Published: December 31, 1999

What Makes an Alex Duthart Score a Masterpiece

By Doug Stronach

Think about all the drum scores you’ve ever played. Hundreds, perhaps thousands. Now think about all of the drum scores that you can remember, not including this year’s competition tunes. Ten, twenty? Not many, eh?

That’s because we write scores using drumming cliches—popular sticking combinations. We use them again and again because they sound good and they feel good to play. Unfortunately each new score we write tends to sound like the last one.

Scores that are memorable are often simple. By that I don’t mean easy to play, I mean thoughtfully and musically married to their pipe tune. We shrug off the massed band scores because they’re too repetitive, but it’s repetition that makes symphonies or pop songs into classics. Let’s not forget piobaireachd as well.

What I’d like to do is take you through a score that has become a classic. Every year Grade One bands and soloists the world over play Alex Duthart’s “Cameronian Rant.” There are countless imitations, but none that comes close to the impact of the original.

I was taught this score by Alex Duthart’s son, Drew, while playing in the Metro Police Pipe Band. You’ll find it on page 66 and 67 of The Alex Duthart Book 1 (Alex Duthart Percussion Ltd.). The pipe tune setting I refer to here is on page 28 and 29 of Donald MacLeod Book 1 (Mozart Allen).

There is only a small handful of books on pipe band drumming and Duthart’s books are two of the most important. And please, respect the art and its artists—do not photocopy.

This score is not particularly complex and it is filled with repetition. Its pipe tune has a driving, relentless rhythm and melody that Duthart builds on throughout his eight parts.

In part 1 he gets right into the action with a 3-stroke ruff placed on the fragile middle note of a triplet. Rhythmically, the pipe tune is mostly cut-and-dot here, with a triplet rhythm on beat 2 of each bar except one (note: the pipe music notates beat 2 as triplets but often sounds more like halfway between a triplet and two sixteenths and one eighth note).

The tune moves up a tone in the third and fourth bars and the score follows by rounding out the rhythm with 16th note singles and by leaving any emphasis off the second beat of the triplet. When the score halts on the downbeat of beat 4 of bar 4, it allows the high G from the pipes to poke through and give a little breather before the score repeats bars 1 and 2 again.

Bars 7 and 8 are played with a long accented buzz roll that repeats the same rhythm 3 1/2 times, starting with the last half of the rhythm on beat 1. A clearly notated crescendo finishes the first part solidly. Bars 7 and 8 is also the first of two important endings that Duthart builds on as the score progresses.

He starts part 2 with a quarter note buzz roll that’s extended by one buzz onto the left hand. He uses this over-extension in various forms throughout the score. Instead of playing an even 4 buzzes as normal, he uses 5 buzzes. Don’t interpret the abbreviated roll as being only 3 buzzes to end on the left hand. It is intended to be 5. To play all 5 buzzes at full tempo you have to burn from the first buzz. This attention to detail—often ignored by amateur players—helps to mimic the intensity of the pipe tune.

Part 2 also has some classic one and two bar phrasing. Right now the trend is for drum score composers to create obvious and often superficial phrasing by using dynamics. This is overdone if you ask me. Good phrasing comes out of mature arrangement, with dynamics invigorating, not suffocating, the phrase. Duthart carefully designs his sticking and rudiments to follow the question-and-answer phrasing of the pipe tune. Open flams and 5-stroke rolls in the first 2 bars contrast to the busier accented single strokes and crushed 5-stroke rolls in bars 3 and 4.

Bars 5 and 6 are a set-up for one of the score’s signature endings. Bar 5 opens up, and bar 6 empties out completely with a light-hearted drag double using continuous triplets. This sets us up for the classic accented single stroke run in bars 7 and 8 that is for many people the identifying mark of this score.

Parts 3 and 4 continue back and forth in one and two bar question-and-answer phrasing. He builds the excitement gradually with more accented single stroke runs and short accented buzz rolls culminating up to the fifth part.

The fifth part for me is one of the best drum parts ever written. I remember as a kid listening to Andy Scullion play this part at the World Solo Drumming Championships. I was amazed at how simple yet powerful the first two bars can sound. Smooth and quiet to start, then loud and violent to the end. Simple taps on beats 1,3 and 4 of each bar fit perfectly with the start of each cut-and-dot rhythm in the pipe tune—all of this excitement in the space of two quick strathspey bars.

Learning to play this part years later made me appreciate it even more. The roll starts on the right with accents that alternate continuously. These alternating accents force us to add one more buzz between each accented tap, similar to what I described before for the one beat buzz roll. To play this at tempo and in time, I have to dig in from the start.

When I add the notated crescendo, I have two bars that physically challenge me every time I play the score. And it’s not the kind of movement that gets more comfortable the more times I play it—I have to work to get it right every time. The difficulty of this part is evident when I listen to drummers who choose to play all of the accents on the one hand. They are clearly missing the point that Duthart’s sticking backs up the intensity and aggression that’s imposed by the tune.

Melodically and rhythmically, the fifth part lays low and solid—not much melody but lots of thick and furious embellishments. The tune lightens up with a dot-and-cut rhythm on beats 3 and 4 of the last bar before heading into the whimsical (by comparison) sixth part.

Part 6 follows the exchangeable one or two bar phrasing of parts 2, 3 and 4. Part 7 is another instantly likeable part. Again Duthart is not afraid to repeat himself by having two bars exactly the same side by side. The dynamics are important here. He swells to the end of the second beat of bars 1 and 2 and lightens to the third and fourth beats, creating a round, swooping effect.

In contrast, bars 3 and 4 swell up to beat 4 and back down to beat 1 over a long accented buzz roll. Bar 4 repeats bar 3. The pipe tune attacks the first two beats of each bar with a cut-and-dot and heavy triplet rhythm. Beats 3 and 4 contrast them with a light dot-and-cut rhythm and higher melody notes. To match the tune, Duthart emphasizes the first two beats of each bar in bars 1 to 6 of part 7.

He continues part 8 like part 7, setting two pairs of identical bars side by side. Like the tune, the score switches the emphasis from the front-heavy feel of beats 1 and 2 in part 7 to the more balanced feel of beats 1 and 3 in part 8. He uses the petite drag double triplet motif in bar 6 to set us up again for that clever accented single stroke run.

This whole score is a roller coaster of a ride. Like the pipe tune, it verges on climax several times but maintains its momentum by never quite letting go. Its pipe tune uses only four rhythms: dot and cut, cut and dot, triplet, and simple quarter note. Its melody also uses few notes. Duthart strengthens these melodies and rhythms by judiciously repeating his solid, well-arranged rudiments and sticking.

One of Hugh Cameron’s favorite stories quotes Alex Duthart as saying, “Never ever be afraid to repeat yourself.” We’d be fools not to take the advice of the man who wrote one of the finest drum scores in the history of pipe band drumming.

As well as being a PPBSO judge, and private and seminar drumming instructor, Doug Stronach is a singer, composer, arranger and producer. He lives in Fergus, Ontario,and owns and operates Eclipse Music productions, a company that specializes in live and recorded sound.


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