October 13, 2011

Awesome simplicity

Mingus.“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

“Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

The great jazz cat Charles Mingus famously said these things back in the day. He was speaking particularly about his own music; it also applies to ours.

My favourite tunes – bagpipe or other – invariably have extraordinarily simple, memorable melodies. They’re uncluttered and pure in their distinctive structure and sound. “Lochanside,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Lament for Mary MacLeod,” “In My Life,” “The Little Cascade,” “A Case of You,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein” . . .

We pipers play a rather complicated instrument, and many composers – especially those just starting out – seem to think that complexity is the root of cleverness. As listeners we can’t help but be impressed by our fastest-handed players doing things that we can only dream of. We associate clever with complicated.

But we’re moved by the simple. The simple stays with us. A blur of notes and impressive technicalities generally leave us cold, while pure memorable melody puts us in the mood for more.

Pipe bands have a particularly difficult time with this concept. The temptation is to impress with “innovation” rather than wow with sound. The real challenge is to present the pipe band’s complicated intricacies in a simple and meaningful manner that resonates long after the sound stops. The task is made yet harder when snare drummers are rewarded for technical rather than musical achievement, and complicated yet again when bass sections are inserted into places they’re really not needed.

Maybe it’s because our music is so simply nine notes that we strive to over-complicate it. We gild the lily. Perhaps it’s overcompensation for what we feel we lack in terms of octaves and dynamics and time-signatures, but it’s the simple, and the confidence to be awesomely simple, that sustains.


  1. “Creativity is making the complicated simple.” I love that– as I read it I realize that describes one of the biggest artistic impulses that I have in my writing to a T– to take the complexity of human emotion and experience and find a way that I can convey it simply and capture it so that anyone can understand it, without sacrificing any of it’s depth. I love that quote. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. I don’t mind a little flash of pyrotechnical brilliance now and again, but most of the time if I can’t walk home whistling the tune, I am not overly impressed. The classics are classics for a reason, whether it’s Donald MacLeod, or Buddy Holly.

  3. Through history, some of the best loved melodies don’t go beyond one octave, no matter what the instrument. Take a look at any hymn book at a church. All the traditional favourites don’t get beyond a note or two of one octave. Best loved pipe tune for the masses? Amazing Grace. One octave, written as a song, simple, moves people to tears.

    In the end, it’s the melody, not the technique, that counts. Piping is music, just like any other instrument. Technique is important in competition for obvious reasons, but the true masters don’t sacrifice the music to technique.

    I guess the big question now is, how do you write the next “simply awesome” tune. It ain’t easy, I can tell you. I find writing 3/4’s the most difficult to do. I always end up with some great movement that leaves me no where to go. So Andrew, here’s a question for the crowd, which is the most difficult time signature to write a tune in. My vote, 3/4.

  4. Funny to me you quote Charlie Mingus, a guy whose compositions are often considered by many as too difficult to play. His stuff is “out there” to most . What he thought was simple was complicated, if not crazy, to others. And that’s the thing, it’s a matter of perception and opinion, taste, whatever. For instance, I see zero “simple” in the tunes and songs you list, at least of those I know. Hats off to you for thinking so. I wonder what is simple about “The Little Cascade”? Imagine what Angus MacPherson might’ve thought when he first heard that – a funny thought. Or “Lament for Mary MacLeod”. Melodic? Yes. Simple? No. Just cause you can whistle something, or it hangs in one key or tonal centre, doesn’t necessarily make it simple. And some of the most challenging technical pieces out there might be heard by a casual listener as a dreamy melodic toe-tapper. “Donald MacLennan’s Exercise” anyone? Seems to me music that requires thought and chops is often dismissed cause it’s hard to play – and so not accessible to most players.

    Finally completely and utterly disagree with your statement that pipe bands have “… temptation is to impress with “innovation” rather than wow with sound. It is the complete opposite!

  5. My understanding is that Mingus’s complexity is in the timing, not the technical. Most would agree that getting timing is more difficult than technique. I can see how you’d disagree with the statement on pipe bands. I think I could too, reading it over in a certain way. What I meant was that pipe bands seem to want to be *different* — even “plan weird” — but ironically there’s a certain sameness to what most of them do. Perhaps “innovation” was the wrong word, and would have been better to say that most pipe bands “plan weird.”

  6. “Plan weird” is what Mingus said, which I take to mean setting out to be different just to be different. In piping terms, we generally say “execution” and “expression” to mean “timing” and “technical.” Words, like music, are open to interpretation.

  7. One person’s ‘simple’ is probably another’s complex. I was surprised to think of Bach as simple, as for me he’s quite complex, compared to say, Mozart. I may be recalling struggling over having to write a Bach Fugue, when given a ‘subject’ of a few bars–it took all night sometimes, whereas harmonising a Mozart melody could be done in a jiffy, due to the simplicity of his style. But what you wrote gave me an idea for a piece lasting about 5 minutes, or longer, in which one bagpipe note, say E, would be the only ‘main’ note, with all the other interest coming from the gracenote patterns which would happen here and there. I imagine that the main note would become background sound, and that the gracenotes would have much greater significance and prominence than normal, as THEY would be the main events. That would be a ‘simple’ piece and there would be a lot of time to hear the tone, the sound, the timbre, the intensity, the individual gracenotes, the steadiness, rather than those pieces where lightening speed is key, and things are flashing by before there’s time for them to register. Problem is, nobody would want to listen to it I fear!!! ( On the subject of which time signatures are hardest to write in, I’d like to suggest that 3/4s are hardest because in their heart of hearts, pipers and drummers know that when they write 3/4s they’re not really 3/4s). Another interesting thing is to what extent familiarity = simplicity. I’ve a feeling tunes which we are more familiar with or have certain associations for us, will be perceived by us as being more ‘simple’. Hearing a TPPB new medley for the first time might be perceived by many as being ‘complicated and complex’, even though if one studies the score, it ain’t necessarily so.

  8. Mingus is always a super heavy listen for me. I was teethed on this music you call jazz. The goal should be to create art that emotes to others. If you can move somebody emotionally then, the mission is complete. If along the way you “move” them by using your own vehicle, which happens to be a Pipe Band Snare drum or for heaven’s sake a bass drum of all things then, on ya go.
    Last year I watched videos of Drew Duthart (from Georgetown) and Jim Kilpatrick (from the Worlds Medley) both playing extremely difficult passages at an extremely high level of proficiency. The “greats” work hard to make it look easy. Both moved me emotionally, mission accomplished.

  9. So much amiss in this piece

    Let me avoid the discussion about the value of simplicity in melody…having said that, it’s very hard to buy Andrew’s assertion that The Little Cascade is a simple melody…here is G.S. MacLennan delving into the complexities of music in the same way that Kurt Weill, and Brecht were experimenting with at the same time. This ain’t simple people…this was a whole new world for the GHB.

    But principally, for me, where the piece is simply wrong, is in the assertion that pipe bands are engaged in an effort to make the music more complex and less melodic.

    I see scant evidence of this in the world of the top bands. What I DO see and
    hear, to monontonous repetition, are bands unwilling to take the slightest risk in terms of material or arrangements. We hear the same regurgitated stuff from the “top bands” year after year, with absolutley no willingness to take a chance on something fresh and creative.

    It’s so tedious and uninteresting, and it’s so driven by the WPBC.

    I have many other thoughts on how the WPBC is destroying creativity, but that is likely for a different time

  10. I hear “The Little Cascade” as simply inventive. Like Beethoven’s Symphony #5, taking very few notes and reassembling them every which way. It’s brilliant repetition. Funny, when I wrote “gild the lily,” I thought of the fourth part of “Lillian Livingstone.”

  11. ouch Andrew…my Lily needs no gilding

    the tune was composed in about 1972, so likely predates your observations which seem to focus on recent times…anyway, the 4th part is merely and enhancement of the descending melodic figures in the 2nd part…and I would defend it’s melodic strength in any forum

  12. The essence of this post, as I see it, is that we can sometimes achieve good things in music–moving people, as Hoss notes–by playing simple melodies well, with great sound. Mark suggests “Castle Dangerous” as an example, and anyone who attended the ScottishPower concert in Glasgow could attest to the “power” of that tune to move people…enough to get a concert hall to sing! Where the post falls short, is that I think the examples don’t ring true for many, and for me, the quotes at the beginning seemed [with all due respect] to be the kind of throw-away stuff that musicians say to fill profile articles. Not every great player is able to discuss their art to the same level that they perform it. Where this post hits the mark, is that it has attracted some entertaining discussion and ideas, and even different threads that would be fun to follow.

  13. Going back to the original quote, an overly simplistic way of summing this up can be seen in the expression “less is more”, which applies to far more than just music, but let’s stay on that topic.
    I’ve recently rejuvenated my interest in guitars (yes, I wanna be a rock & roll star..) and when I think of brilliantly simple, Niravana’s “Nevermind” comes to mind. Kurt Cobain deliberately set out to write “simple” music that he thought people at the time wanted to hear. While what he and the other contributors came up with as an end product can be thought of as simple, it also has to be considered to be brilliant as well. The album “Nevermind” sales took off like a rocket at the time redefining alternative rock’s sound and style for nearly a decade.
    Simple? Well, yes. Take “Polly”, for example. A total of 6 chords and 7 melody notes. And confined to one octave.
    The trick? Try to create something like that with the success that followed. Good luck!
    The album has sold more than 30 million copies to date.
    Going back to pipe bands for a minute, it isn’t the complexity of the music that leaves the biggest impression. It’s the brilliant performance of relatively “simple” music played with precise sound, orchestration and technique that dazzles us leaving that lasting impression.
    I’ve generally come to think of simple vs complex as being “simple melodies are targetted at the masses while complex “music” (timing, chordal progressions, etc.) are a musicians’ self indulgence.
    Doesn’t mean that either one is simple to play…or write….



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