Published: August 31, 2001

A successful operation, but the patient might be dying

[Originally published as an Editorial]

Each year the Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society considers and selects the “set tune lists” for the major piobaireachd competitions at the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban and the Northern Meeting at Inverness. These lists are for three levels of events: the Clasp and Senior Piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering, the Highland Society of London-sponsored Gold Medal competitions, and the Competing Pipers Association-sponsored Silver Medals. Various other prestigious contests around the world use the lists, including the Piobaireachd Society (Canada) competitions at Maxville, Ontario.

Typically, each list comprises eight to ten piobaireachds, usually of similar length and technical difficulty. The competitor is required to submit four, six, or eight tunes, playing one chosen by the judges in the competition.

Set tune lists were first implemented in 1904. The basic objective then (as it apparently is today) was to have more piobaireachds learned and played. The Piobaireachd Society recognized that only a handful of tunes were being aired again and again in competition, and the set tune system would, in effect, require pipers to learn compositions if they wanted to win piping’s most important prizes. As long as the contests remained popular, set tunes would virtually guarantee the perpetuation of an art that was seen at the turn of the century as on the brink of extinction.

After almost one hundred years of set tunes, has the concept achieved its basic objective?

Indeed it has – and more.

It is very likely that today more pipers are playing more piobaireachds than any time in history. At all but a few professional piobaireachd competitions it’s unlikely to hear the same tune twice. In fact, the only contests where tunes are played repeatedly are, ironically, those where the set list system is in effect.

Sure enough, the set tune system has resulted in resurrecting more piobaireachds, but a case can be made that the system has also, to some extent, stifled the growth of the art. Could it be that without the “treadmill” (as Hugh MacCallum called it in his August 2000 PD Interview) of the set tunes, piobaireachd would prosper as a creative, rather than almost strictly competitive, musical outlet?

Without being restricted to the set tune format, the world’s best pipers might be more inclined to challenge the music and explore new piobaireachd concepts. Rather than adhering to strict settings and styles for fear of not getting a prize, pipers might also be more inclined to interpret the music, much the same way virtuoso pianists are inclined, even expected, to subtly adjust great compositions of the past to their well-respected tastes.

Without the boundaries imposed by the set tune lists, the world’s greatest pipers also might be more inspired to compose new piobaireachds. Who knows? Piobaireachd could even become a format well suited for pipe bands, as a few groups have recently attempted. Welcoming artistic musical freedom in the world’s top piobaireachd competitions might just open a few cobwebbed minds in the piping world, and, in effect, nurture the music far better than restricting pipers to set lists and settings.

We’re all for the learning and airing of different old and new piobaireachds. We love and respect the old music. But after nearly a century it’s time to reassess the set tunes concept. Perhaps the system should be implemented only every five years or so, with other years open to pipers to submit their six or eight favourite or strategically-selected piobaireachds. Or perhaps the set tunes idea should be reserved only for the Silver Medal contests, thus ensuring that younger pipers continue to build their piobaireachd repertoires.

The set tunes system has indeed achieved the fundamental goal of disseminating piobaireachd learning and knowledge. The idea has successfully perpetuated an art that may not have otherwise survived. We’re grateful for that. The Piobaireachd Society deserves great credit. On the other hand, perhaps piobaireachd would have continued to evolve more as an art had less control been exacted on it. We can never know.

What we do know is that an art form cannot be nurtured simply by requiring its best artists to continually duplicate what has been done before. It’s time now to encourage new piobaireachd exploration, to revive an art that, thankfully, has a strong pulse, but, regrettably, might well be dying.

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