July 31, 2010

Old School: thoughts on ceol mor with four piping legends – Lt.-Col. David Murray

IS: Is it likely that they will begin publishing those tunes written in the 20th century in the near future or even aim for the better of these tunes to be set for the major competitions?

DJSM: They’ve already published one book of 20th century piobaireachd and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t publish more. I think the finances would bear that. And there’s no reason why 20th century piobaireachd shouldn’t be set in competition as long as they’re published. There’s nothing objectionable in the modern competitions. In fact, I would say that they’re too conservative. That they all follow the ancient pattern: a piobaireachd competition, either there’s a ground and a theme and they chugged through it from the siubhal to the taorluath to the crunluath the back to the theme again. This is a well-trodden path, and whether these are truly modern piobaireachds or merely piobaireachds written in modern times in an ancient idiom is a matter for argument

As I say, there’s nothing to which one could take exception in the majority of these tunes, but I think some of them betray a lack of knowledge of the theory of piobaireachd construction or piobaireachd composition in the way they’re set out and the way they run. I suspect that some of the composers hadn’t really grasped the significance of the pentatonic scale, the difference between the pentatonic scale on A and the pentatonic scale on low-G, for instance, or on D. And the phrases just meander along and none of them get a high-G stuck in because there can’t be a piobaireachd unless it’s got a high-G in it somewhere. And very often the thing doesn’t hold together. It doesn’t flow like one of the old tunes does.

I say “very often” – that’s probably overstating the case, that sometimes you can even see indications of the composer has been trying to fit in piobaireachd-y little features. And I think that’s to be expected, I think and that’s quite acceptable really. I wouldn’t take exception to it. But I think we’re still waiting for the great modern piobaireachd to appear. Wee Donald MacLeod was heading that way and if he had lived he’s the man who could have done it. But I think it’s still in somebody’s head at the moment.

IS: Would you like to see the setting up of more societies like the Piobaireachd Society?

DJSM: Yes. I think that any monopoly is a bad thing and that the Piobaireachd Society, I think, would be improved if it had to justify its opinions and justify its methods. I don’t know how one would set up a rival piobaireachd society or what it would be cost, but I believe that it’s only by constant argument and discussion that we can advance the knowledge of piobaireachd. And at present I don’t think the Piobaireachd Society, in fact, is all that interested. I’m thinking about the music committee – I’d better qualify that – the Music Committee are not all that interested in discussion and argument at the moment. I think they prefer to see the scores which have been published over the years treated as sacrosanct, which they’re not.

IS: If we could just go back to a point you made earlier – great stress has been placed and the majority of returned questionnaires that piobaireachd is not written the way it is played or vice versa. Would you like to comment further on this?

DJSM: Yes, I think that is very true. I don’t think it ever was. No, I mustn’t – that’s not true, that’s not true. The printed score is only a piece of paper with marks on it. It’s up to the performer to extract the essence, the soul of what’s there, the soul of the melody. And in all forms of music the soloist is allowed a certain amount of latitude in the way in which he interprets the marks on the paper.

But I think that piobaireachd – it’s now grown up – that in order to win a prize at a competition you’ve got to play the tune in an acceptable manner. And in an acceptable manner, nine times out of 10, means playing it as it’s written on the printed score. The printed scores, apart from Book 1 of the Piobaireachd Society series, all of the printed scores which are readily available at this time are based on what Kilberry called his piper’s jargon, i.e., a form of shorthand in which he noted the various tunes which he evolved himself over the years. And he warns us in his preface that this is purely a jargon and not to be taken as a guide as to the way the tunes are played.



  1. Brilliant, of all these great interviews this one strikes home the most. If you love the big music then reading this is a boost to your stand. While friends and all say that the piobreachd is just too much maybe they’re not giving it the chance it deserves. Great stuff.

  2. It would be very interesting to read an interview with Murray today, to ask him some of these same questions, to ask him if things have changed for the better over the last twenty years ago. Very valuable interview series. Thanks for publishing it here.

  3. That’s a very moving interview. Here is someone talking about questions rather than fixed answers, discussion and debate (rather than rules and dogmas), the possibility of different interpretations and ways of doing things. Open-ness and thinking, rather than the closed book and one way of doing things. Music to the ears. Thanks you for this great interview.



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