May 31, 2005

Two hands Clasping

Donald MacPherson: A Living Legend

Reviewer's rating: 4.5 gracenotes out of a possible 5

Reviewed by Michael Grey

You know you’re on to something special in a bagpipe project when there are five languages of text to be considered. You know you’re on to something really special when that project centres on the remarkable piper, Donald MacPherson, the legendary 20th century prize-winning machine—without doubt the winningest piper ever to walk God’s green earth.

Donald MacPherson: A Living Legend is an exquisitely produced 168-page hardcover compact disc book that includes one CD of seven tracks of MacPherson playing a selection of some of the best tunes in the pibroch repertoire. Ailean Dòmhnullach’s Gaelic introduction aside, the book begins with English and follows with translations of these 40 pages in German, Spanish and French. Produced by Barnaby Brown, through his, the intention in releasing the project was twofold: to create a document of Donald MacPherson’s playing and approach to music and, second, to the uninitiated, shed light on the art form to help broker better understanding, especially among European concert-promoters. The decision to create a multilingual production is brilliant.

The booklet is substantial and includes high-level overviews of the tunes included on the recording. These will be of interest to the inexpert and, for that reason, work well. Of interest to all pipers will be MacPherson’s own words on “How I was taught to play.” These pages put me to mind of some of Angus MacPherson’s writing in A Highlander Looks Back: simple times to learn good music, unencumbered by the anti-musical nuisances of GameBoys and X-Boxes and who knows what else. Barnaby Brown’s short essay, “Making sense of pibroch” is good reading. Evocative phrases like “rhythmic universe” and “melodic indulgence” made me smile. It made sense to me.

On this recording Donald MacPherson’s performances are extraordinary. In English, Allan MacDonald’s introduction aptly describes these as featuring “restraint and deftness” and I can think of no better words. There’s an understated elegance to MacPherson’s playing that is mesmerizing: every note lands in the right space, surely just as the old muses directed the tune’s composers.

We’re meant to be politically correct these days and publicly stay clear of sticky issues and poorly “positioned” perspectives—ageism included—but, good grief, these performances are great by any competing piper’s standards: Donald MacPherson recorded these as he began his ninth decade of life. He is not a young man. But here we hear every single last piece of technique performed to the highest crystal clear levels, the pipe full, resonant and perfectly blown. It’s really quite unbelievable. For his tremendous playing at an advanced age alone, MacPherson has set a benchmark that will long be talked about wherever pipers meet.

Donald MacPherson: A Living Legend — a fitting name for the piper, and this project.

A solo piper, composer and recording artist of the highest order, Michael Grey lives in Dundas, Ontario.


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