Published: January 31, 2003

Classical Composer To Debut New Work For Pipes

An important new composition for Highland bagpipe, strings and percussion will be unveiled on March 23, 2003, at the Canadian Broadcasting Company‘s (CBC) Glen Gould Studio, and broadcast nationally by CBC Radio.

Written by the well known and award winning composer, John Beckwith, “A New Pibroch” collaborates with piper Michael Grey of Dundas, Ontario, who will perform the piping part live on stage.

According to Beckwith, “A New Pibroch” is scored for Highland pipes, percussion, and seven string instruments. The strings accommodate their tuning to the pipe scale, and the piece uses only those pitches. The percussion part complements the pipes with drumming figures, but also lends colour at times.

The work is slightly under fifteen minutes, and follows the slow tempo and variation structure of a classic piobaireachd. In two sections it uses rhythms adapted from one of the famous works in the genre, “Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon.” Beckwith introduces fragments from “De’il Among The Tailors” at two points for contrast.

“A New Pibroch” is a result of the New Music Concerts organization in Toronto, which commissions top composers to explore new musical realms. The inspiration to develop a piece first came to Beckwith in the 1980s, after hearing Maxwell Davies’ well-known piece, “An Orkney Wedding.”

“In those years, orchestras and recording labels were featuring ‘An Orkney Wedding,’ which purported to be a piece for Highland pipes and orchestra,” said Beckwith. “Actually, the pipes come on for a three-minute cameo just at the end, and it seemed to me that Davies (a composer I have always admired) didn’t want to face the problems of combining orchestral instruments with the pipes.

“The problems – mainly in areas of tuning and balance – intrigued me. I tried to suggest such a concert piece to a couple of prominent conductors and, while they didn’t exactly say I was crazy, they didn’t take me up on it. When the New Music Concerts organization proposed a commission and asked what I’d like to write for them, I again suggested something like a modern version of the classical piobaireachd, and I’m glad to say they were enthusiastic.”

Beckwith did some research into pipers who might be appropriate to work and perform with him on the composition, and he approached Grey, who has explored many new musical genres, styles and rhythms through his own compositions and recordings.

Beckwith continues: “I was prepared that Michael might feel something like an ‘appropriation of voice’ was taking place, but he too was quite enthusiastic, and his advice as a composer for the pipes and a champion performer has been a great help in focusing my thoughts – besides which I have enjoyed his CDs and learned a good deal from them.”

“I am honoured to have been asked by Professor Beckwith to collaborate on this truly landmark piece,” said Grey. “To work with such a compositional leader is the chance of a lifetime. I hope it’s the first of many projects, and that it spurs further integration of the music of the Highland bagpipe with other musical instruments and genres.”

John Beckwith has been awarded the Order of Canada, and is Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Toronto. He holds honourary doctorates from five Canadian universities, was recipient of the Canadian Music Council’s annual medal in 1972 and “Composer of the Year” citation in 1984, as well as the Toronto Arts award for music in 1995 and the Diplome d’honneur of the Canadian Conference of the Arts in 1996.

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