Published: January 31, 2002

Living arrangements

A Lifetime of Compositions
William & James Barrie
Published by the compilers
4763 Koksilah Rd, Duncan BC V9L 6N8
76 tunes, 88 pages

Reviewed by Tom Speirs

Whether in the pipe band or solo arena, families have frequently dominated piping. Starting with the MacCrimmons and the MacKays, to the latter day MacFadyens, MacCallums and Lees — fathers and sons (and in many cases daughters) uncles, nieces and nephews — have practiced and developed their art and performance. So it is with A Lifetime of Compositions by William and James Barrie.

All the tunes in this interesting book are either their own compositions or their arrangement of well-known traditional pieces, and, as is only right, by way of introduction a short piping C.V. of William, the father, and James, the son, is given at the outset. It is interesting to note that while their roots are West of Scotland, they have resided in New Zealand and the west coast of Canada at a time when the influence of these countries in our music has increased out of all recognition. Their music, however, retains a dominant Scottish idiom and flavour throughout.

The book is extremely easy to read, is very well and professionally laid out, and incorporates one of my own particular likes—footnotes on whom the tune was written for and why and when it was written. In this regard I give it 10 out of 10.

While a number of the tunes are well known with several published elsewhere, the content covers a wide spectrum of tempos and time signatures. The light music section, which should be of interest to competitive players and bands as well as those who merely play to enjoy their hobby, comprises four 3/4 and 4/4 marches, 12 6/8 marches, 11 slow airs, eight 2/4 marches, four strathspeys, nine reels, 14 jigs and 11 hornpipes. Many of these compositions identify and recognize members of the Barrie family, but many also salute well known and highly respected figures in the piping world who have crossed the Barrie path and greatly influenced there commitment, including Pipe Major Robert Reid and Pipe Major Donald MacLeod. While it is nice to see such luminaries being yet again lauded by good tunes it is also nice to see individuals like Pipe Major Douglas Thoreson and Mary MacKinnon—who have unstintingly done so much for pipers and piping—receiving the same compliment. Indeed, “Mary MacKinnon” would be my pick of the 2/4 marches.

Of the other sections my favourites would be the 4/4 march “Auckland Police Pipe Band,” the 6/8 “George Johnston” (ex 2nd Battalion Scots Guards), and the slow air “Jan Barrie” (named for his wife by James Barrie, so he must also think that it’s a good tune).

While the collection is perhaps just a little light in the strathspey section, I would highlight “Friendly Bay,” not for its outstanding content but merely for the fact that it was the first tune written by James Barrie when a mere slip of a lad of 13 years. As anyone who has tried composing will be aware, strathspeys contain the most difficult pulsing to get your creative mind round, and I find it remarkable that he should start out his composing career with such an effort. This is no wee boy’s tune and for me demonstrates the potential which the collection now demonstrates.

Among the reels by both William and James, several are cut and dotted, while others are left to be played very even. This is obviously intentional, and I would be interested to know if this is a change of writing style, a change of playing style (as evidenced perhaps by many recently heard pipe band performances), or is it an effort to appeal to other instruments such as the fiddle or accordion? For all that “The Nova Scotian Fiddler” is worthy of more than a little attention.

There are several interesting and well-constructed hornpipes, which make a pleasant change from some of the hurdy-gurdy manual pyrotechnics more often heard today. While a number are already well known and are published elsewhere, my favourite would be “Drones Dodz,” a tune new to me.

For me however this publication contains a real jewel in the crown in that four previously unpublished piobaireachds are also included. It is most encouraging to realize that, together with the last issue of the Piper & Drummer, more new piobaireachds have now been published in 2001 than in the last five to ten years, and its great to see it happening. A number of years ago, while in Vancouver I purchased a tape from James Barrie that included a chanted version with organ of “The Lament for Pipe Major Robert Reid.” Pipe Major Angus MacDonald and I listened to it often en route to Glasgow. We both greatly enjoyed the tune and the method of presentation and, now that I have the score, intend to learn the piece. I would hope too that other players not burdened by set tunes will also make the effort. At the same time I would hope that when “modern tunes” are next selected for the Clasp and Open competitions that sales of this publication will boom, as all the tunes now presented are worthy of an airing.

I have greatly enjoyed tootling my way through this book and feel sure that anyone else who does likewise will greatly enjoy the experience.

Tom Speirs is one of the greatest pipers to emerge from Edinburgh. He won the Northern Meeting’s Clasp in 1985, and has garnered most of the major piobaireachd prizes. Now retired from solo competition, he is active as a piping judge and teacher, and works professionally in the financial industry.

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