January 31, 2003

Strings attached

Bows and Drones
Neil Johnstone (cello), Duncan Johnstone (pipes), Rab Wallace (pipes)
Shoreglen Ltd.

Reviewer's rating: 4 gracenotes out of a possible 5

Reviewed by George Campbell

I knew Duncan Johnstone quite well, and visited him several times at his house in Pollockshaws, Glasgow, a number of years ago to run over some tunes. At that time Duncan was closing in on his seventh decade. The tremendous finger dexterity and the security of rhythm both and musical interpretation of this piping legend astonished me.

I remember the Scottish Pipers’ Association Knockout competitions that are referred to in the notes that accompany Bows and Drones. They were held in the Highlanders Institute during the 1960s. The best pipers of that era competed, and I was present the night Duncan bested his great friend, the late great P-M Donald MacLeod, to win that prestigious event.

Duncan was known as “The King of Jigs.” That term was never meant to be unkind, but Duncan was an all round player, strong in all departments of piping. He was without equal during his heyday playing and interpreting jigs, much to the delight of all who heard him. Duncan was never known to be one of the great tone producers; however when he got his pipe going the sound produced did not matter. The sheer brilliance of the music more than made up for any lack of tonal quality. He preferred the sharper D and high G that were common at that time. Most modern pipers find this troublesome.

Now, to the task at hand. Each track on Bows and Drones alternates between cello and bagpipe. Duncan’s son, Neil, is an accomplished cellist, and his classical training is evidenced by his mastery of the intricacies of pipe music. His control of bowing and tone is, in my view, remarkable; his skill with shading and phrase interpretation on this vibrant instrument brings a new dimension to pipe music for me. The tasteful use of drone accompaniment in place of another instrument is clever.

On four tracks Duncan plays the music for which he is legend – hornpipes and jigs, many of them composed by him, traditional tunes arranged by him, or tunes composed by others and named for him. Also included are tunes he enjoyed, such as “Pipe Major Jimmy Macgregor” by J. Scott and “John MacKenzie’s Fancy” by J.A. Barrie They are obviously older recordings the tonal quality of Duncan’s pipe is not what is expected today, excellence of the playing of this wonderful composer/ arranger more than compensates.

There are highlights of Bows and Drones worth mentioning. His interpretation of “An Exercise” on the first track is first class. “Bogan Lochan” is also very good, as are a set of marches ending with “Father John MacMillan of Barra.”

On track 8 Rab Wallace gives a sterling performance of “Lament for Alan, My Son,” a piobaireachd composed by Duncan and played on a well-tuned instrument. This poignant melody is haunting in its beauty. I do not know the circumstances surrounding the composition of this tune, however there is a sense of great loss.

On one of my last visits to Duncan’s house I prevailed upon Duncan to play the tune which he felt made him famous, he played his own 6/4 tune, “Farewell to Nigg.” Appropriately, Neil plays this melody to finish a most interesting compilation.

Though Duncan composed or arranged most of the material I found it unusual that there are no credits to the composers listed anywhere in the notes. This CD would be a valuable asset to any serious piping collector’s music library.

George Campbell is the former Pipe-Major of the Grade 1 General Motors Pipe Band, and currently the leader of the Durham Regional Police Pipe Band. A native of Glasgow, he lives in Oshawa, Ontario, and serves on the PPBSO’s judging panel.


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