Highland pipers John Mulhearn and Calum MacCrimmon are known for their creative exploration of piobaireachd, the classical music of the Highland pipe, which has been both praised and criticized for being steadfastly traditional at the cost of musical evolution.
The two have combined to organize the Big Music Society, “to create new performance opportunities and contexts for pibroch and engage a wider audience in our undeniably powerful heritage, while encouraging new developments and collaborations.”
For the last 100 years the music has been promoted and largely controlled by the Piobaireachd Society, with competition being the primary performance platform, with standardized settings of tunes published and prescribed for major solo contests. In the last 10 years especially the Piobaireachd Society has worked to broaden its horizons and is even working with the Big Music Society, fully supportive of the new group’s efforts.
The first performance produced by the Big Music Society is on March 6th at the National Piping Centre with piobaireachd competition legend Murray Henderson and the well know performance piper Duncan Grant presenting interpretations of tunes with the Big Music String Ensemble, a group led by bassist James Lindsay. Grant’s background as “Cain,” an electronic music producer, according to the organizers, “gives him a very different perspective and we can expect some real sonic exploration.”
“The Big Music Society is not a ‘society’ in the traditional organizational sense,” Mulhearn said. “It’s a bit of a play on words whilst also implying that the society is anything that we get involved in. The genesis of the name and idea was a few years ago at Celtic Connections where I brought an ensemble together to re-imagine pibroch for a more diverse audience.”
Mulhearn added that the original concept evolved into the partnership with MacCrimmon. “Our hope is that this first show will be a springboard for further innovative programming and promotion. We have several further plans up our sleeves that I can’t really go into yet but suffice to say we’re seeing this first show as just the beginning, over time who knows in what direction it will go. Our parameters are wide open.”
Coexisting with the Piobaireachd Society in the UK might have been difficult some years ago, but current President Jack Taylor has helped to coax the once-stodgy society from protectionist to progressive.
“Our objectives and impulses are different from the Piobaireachd Society,” Mulhearn continued. “It’s important to say that we aren’t looking at this as a reaction against the Piobaireachd Society and the pibroch orthodoxy, more just a natural progression. Remaining independent means that we have complete creative control and that is crucial for us to allow things to evolve naturally.”
The multi-instrumentalist Calum MacCrimmon, a Canadian who has lived in Scotland for several years, is the hereditary piper to Clan MacLeod, and a direct descendent of the MacCrimmon piping dynasty. Not one for the competition side of the Highland pipe, he has developed several musical projects, most prominently his Celtic band, Breabach.
Regarding the Big Music Society, MacCrimmon said, “Another one of our commitments will be to identify the musicians and bands who have already explored exciting and fresh arrangements of ceol mor, such as the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, the 78th Fraser Highlanders, Allan MacDonald, Fraser Fifield, Martyn Bennet and many more. We hope that this approach will be something intriguing to the competitors and the enthusiasts but it may also help to bring in more of the piping/drumming community who claim to ‘not understand’ or ‘not like’ pibroch. Even more ambitious than that, we want to bring in new followers from outside of the piping and folk scene all together. It may be a long time before we see any of these results but it is certainly an exciting prospect.”
The organization has released a teaser video with Murray Henderson, previewing part of the March 6th event: