February 09, 2009

Can touch that

Strange bedfellows.Watching the Grammy’s last night, I really liked all the “mash-ups” with artists. Al Green and Justin Timberlake and Keith Urban. Jay-Z with Coldplay. And of course the unlikely pairing of Alison Krauss (bluegrass) and Robert Plant (Zep) winning Album of the Year.

All that and Kid Rock’s adapting Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sacred “Sweet Home Alabama” riff and assembling a new song’s theme and lyric around it got me thinking of course about pipe music.

If it’s okay now in pop music to mix-and-match tidbits of songs and styles, then why not pipe music? It’s traditional that pipe music composers never-ever-never borrow from what’s gone before. If a new tune sounds even remotely similar to something else, let alone replicates an entire phrase, then it’s crapped on, pissed over and consigned forever to the garbage pail. The “composer” is often tagged as unoriginal and may never live down the label.

But why not take the Oasis route, and readily admit that, yes, they borrow heavily from the Beatles? A decade ago the Gallagher brothers took a “So what? We love the Beatles, so we like to sound like them” open stance. Couldn’t the next step for creative pipe music composers be one of adapting or reprising phrases from well know tunes and putting them into a new context?

It goes against our unwritten and heretofore sacrosanct law that new pipe music must always be 100% original, but, so what? Is there anything wrong with a great composer like, say, Bruce Gandy or R.S. MacDonald echoing a snippet of “The Little Cascade” (to use a random example) and admittedly integrating it into a new composition? A new composer could give full credit to G.S. McLennan or even a living composer, negotiate royalties, and start something new and fresh by adapting something old and familiar.

When pop music artists first started sampling the work of others and integrating the bits into their songs (remember the rancour between MC Hammer and Rick James over “Can’t Touch This” and “Super Freak”?) it was met with controversy and lawsuits. Over the last 20 years, though, composers like Lynyrd Skynyrd have learned that it’s usually a good thing when a current artist wants to resurrect your music in something new. Not only does it rekindle interest, but it also makes you money. It’s all good.

I think that could be a really interesting experiment. Perhaps our tradition of stringently adhering to the all-original all-the-time rule of composition should be relaxed. Can’t we borrow from, echo and give credit to the past, and still be creative, adventurous and respectful?


  1. I agree with you Andrew. I’ve been a songwriter since I was a little kid, and have written few pipe tunes since I started playing. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t “borrow” something from someone every time a “new” tune comes to life. I think every rock guitar player probably owes homage (if not royalties) to Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, or someone. And they all owed something to Les Paul, and Robert Johnson. There have to be piping equivalents. G.S. MacLennan? Donald MacLeod? The guy who invented the Taorluath? I know STB, Murdo’s Wedding, Wha’ Sa’ the 42nd, and Wings have one or two similarities here and there. Other tunes do too.

    I think the genius is in being able to take something that already exists, and create something new from it.

  2. There’s maybe a narrow line between ‘being heavily influenced by’ and actually lifting something lock stock and barrel from a previous tune. Two attempts of mine recently are The Little Cascade, melody and countermelody, and the piobaireachd The Glen is Mine-an arrangement for pipes, soprano, harp and cello. The Little Cascade feels like sacrilege to even proceed with it at all, whereas The Glen is Mine feels ok because it feels as though I would be helping it to survive. I think it’s quite a responsibility to use somebody else’s music. Fine, if they’ve given the use of it in the way you plan, their blessing. But out of respect for the original composer, I do think their position should be considered. Consider Rossini’s lovely piece, which the pipe band world made its own, even messing about with the barlines and knocking it out of synch. He might like the sound of The Green Hills, and be delighted it had survived in such a way, but if he saw the written score, he’d be shaking his head. It’s a very interesting question, but since it involves the use of other peoples music, I guess my view would be that respect for those composers of that music, should be paramount. But if the original composer gave it his/her blessing then it could be a win/win.

  3. Andrew, I believe that you raise several interesting points here besides just musical reinterpretation, specifically your reference to royalties. My wife, who is a classically trained singer and teacher, is in her 2nd year of playing tenor in our band. Besides her complete inability to understand how pipers talk about tuning ( I say she is over-educated), she is amazed that we don’t have to pay royalties for music we play in our medleys. As I understand it from her, when a choir sings a piece of music they have to buy a copy of that music for each member of the choir. Maybe the bands I’ve played in have been doing something shady, but we’ve always just played off of photocopies of music. I told her that I figured that composers of tunes just lived for the glory of having their tunes deemed worthy enough to be played by bands…maybe I’m wrong. Just imagine how much more bands would have to pay to construct a medley if they had to buy copies of the music for each player…I hope I’m not poking at a bee’s nest here.

  4. All this to me is interesting on so many fronts. When the LA Scots play a hornpipe version of “Mrs. Lily Christie” it continues a tradition in the folk world of putting melodies into different formats. (See “Cabar Feidh.”) But, if a composer were to take a verbatim sample / snippet of “Little Cascade” and integrate it into a “new” tune, that, by our traditions is taboo. Why is that? Why does that disrespect a long-dead composer, while a strathspey version of the same tune doesn’t?

  5. It’s impossible not to lift riffs or phrases from tunes previously written. Just think of how many tunes begin on E and end with a C doubling to to low A birl for example.
    There are only twelve intervals in a key signature and we only use 7 of them (low-high G are really the same tone spaced an octave apart. Ditto for A). There are then a limited number of key signatures available due to the 9 fixed melody notes that we use and we further limit the content via time signatures (2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, 2/2 98-99% of the time?). Put all that together and there really isn’t anything 100% completely new to write. Rather, we are like a pod of whales subtly regurgitating the same themes and combinations in different tunes and variations over and over again. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.There are still enough permutations and combinations to keep it all sounding fresh.

  6. A certain PM of note appears to have been ‘borrowing’ stuff for years. No prizes for guessing.

    I think we’re trying to compare apples with oranges here. I’m confident in stating that Justin Timberlake does not lie in bed at night and wonder why pipe bands aren’t melding Mrs MacPherson with John Morrison of Assynt House etc etc.

    Why are we always looking at ‘outside’ music genres with such an inferiority complex? It’s like trying to compare the local theatre company to Hollywood.

    They (pop/rock stars and their producers) pinch riffs etc because they are lazy and have to re-invent themselves to remain relevant in such a fickle and disposable industry. Sampling a tried and tested ‘hit’ is a license to print money. All you have to do is pad it out with waffle and fluff and then produce some big and expensive film clip.

    Piping has not just survived for hundreds of years, it has surged ahead. We have limited notes to work with and yet there are thousands of tunes out there just waiting to be discovered. most people limit themselves to what Gr1 is doing and think ing that is THE way to do it. That too is lazy.

    Of the potential thousands of pipe bands in the world, only 30-odd are in the top grdae. that surely means we all have a journey (or ten) to undertake still. Leave the popular music analogies where you found them.

  7. Like it or not, there are certain similarities that we share with the commercial music industry: not by design, but rather more by default. We also tend to use repetitive note sequences and themes. It is probably because music is a lnaguage and some common phrases are bound to occur.
    For example, a common series of notes in a pipe tune would be a low A with a birl, followed by a c “hachum”, then E held, short low A and another hachum. I can think of at least 3 popular marches where this same series occurs, usually at the beginning of the third part. One tune actually starts that way (Donald Cameron).
    Another is a GDE sequence in strathspeys that start on C and ends on A followed by a long A and birl. “Papadum, dubudum”…
    But, can you really say that someone is plagarizing when they use these phrases in a ‘new” tune?
    The only reason that commercial artists get so excited about this kind of thing is because of the royalties being paid. And that is the huge difference that separates what we do from what they do………..

  8. Yeah, we share things with all musicians, and all that stuff is self-evident, “Art of Piping”…..but the point is why would we want to try and re-invent the wheel? More to the point, CAN we re-invent the wheel? There are savvy composers out there, doing a great job of writing contemporary ‘classics’ for the pipes, without the need to try and extract a logic for following in the footsteps of ‘pop/rock stars’ who, in some cases, aren’t even good musicians (they just have clever people around them).

    This is nothing new. Pipe tunes are written, patterns emerge and ideas evolve. And the mystery/new-found idea here is what…?

    At least we have a grading system in place, to prevent a “Vanilla Ice” or a Milli Vanilli” from getting to the top of the ladder!

    Re-arranging tunes, borrowing passages has all been done. This topic is old news and makes some of us look like we are envious of other genres and regret choosing the pipes.

    ps- Alex (Van Halen?), there is enough percussion going on back there in the current pipe band setting. I suggest you go to Lorient if you need your ‘fix’. They have big ensembles that lend themselves to additional percussion.

  9. Well, Including Rew, what I was really trying to point out was that sometimes tunes come out sounding the same or even have an identical phrase purely by accident. This actually happened to a composer friend of mine where he wrote a tune at roughly the same time as a Scottish Pipe Major. Both tunes were brand new hornpipes written in the same off season, never played before, composed in the key of A and coincidentally had the same last two bars. The rest of the two tunes were so different that plagarism wasn’t a possibility. Of course my friend was accused of plagarizing, but I don’t see how this was possible as the two composers didn’t know each other and were literally and figuratively worlds apart. It is possible for that to happen because there are only so many ways that a final phrase can be written and still make sense in the context of the tune.
    So then, should both of the tunes be scrapped, or should they simply be played on their own merits? The latter option in my opinion is better.
    Coincidences and similarities are going to happen. The only case where this is subject to comdemnation is when a composer tries to claim an entire work as original when it isn’t rather that admit that there may have been an influence from anther source.
    And as I pointed out before, if history is any indication in regards to the Pipe Band worls, it isn’t as if anyone is going to lose millions over it…….

  10. To take a snippet of a tune, say The Little Cascade, and put it into a new composition would seem ok to me if it was inserted into a new piece called something like ‘Variations on a Theme by GS McLennan’. But to take a snippet and include that in a new tune by a composer today ,seems a wee bit like cheating to me. And I do think respect for the composer is important whether they’re dead or alive. I’d want to ask questions such as ‘would GS McLennan have wanted me to use a few bars from his tune?’. Maybe yes, maybe no. If the new tune showed off GS McLennan’s enormous talent and enhanced it by showcasing it in a new tune, maybe fair enough. But if the new tune was mediocre and poor old GS McLennan’s tune somehow gets lumped in with it, that’s a no go area for me.
    It would bother me less, if I was taking some obscure or unknown snippet from somewhere and bringing it to the attention of people today by including it in a piece. And of course with the composer of the snippet’s name up there. I still think its a question of decency and respect for the original composer. But despite thinking about the question on and off for the whole of today, there isn’t a definitive answer. It’s complicated by all kinds of variables and factors. If the piece is simply changed from a reel to a strathspey, that’s a different thing I think – the notes are more likely to stay intact in the order the composer wrote them, and only the rhythm changed. Somehow that seems more ok.

  11. Janette — exactly, we’re so used to that tradition, but it’s changing elsewhere. Piping and drumming have so many regimented YOU CAN’T DO THAT traditions. Those who push the boundaries are often ostracized by traditionalists like Andrew. I love the stuff that people like Matt Welch and John Mulhearn are doing – http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendID=271681112 I also love a good MSR and solid traditional pipe band, but there’s nothing wrong in my mind with challenging customary ways of thinking. That makes it a living art.

  12. Yes that’s helpful because I agree with everything you’ve said, and I too like the improvisatory stuff. My idea for The Little Cascade was to do a Steve Reich-esque, minimalist kind of arrangement in three or four parts (lines of harmony, not sections) but each piper sticking with a very small number of pitches so it would be very narrow, minimalist and improvisatory, perhaps staying on a note pattern and repeating that for 1min10secs say, and then changing to the next note grouping for how ever long. That kind of thing. But from where I’m standing, if you present that kind of thing in the world of piping, you’re in danger of being seen as weird, freaky even, or born before your time. I agree there’s nothing wrong with challenging customary ways of thinking – in fact that’s my bread and butter, but I still wonder, is it fair to drag the likes of GS McLennan into the fray!!!!

  13. “if you present that kind of thing in the world of piping, you’re in danger of being seen as weird, freaky even”

    What if the new composition were to be played in a small concert of sorts, to those not otherwise aware of piping protocol or traditions? Nobody in the audience has heard much pipe music, let alone understood its history, and/or the discussions we’re all having – what’s the harm?

    If there’s no harm in that setting with the new setting (sorry), then what is the problem with piecing small segments of other tunes into new tunes? And who’s to say that the original phrase (in this case by GSM) wasn’t used by someone before him, but the original composition never making it? Hmmmmmm.

    The mind reels!

  14. True again. I’m coming round so much to the idea, having thought about it so much over the last two days, that I’m now wondering what it would be like to write a piece in which you quoted a whole string of previously composed stuff!! And I CAN see that it could be a compliment to the original composer. Still some reservations about making sure you were respectul to the composer though. Is there any way some of us could post some samples (audio) of compositions where we have done just that- use snippets of previous tunes, to see what people think? Or would copyright or technological restrictions prevent that ? It would be good to discuss a specific example would it not? – as well as the general idea.
    Thanks for the thought provoking idea- I find myself going back and forward on it all the time. Yes Bob, a concert of ‘new pipe music’ of the type being referred to, would be ok. Anybody who doesn’t like the ‘new, different, contemporary, weird, improvisatory’ wouldn’t have to come to it. (although it may do them some good if they did!).

  15. (Sound out loud with a proper aristocratic English accent).
    “Uhmmm. Yes…. Quite…..Do carry on…..”
    (Walk slowlly out of room, ramrod straight, eyes looking slightly upward and ahead, toes pointed up slightly, somewhat stiff legged, hands folded neatly behind your back)

  16. Well, considering GS’s own place in pushing tradition forward, he would have a fine cheek to be complaining about our generation pushing the boundaries. To this day I’m convinced that the Little Cascade was inspired by early jazz or ragtime music (an awful lot of music from the inter-war period carries strong temporal echoes). More to the point, the stuff that GS actually played, his playing technique and so forth, was just as different to the traditionalists of his day as the boundary pushers are today.

  17. I think every Madonna song ever written can be played on the pipes. But you can’t play anything by Metallica or Pantera (that I’ve been able to figure out). It’s bagpipes – they’re magical.

    And I think The Cult have been cribbing “our” music for years – so let’s see them up against SFU, FMM, 78th and the rest at the Green – see how Love Removal Machine sounds up against The Rant. Bet those fancy electric guitars, mics and amps won’t be so much fun in the driving rain…

    I think the RSPBA would let The Cult into the contest, since they’re not “international” and all.

  18. Let’s not count out the old AC/DC track with the pipish thing in the variation,
    “It’s A Long Way To The Top (when you want to rock and roll)”.
    Oh wait, they’re from OZ. But then again, the vocalist, Brian Johnson, who replaced Bon Scott after his untimely death, is from England.
    Come to think of it, the the Young brothers and Scott were originally from Scotland and the current bass player (not mid section player) is from England.
    Maybe they would have a chance after all……..

  19. Mr Berthoff, you are so wrong about me. “Those who push the boundaries are often ostracized by traditionalists like Andrew.” A load of bollocks, AB, sorry. Like everyone else, I have a taste for music that is personal and often pigeon holed by the topic of the blog in question.

    Mulhearn et al, whom you’ve mentioned, are fantastic and I love all that stuff. But I also love to listen to some ‘meat and drink’, as would most. I’m not about to watch a half dozen Clan MacRae’s and Highland Weddings on a worlds DVD and think that is great. The envelope has to be pushed….and already is. Sometimes people need to realise that they play the bagpipes, not a flying-V with flames shooting off the end of the fret. There are a many great things happening to our art, pushed by people who are creative and just as, if not more, talented as the top flight of any other genre.

    I cringe when people, seemingly with a sigh, say ‘why can’t we do what they’re doing over there’….err, sorry, have we been getting it wrong….?

  20. Andrew – I think you need to re-read my post (or maybe I need to be a better writer). I’m certainly not talking about anything more than possibly lowering the sacrosanctity of 100% originality in pipe-music composing. Just questioning why we can’t occasionally borrow – with approval and credit – themes or phrases from well known tunes and build upon them. Just because I used Kid Rock as an example to illustrate the point doesn’t mean I think we should all try to be Kid Rock!

  21. Good point. 🙂

    Same page. It’s been lowered well below 100% sacrosanctity for years. As it should be.

    Kid Rock is not a great example of ‘music’, personally speaking, but I get your drift.

    Like anything, if it’s done well, who’s to complain!



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