Published: March 31, 2003

At Last, A Lot More Respect

‘A New Pibroch: for Highland Pipes, Percussion and Seven Strings’
March 23, 2003, 8:00 p.m.
Glenn Gould Theatre
Canadian Broadcasting Company
Toronto

Reviewed by Andrew Berthoff

We pipers often want it both ways: we wish that our instrument were taken more seriously by other musicians but, the rare times when the pipe is used for non-bagpipe music and it doesn’t precisely fit what we’re accustomed to hearing, we are quick to criticize their lack of understanding.

So when a composer of John Beckwith’s international stature has the courage to take on the Highland bagpipe in a major commissioned work for strings and percussion, it’s only natural to rejoice at the attention we’re getting, while fret that our instrument might be misunderstood or even abused by his unfamiliar interest.

Not so with “A New Pibroch.” Throughout the 15-minute piece performed with violas, violins, cello, bass and percussion at the Glenn Gould Studio in downtown Toronto, Beckwith made full and considerate use of the Highland pipe as an instrument, without corrupting its “normal” sound. Because most of the piece is without a strong metre (at least to pipers accustomed to brogue-heavy marches), the work emulates a piobaireachd well. The notes and sounds of all instruments were shaped together to create an overall musical impression, and one couldn’t help but think that, to a piper, this must be similar to how the uninitiated hear a traditional piobaireachd for the first time.

Rest assured, “A New Pibroch” is not a piobaireachd as we know it. Even though he acknowledges musical inspiration coming from “Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon,” Beckwith clearly evokes the literal meaning of “piobaireachd” as “pipe art” or “pipe music” rather than the current interpretation of the word: ground with variations in a variety of expected and identifiable rhythms played by a solo piper. “A New Pibroch,” therefore, is cross-genre pipe art at its fullest and most meaningful. It integrates the sound of the bagpipe with other instruments, and never overwhelms or dominates them. The pipe stands on equal footing with violas, violin, cello and bass – each connecting with the other.

For the work Beckwith recruited Dundas, Ontario, piper Michael Grey for guidance and performance, and Grey fit the bill well. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, even his appearance integrated with the accomplished musicians with whom he shared the stage. There was no tartan, sporran and ghillies to upstage things. This was the bagpipe on level terms with “real” instruments. Grey’s elevated position at the back of the floor further ensured that the pipes would not, literally, take centre stage, and despite the pipes’ strong volume relative to the softer strings, dynamically the balance worked well.

In “A New Pibroch” Beckwith makes full use of the sounds available from the Highland pipe – frequent employment of only drones, high G’s and high A’s blown, at times, for over thirty seconds, and ample use of musical rests, with the pipe chanter cutting out in precisely timed intervals, adding bursts of tonal colour to the musical canvas. Despite such methods being completely foreign to the traditional music of the Highland pipe, Grey executed the effects effortlessly and with complete control.

The only music in the work that was identifiable to the experienced piper was, ironically, the most jarring. Beckwith’s twice-repeated placement of an interpretive “De’il Among the Tailors” in the middle of things was at once alarming and attractive, and therefore perhaps gained the response (“for contrast of tempo,” according to Beckwith) sought for by the composer. One couldn’t help but wonder, though, if the sudden insertion of strong melody and beat was meant to give pipers something to cling to, to demonstrate that the composer respects and understands the traditional music of the pipe. For this listener, its addition was strangely unnecessary and bordered on triteness. Repeated listens to the piece as a whole would certainly provide better understanding.

Despite CBC advertising and decent media attention for several weeks leading up to the concert, there were an extraordinary small number of pipers and drummers in the crowd of over 400 at the prestigious Glenn Gould Studio. At $20, price couldn’t have been much of an object. Conversely, though, a strong turnout from the hardened, enthusiastic classical set proved that there certainly is interest in and respect for the bagpipe in a serious, musical setting. These people were not expecting and did not want a rollicking evening of toe tapping pipe music. They came to hear a new work that respectfully uses Highland pipes to animate a musical picture.

Ultimately, based on the three curtain calls for the musicians and John Beckwith, those people got what they came for. Pipes were placed in a serious musical context, with the instrument’s sound and music meeting strings and percussion half way. This performance could well have been a critical point in the evolution of the Highland bagpipe as an ensemble instrument. “A New Pibroch” makes a bold statement that the sound alone of the Highland pipe can share a classical score and stage, that it’s not just about other instruments playing along to Highland bagpipe music. Too bad more pipers weren’t there to see and hear everything for which so many of us have frequently wished.

“A New Pibroch” will be broadcast on CBC Radio Two on Sunday, June 29, 2003, at 10:05 p.m.

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