July 31, 2010

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

IS: Yeah.

DJSM: And that, of course, met with the usual howl of outrage that greets any deviation from what’s accepted to be the norm. And I think it was a very praiseworthy effort to make the thing more interesting. And I think that the men who argue against it, who were offended by it, should really think again. But it isn’t interesting to listen to on the wireless, and I speak as a presenter. It can be quite a tedious business if by the time you’re halfway through the “Earl of Antrim” you’ve played the tune and you’ve played the theme notes and it’s only going to be the same again in a different sort of way. And one’s got to think of the audience and who’s listening. And very often I’ve said to myself when I’ve been listening to a piobaireachd played on the radio, I’ve said, “I bet I could name everyone in Scotland who’s listening to this tune,” as you probably could. So solid piobaireachd programs, though I love listening to them myself, I don’t think we’d be justified in putting them on more than once or twice a year, Iain. As I say, there is one every second week there’s a tune, yeah.

IS: Having had a lot to do with piobaireachd this century, do you think it has peaked?

DJSM: No, I don’t think it’s peaked. I think it’s going to peak. If it peaks it’s because of the pipers have made it peak. They’re all capable of reaching further heights. I can’t think of one piper playing today who is tedious to listen to unless he wants it to be that way, i.e., when he’s playing in a competition and he’s not going to rock the boat at all and he knows the opinions of the three judges and then when they play to failsafe, if you know what I mean?

Failsafe is a good expression. If they’re playing to failsafe then they can be tedious, but left to themselves they’re not tedious at all. There are some superb musicians amongst the competing pipers. I won’t mention any names, but there really are some incredibly talented and gifted men playing. And my argument against the competition system as it is at present is that it restricts everybody to the safe way and that it’s in nobody’s interests to let the tune go, let the tune take over and play it as its own. It’s far safer to play it as it is on the printed page.

IS: Where do you think it will go from here?

DJSM: Where it’ll go from here? The new factor in playing piobaireachd is the size of the money-prizes that are being awarded. And this is all to the good except that it again encourages the failsafe tendency. It’s one thing to be playing for a fiver; it’s another to be playing for £750. And nobody’s going to risk losing £750 by holding the theme note before the cadence and the taorluath singling. Nobody’s going to do that. And, whereas, more people will be keen to enter piobaireachd competitions because they’re going to have a chance of winning these vast sums, at that same time they’re going to take jolly good care that they do nothing that they step neither to the right or left of the path. And we’re going to get more and more performances and competitions which are just a succession of tunes played straight off the book. Because people think that’s the way to win and, to give them credit, it has to be fair. Very often it is the way to win.

IS: It can be.

DJSM: It can be, yeah.

IS: Well, Colonel Murray, thank you very much, indeed.

DJSM: Well, Iain, good luck with the interview, anyway.

IS: Thank you.

We thank Iain Speirs for sharing these archival interviews to the subscribers to pipes|drums.


  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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