Sing it loud

Published: July 31, 2010
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Having said that, the tune that stands out as being a completely different – and better – style is “The Desperate Battle.” The rendition of this tune is one that I heard the late John Burgess play many years ago, and completely different from the style that he played on one of his earliest recordings. Really, it just involves the adjustment of the timings of all of the high A’s in the first two variations. The result of this, however, is quite dramatic and makes for a lovely and unique presentation of the piece. Perhaps this is the singular item on the CD that could be credited as unique to John MacDonald.

Otherwise, a lot of it is really just the rather bog-standard way that we have come to play these tunes; “Glengarry’s March” has the “rapid clattering of B’s and low-G’s” as one of the leading modern masters described it to me recently, as opposed to the more perhaps genteel and sophisticated  Cameron method rarely heard now. “The MacGregors’ Gathering” likewise is pretty standard, with the exception that Nicol includes with no explanation the Angus MacKay style of variation three, which nobody plays now. “Squinting Patrick” is pretty well straight out of the book, with the exception of longer low-G’s in variation one, and “The Rout of Glenfruin” and “Alasdair Dearg” are also pretty well  in standard style because there really isn’t a lot that even old John MacDonald could have done to brighten up those somewhat dreary tunes.

Given all of this, it’s still a valuable and interesting reference and historically this type of recording is important because it gives pipers the chance to copy and learn the tunes and know that the renditions that they will be able to give are authoritative and accurate.

However, I was disappointed because Nicol very much is in the mode of “This is how I got it from MacDonald,” and he does not portray or even give any references to any other ways, which is a pity. There are also no references whatsoever to styles of phrasing and, perhaps more importantly,  there are no demonstrations of transitions and pacing between variations. So if you feel like I do that those are what makes the real difference in truly great renditions of tunes, then you too will feel that that is a most major omission and negates much of the advantages of teaching by way of canntairteachd.

It’s questionable also that some 30-plus years after Nicol’s death that the compiler, Dr. David Meyer, has chosen to put these recordings out at a rather premium $25. I would assume they were given to him by Nicol in the spirit of educational advancement and not in the spirit that someone would be making money off them after he was gone. That perhaps is a debate that can continue outwith the parameters of this review.

Colin MacLellan is one of the world’s greatest pipers and, among his many competitive achievements during his 40-year career, he gained both Highland Society of London Gold Medals and two Silver Chanters. He currently is a full-time reedmaker and piping teacher, and lives in Edinburgh. He was the subject of an extensive five-part pipes|drums Interview that started in November 2009.

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  1. BillLivingstone

    Ah Colin, as always you nailed this perfectly. I faced the attitude of Bob Nicol in my very early years in Scotland, and it was challenging to say the least. This is the way I got it from old Johnny MacDonald”…and that was the discussion over. There’s a lot less of that on the bench these days

  2. JanetteMontague

    Its very good indeed to get a straight, informed, and authoratative account of this work. I still find that out of respect for tutors on summer schools who are good enough to let us have recordings for the purpose of private study, I don’t feel inclined to buy it.

  3. ThePilot

    Good review by Colin. It is true that Nicol often said This is how i got it from John MacDonald” as if no other explanation was required ! These types of cds are useful in avoiding the ‘straight out the book’ syndrome we often get now but discussion of other styles too would be even more valuable.”

  4. piperjde

    If I learned anything in this review it’s that Colin is ridiculously educated about tunes (obviously) but it would be great for someone of his stature to maybe put together a cd or some kind of teaching aid of a few tunes with a couple styles of each tune.

  5. MichaelGrey

    Colin is one of the few who offer gratis online assistance. You should go to his pipereeds dot com site and click on the resources” tab – you’ll be on your way. “

  6. AlMcMullin

    I would like to thank Colin for this excellent review! Sometimes it is difficult understanding what a reviewer is really trying to say but not this time. I found the comments to be particularly valuable from an historical point of view and agree, to a point, it is worth having. I will not be purchasing it for the reasons Colin touched on at the very end of his fine article.

  7. Flashy

    This is just the kind of review we need more of in piping journals: direct, insightful, not malicious, not sycophantic, fearless handling of sacred cows. Thanks for calling it the way you see it, Colin. There are so many Pibroch tutorials out on CD these days. I think the grocer down the street has one too.

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July 29, 1976John Burgess plays to packed house at recital, Toronto.
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