Is the World’s killing the pipe band world? Part 2
had dropped out of pipe bands making the annual trek to World Pipe Band Championships. The project, which brought together some 40 pipers and drummers from the UK, Canada, Australia and the United States, saw the group get together as a whole for only the five days before the World’s. Spirit of Scotland made it through the Qualifier and finished eleventh overall in the Final, and hasn’t played together since.
Regardless, the so far one-time experiment proved that a top-grade band can succeed at the World’s on the day without having to put in a full year, much less the decades that other bands commit, to do well. It’s the far flung phenomenon taken to an extreme. While its members, to a person, loved the experience, and the experiment worked, is it really what pipe bands are all about?
The stifling of creativity
While pipe band medleys from bands competing at the World’s can be imaginative and clever, bands more or less avoid rocking the judges’ boat. Non-UK bands investing tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars to compete in Scotland aren’t about to jeopardize their chances by being substantially creatively different. Conservatism is the name of the game, and creativity in Grade 1 comes in microscopic increments.
“Bands tend to cram toward the end of the summer instead of being consistent all year and band members are agreeing to all spend a lot of money on going to the World’s,” said Millar. “This causes stress and, because of the expenditures, bands may try to do what will be competitively successful rather than musically enjoyable.”
Probably the most musically adventurous and risk-taking top-grade band is the Toronto Police. The group has not competed at the World’s since 2008, and will miss it again in 2011. In 2010 the band chose to compete at the Cowal Championships, the last RSPBA major of the year, mainly because it didn’t have to qualify so was assured of performing one of its musically different medleys. The result? Last in Grade 1 with a hammering from piping judges especially on the musical content of its selection.
“Say what you like about their medley content, but many of the bands that were placed ahead of them were surely not within their league in terms of tone, stability, playing skill, and integration,” said Bill Livingstone, the former pipe-major of the 78th Fraser Highlanders, who joined the Toronto Police early in 2011. “That’s the punishment for making an effort to be fresh. And frankly, I suspect the intention is ‘let that be a lesson to all’ – play by our rules or go home. So the problem with the World’s is that it stifles imagination, new approaches, creativity, and any of the things that music (read: art) are supposed to celebrate. And the mentality permeates the entire pipe band scene because of the power of this contest – power that we, the musicians have given it, and have no control over now.
“What the World’s has done is create among bands, an atmosphere of caution, if not downright fear of offending and thereby taking themselves out of any consideration for a prize. The top bands in Grade 1 have all come very close to perfection of the art of tuning, stability, general sound quality, integration and all of the other fundamentals. The result is a fairly tedious display of uniformity. There is clearly no stomach for innovation at the top level, and the problem is that this trickles its way down to the lower grades. Year after year we hear the lower grade bands giving laldy to the stuff that the Grade 1 winners recently played. So the stagnation is perpetuated. Does anyone need to hear yet another medley opener employing a hornpipe played on the nauseating repetition of E to low A followed by the ‘matching phrase’ on D to low G?”
Livingstone is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of pipe band music at the World’s. In 1992 his 78th Fraser Highlanders opened its medley at Glasgow with a Gaelic waulking song, marching in to the circle at a relative slow-march pace.
“I thought it was terrific,” Livingstone said. “Some fellow with a swagger stick came marching up to me before the march-past at the World’s to tell me that I would be pleased to hear that my band had not been disqualified. Indeed I was not pleased at all. Better to have been DQ’d rather than spanked in the results. Disqualification would have drawn attention to the mentality rampant at that contest then, and now, too. And that would have forced an open debate. How refreshing such a thing would have been.”
The band placed seventh – “spanked” by Livingstone’s expectations then – and such an outrageous attempt at creativity, despite it being derived from one of the oldest traditions of truly native Scottish music, was shut down by those in power.