Published: March 10, 2017

pipes|drums Set Tunes Series 2017

pipes|drums: Well, here is a new batch of Set Tunes. Is the pattern the same as before?

William Donaldson: yes and no. We follow the by-now standard format, identifying the various authentic old sources, and providing extracts and complete scores showing significant stylistic difference—that hasn’t changed; but there is something new here, in that we are reaching out beyond the specified list of tunes for the year. For some time now we have been finding that when the list is published we have already covered most of it. Yet there are a fair number of tunes out there which really ought to be available in this kind of format, and we take the opportunity to present a few of them here: “The Battle of the Bridge of Perth”; “The Salute to Sir James MacDonald of the Isles”; “The Sound of the Waves against the Castle of Duntroon”; “The Battle of Glenshiel”; “The Carles with the Breeks”; “The Company’s Lament”; “The Half-Finished Piobaireachd”; “The Laird of Contullich’s Lament”; “The MacDougalls’ Gathering”; and that interesting piece “Drizzle on the Stone,” which I don’t think has appeared in print since General Thomason’s Ceol Mor.

p|d: Are the older scores beginning to find greater acceptance among competing players?

WD: well, folk have been very used to playing the Piobaireachd Society scores, of course, and habit is not something that changes quickly. It is encouraging, though, that after years of stipulating specific Society and Kilberry Book scores for each of the tunes – and those only – the Society have changed the wording in the 2017 notes in a possibly significant way. A wider range of sources is now specified (although the inclusion of the Donald MacLeod Collection and Binneas is Boreraig is for specific tunes only). The key bit is this:

Competitors are not restricted to settings specified above. Those who wish to play alternative settings should submit legible scores, indicating the origins of the settings, to competition organisers along with their tune selections.

A wide range of source materials and alternative settings is available on the Piobaireachd Society and other websites.

Now, this is new in two ways: one, the caveat that the judges may wish to consider the “authenticity” of the settings offered has been dropped, and, two, direction is given explicitly to online sources of alternative settings thatcover a wide expressive range, and offer the player a good deal of aesthetic choice, as readers of the Set Tunes Series will know.

On the other hand, if you dig a little, going in to the public section of the Society’s pay-to-view website, and click on “Library” and then on “Reference Library” and then on “Alternative Settings,” you find this:

For better or worse, tune settings in the Kilberry book, and in the Piobaireachd Society (PS) Collection, have become known as the “usual” versions – and other versions as “alternative” settings.

Why play an alternative setting of a tune? The PS has, over the last 80 years or so, chosen their settings with care, and not all alternative settings are pleasant on the ear. To deviate from the norm, to less musical settings, would be folly. In competition, the bench of judges may appreciate the effort made to seek out an alternative setting, but (stating the obvious) you will only get a prize if you play it well. However there is more to piping than competition – and hearing a setting that is rare can be one of the pleasures that knowledge of piobaireachd will bring you.

Alternative settings will be looked at in a series of articles to be published on the PS website, of which this is the first. The aim of these articles is not to state that one version is better than another, or that the “usual” versions are not the best ones available. Instead we simply wish to state that the other settings exist, and are now easy to access, either online or in print. Another point, harder to explain, is that studying the different versions of the tune, leads in the end to more understanding of what the composer was intending.

Some might think that in practical terms this amounted pretty much to the mixture as before. Yet this ambiguous signal still seems preferable to the rigidly prescriptive approach adopted for most of the previous century. The problem for the Society is that the old authentic scores that they now publish on their website have a style that differs significantly from that of the Society books that claim some of these very documents as their sources, so that they have ended up pointing in two different directions musically, and it will be interesting to see how they manage to resolve this.

Stay tuned for the 2017 Set Tunes Series beginning in the next few days, with regular installments over the coming weeks.



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