Musical meandering at Piping Live!
By Iain MacDonald
One of the great things about Piping Live! – and something that has been a feature throughout the history of the festival – is the diversity of musical experiences on offer. There is always something new or different on offer, as well as the tried and true, and a variety of options for learning, or at least refreshing your interest.
Wandering into the Street Café, it was instant immersion into Hungarian music with pipes and hurdy gurdy featuring Balázs Istvánfi and Andras Németh. Here was an unexpected pleasure: excellent piping on an instrument I had not heard in-person, and interesting idioms that gave you the sense of being in a different place and time. As the intensity ramped up, you expected a dance might break out.
One of the themes at Piping Live! is the “Learn @ Live!” series, which takes place at the Otago Street location and features two presentations each day on a variety of subjects. Hosted by Willie McCallum, the series offers opportunities to learn about piobaireachd and performance, about famous pipers of the past, and about styles of music.
On Wednesday, Roddy MacLeod presented a talk with audio samples of his great mentor, the late Duncan Johnstone. MacLeod discussed Johnstone’s upbringing and influences, his piping and work careers, his styles of playing, teaching, and composing, and included some amusing anecdotes about Johnstone’s sense of humour and kindness.
This was followed by Matt MacIsaac who demonstrated on the pipes his techniques and thoughts about playing a Cape Breton style of music. Matt’s long experience playing with and for great fiddlers – including many years as the piper for Natalie MacMaster’s band – has given him a very interesting and practical approach to thinking about this style of music. Another highly enjoyable hour, and a contrast in style and approach to the first session, making the morning fly past.
A quick run on the underground to Buchanan Street, and there the Glasgow folk were out in full force, enjoying an unusually warm and sunny week. People crowded the pedestrian mall to enjoy the sun, and while there were there, pipe bands were in force, entertaining the crowds. The Durham Regional Police Pipes & Drums from Ontario entertained a crowd down near St. Enoch’s Square, while up close to the Royal Concert Hall, the Highland Thistle Pipe Band from Argentina played for an appreciative audience.
Pipe bands in the sun, and then into the National Piping Centre to take in the guided museum tour with Hugh Cheape. Dr. Cheape gives amazing context and background for the current museum collection and provides insightful commentary of the history and mythology of piping.
And while this was all amazing, there were recitals, launches, competition and lots of visiting all going on at the same time. It’s impossible to get to it all, and for bands rehearsing for the weekend, maybe even a bit too much diversion. The festival offers a diversity and richness of piping that is probably only experienced here, or in part via livestream. Credit is due to the organizers and funders whose efforts make this possible.
Iain MacDonald is a frequent contributor to pipes|drums. A piper of the first order, his teaching and organizational contributions in and around his native Saskatchewan are legendary, and he was voted one of the 15 Greatest Living Canadian Pipers & Drummers in our celebration of the country’s 150th birthday in 2017. A former member of Grade 1 bands Babcock-Renfrew and Simon Fraser University and a current member of the 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel), he was the pipe-major of the Grade 2 City of Regina for three decades until his recent decision to step down. He lives in Regina.