consort with the other team. In fact, you’d punch them out given half the chance.

Same with pipe bands. There was a time when members of other bands would not be allowed in your band hall, the scores for the music were secret and you were quite sure that the competition had horns under their hats.

I heard the other day that an established Grade 1 band had the pipe-major and leading-drummer of a top Grade 1 in for a weekend workshop. A few weeks ago someone with more than 40 years pipe banding experience told me that he recently felt uncomfortable when a young member of a rival band sat in and listened to his practice, oblivious to the old-school etiquette when years back you’d have told the kid to Get tae . . .! before he could even sit down.

What’s caused all this Milquetoast laid-backness?

In pro sports, the age of free agency and big contracts has meant that a player staying with a single club for his/her entire career is rare. This year’s opponent might well be next year’s teammate.

So too in pipe bands. Where once it was common for a player to stay with the same band for 20, 30 even 40 years, today it’s extraordinary. The erosion of pipe band loyalty has been bemoaned for a few decades now. Robert Mathieson discussed the loss of loyalty in his interview, accepting the migratory attitude of modern players as simply the way people do everything these days.

I don’t know. It still irks me to see ballplayers yucking it up at first base during a close game, just as it seems strange when I see blatant camaraderie between competing band-members. But perhaps the Facebook generation has learned, thankfully, that life is too short for such trifles.

Grandest finale

Flock-truckerMassed bands and march-pasts are necessary penance for those who play in pipe bands. After a day of anxious competition, relaxing over a drink or two is all everyone really wants, and to be pulled out of the beer tent for the grand finale (for spectators, anyway) is an inevitable duty.

I haven’t played regularly in a pipe band for some time now, but I can’t remember many awards ceremonies at which the result wasn’t fairly well known, including last year’s World’s. Leaks happen, and the well connected will have their sources.

Memorable prizes and celebrations aside, funny things often occur at massed bands and march-pasts. I’ll never forget in the 1980s at Cowal on a bright, sunny day, as the bands filed on interminably long, a few bandsmen who’d had one or two pints before going back on the park couldn’t hold it any longer so executed the canny one-knee-on-the-ground maneuvre, shielded on one side by the bass drum and empathetic bandsmen on the other to get some relief right on the parched Dunoon ground. I posted something about it last year, actually.

Another memorable time was maybe 1989 at the World’s. The prizes were being announced in the usual tedious manner. They came to Grade 3, and went in order. I could hear a Scottish band just behind us clearly disappointed not being announced first, with some groans after anxiously awaiting the announcement.

And when they learned that they weren’t first-runners-up either there was more grumbling, which grew a bit louder when they weren’t even third, and even more contentious when they weren’t fourth or fifth. A few oaths were murmured from their ranks.

But when the Grade 3 band wasn’t even sixth – out of the list entirely when they thought they might even have won the thing – it really took the cake and someone from the group just couldn’t take it any longer and let out an almighty scream at the announcer. It can’t be printed here, but, let’s just say sounded something like, “Truck my flock!!!”

Yes, fond memories of some of our grandest finales and finest moments.


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