Published: October 31, 2007

Marches, Strathspeys and Reels: A Cautionary Tale

By Joel Kimball
 
The descent occurred, as is so often the case, not in an instant, but over time, slowly, like a fall leaf loosing itself from the branch and lazily, gently twirling to rest on the ground. Looking up, the leaf can see the tree, yet it cannot go back. It doesn’t have wings, or legs and arms to climb back, or any other way to get back to the branch – it’s a leaf. Duh.

The leaf has fallen, and it can’t get up.

Like that leaf, the March, Strathspey & Reel has fallen to a lowly place in piping and pipe bands. It’s suffered a slow retreat to the back shelf of piping cool, the change hardly noticed until MSR is in an unfamiliar place – brown, dried, discarded, unloved.

It could be a tawdry place, a place of dark, cold rooms rented by the hour, cheap gin and vaguely disreputable characters where faded memories of yesteryear are relived in a pale haze of stale cigarette smoke. He used to be the best in his field – everyone, everyone had to learn how to play “the set” right, or you weren’t much of a player. But that all changed, like the former athlete whose skills gradually erode, paunchy now, salt and pepper hair, sitting among faded newspaper clippings, reminiscing about the glory days.

Why didn’t Piobaireachd ever seem to age? The thought drove him mad. “Ceol Mor,” as his friends referred to him, was as constant as the rising of the sun. Sure, he was a dandy, a fuddy-duddy, but unlike MSR, the world never passed him by. “Like Dorian Gray, the bastard,” thought MSR.

For reasons known only to the Piping Gods, Piobaireachd remained in the fore, an enigma, mesmerizing a dedicated following of True Believers who threw rose petals before his feet, while MSR’s time gradually came to an end, until those who passed him on the street didn’t recognize him . . . until he became a punch-line to “Where Are They Now?”

On the other hand, perhaps MSR is in a nice place – in a pretty chipper mood, thank you, largely satisfied with his own lot in life and perfectly happy to be helping the youth of the piping and drumming world “learn the ropes”. MSR may say “I had my time in the sun, and now it’s someone else’s turn, and that’s OK”. He and his wife, Hornpipe and Jig, living happily with their kids 6/8 and 4/4 (quite an athlete, that young 6/8 – just like his grandfather). And if you don’t mind my saying so, what a looker that Hornpipe and Jig is still, eh? Vibrant and charming, loves to dance. Not like that biddy MSR used to date back in school . . . you know the one . . . the spinster . . . what was her name? . . . ah, right – Slow Air. Jiminy Christmas, she absolutely sucked the marrow from your bones. But that’s not MSR and HP&J – handsome and content, quietly satisfied to look back in fond remembrance of accomplishments past, when they were the king and queen.

Either way, dark side or makes-you-wanna-punch-him-in-the-mouth, new-age optimistic wuss, MSR’s not The Deal any more. Wacky medleys, “kitchenpiping” and tunes with time signatures developed by feral, punk gangs of algebra ruffians (AKA “Crazy Time Signature”) have come to the fore.

By the way, does “kitchenpiping” exist any more? Oh! There he is at the bar next to MSR in the “dark” version of the story . . . my, he’s seen better days, hasn’t he? “Live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse” – that was Kitch’s motto. Guess he got the “die young” part right, poor fellow. Here, bartender, I’ve got the next round for the one-time up and comer – here’s mud in your eye, Champ. Don’t cheat yourself.

MSR had a long chat with Kitch a while back. “You knocked me off the top of the heap, but your day in the sun didn’t last too long, did it? Now here we are . . . no hard feelings. Slainte.”

These days, they spend time together, the old foes turned friends in misery, playing tunes for old-timers for drink money, engaged in one-upmanship concerning who had the greater experiences when they were on top. “This contest” versus “that beer tent,” “great hands” versus “great music,” “stagnant” versus “undisciplined,” over and over, never to resolution, like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill only to have it roll back. They once were on top of the world, but now they are both has-beens, losers, washed up – nothing.

Hmm. Well, I guess “kitchenpiping” is out, so that pretty much leaves “Zany, Crackpot Medley” and “Zombie Alchemist Death-Metal Time Signature” as the Big Thangs in pipe music right now.

For light music. Again, Dorian Ceol Mor is over there working the Grecian Formula, surrounded by his band of zealots plotting the next contest, “Shall we have tea and scones before or after, and is the venue appropriate for an event of this stature” (he talks like that), in his fancy kilt, all clean and pressed and his shiny shoes with the sassy buckles, and his little velvet doublet and ruffled shirt, looking like he should be a dancer, not someone borne of military roots, and “Shall we bring the Jaguar or the Land Rover to the contest?”

But that’s the loser’s lament – Piobaireachd through the eyes of lesser music. He may be dressed like a fop, but don’t judge the Killberry Book by its cover, nor discount the heart of the man. He’ll take lesser music in ten falls out of ten. He is The Man, and The Man’s got the Big Music market cornered. No challengers in sight. Solid.

“Look How Many Notes We Can Play – Good Luck Finding a Memorable Melody” Medley and “You Thought You Were a Musician, But Try to Follow This” Time-Signature Tunes took a shortcut through the seedy area of town after practice. Passing down a narrow street, they caught a glimpse of MSR and Kitch at Ye Olde Brew and snickered. “They’re sooooo boring, especially MSR – a walking anachronism. Heard one, you heard ’em all. Can we keep it to four parts, at least, so I don’t have to hear six or eight? And Kitchenpiping – he’s so . . . so ’80s.

As they scurried past to get to the good side of town, they heard the two castaways’ never-ending debate about the time that was, back in the day, when they were young.

It’s nice to know the “back-story” and where everyone is today, isn’t it?

But “Loopy Medley” and “Techno Time” – how did they supplant heaven’s own March, Strathspey & Reel? If Medley and Signature are to be believed, Sets’ time has passed. Sets are old; they’re done. Are MSR’s too restrictive, too boring – is it really the case that if you can play one, you can play them all? Is there nothing more to learn? Are they limiting?

Wacky Medley dishes up something novel every time – transitions follow new, counterintuitive patterns and layers of harmony are overlaid so thickly that the sound becomes musical cheesecake – rich, thick and sublime. When his friend Crazy Time Signature joins the festivities, Hornpipes are turned into Jigs, Jigs become Waltzes, Waltzes morph into Strathspeys to challenge even the most-experienced players to actually think through the entire tune, counting like a sixth-grader learning music for the first time (the late starters – I know most of us could hardly walk before we were dragging a chanter or practice pad around). It’s original, challenging, breaking the rules, serving a need deep within us – the need for brain candy.

Me? I like Sets. Thirty-some years playing and there’s always something to be discovered, a better way to play a tune learned decades ago. The music is still enjoyable, and much more subtle and nuanced than most all of what’s new and different. For my ear anyway.

So am I the only one who feels that way? Is it really that MSRs are just boring and youngsters – and a fair number of oldsters – have had enough of “The Marchioness of Tullibardine,” “Shepherd’s Crook” and “Ca’ the Ewes” and need a new challenge? That the “brain candy” of Wacky M and Crazy T.S. have pushed aside MSR of their own merits? That they’re the New Wave to a better future, borne of their own energy?

Oh, I think not.

That stuff is all kind of logical and maybe even makes some sense. I think it’s much loonier than that. They got some help pushing MSR aside. I think it involves the Council on Foreign Relations, descendants of the Knights Templar in league with black UN helicopters and monied French aristocrats, Greenpeace sleeping with Big Oil and Central-American drug lords conspiring with Wall Street money. That’s right – it’s a conspiracy.

And MSR thinks the same thing, and he’s looking for some payback.

Too bad I gotta wrap this up, or we’d get into it more deeply.

Epilogue

Wacky Medley and Crazy Time Signature were on the ground in an instant, their arms twisted behind their backs, their heads pressed against the cold, wet pavement before their muffled cries could escape.

“I knew we shouldn’t have taken this shortcut, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it . . .” thought Crazy.

“Whatever you wan . . .”

“Stifle it, Junior,” demanded a grizzled, vaguely dangerous voice. “I’ll tell you what I want. First, we’ll have your wallets, thank you. Life’s not as remunerative as it used to be.” The voice chuckled.

“And I want one other thing,” the voice hissed. “I want you to take a message back to your friends, back to your practices where all the cool kids are playing tunes not written more than five years ago. You remind them that these instruments, pipes and drums, are ancient. And pipes still only play nine notes – drums only one . . . although drums can change their volume, which pipes can’t, so that is something in favor of the drums . . .”

“Stay on-message!” the other voice interjected sharply.

“Right – you tell ’em pipes and drums are simple, ancient instruments meant to play straightforward, traditional music. Tell all your friends – they all want to play their fancy medleys and their freakish, modern tunes in tortured time signatures in the World Pipe Band Championship . . .”

The voice became louder. “Well, if you ain’t one of the Top Six or haven’t won a Championship – and there’s a whole lot more of you in that boat than not – then you’d better know who I am, and you’d better know me well – or your existence in the Championship will cease, and you will never play your precious Wacky Medley with the Crazy Time Signatures! You will never play them unless you can master me! Because you will never make it out of the QUALIFIER!”

The voice had become a guttural shriek. “You tell your friends that! Now go! And don’t come this way again if you ever want to play in the afternoon again!”
Wacky and Crazy were hoisted to their feet, and, with a sharp kick, sent running down the dimly lit road.

The voice thundered after them. “Don’t look back! Run and get out your instruments and practice! And you tell ’em – if you ain’t Top Six or a Champion – you still gotta go through ME to get to the final! I’m still a player! You tell ’em March, Strathspey & Reel ain’t dead yet, and if you can’t play me, I’ll see you in the beer tent early! I am The Qualifier . . . BWAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Let’s be careful out there . . .

Joel Kimball
October 29, 2007

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Joel Kimball is perpetually old-school but still keeps up with the youngin’s in the Grade 1 Toronto Police Pipe Band. He lives in Michigan and works in the world of American automobile production.

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