Bloomsday scenario

It’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, after the Georgetown games and the latest musical-envelope-pusher from the Toronto Police. Just like last year when the band came out with it’s “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions,” the comments are again flying around about the band’s “Idiomatica” entry.

I hesitate to call it a medley, since a musical medley, by Webster’s definition, is “a musical composition made up of a series of songs or short pieces,” rather than a cohesive single composition, which I believe “Idiomatica” is meant to be. You can’t call it a “selection” either, as that also involves, I think, selecting various existing tunes, much like a musical medley. Call it a piece, an opus or even an oeuvre.

Semantics aside, it’s bloody difficult to compare what the Toronto Police played against the more familiar formats of other bands in the contest. The pipe band “medley” has evolved more or less on its own, usually by bands dipping one timid toe at a time in the musical froth, trying a “different” tune here, an unusual rhythm there. Heaven forfend that a judge might react negatively.

There are actually very few musical requirements placed on a band in the rules of the world’s pipe band associations. The RSPBA has by far the most strictures, forcing bands to start with a “quick-march” at a certain minimum tempo and with the familiar three-paced rolls and a mandatory E.

The only musical requirement that I know for a Grade 1 pipe band medley under PPBSO rules is that it must be between five and eight minutes long. There are no stipulations as to what should be played or how many of the band’s pipers and drummers (or other instrumentalists, for that matter) can play at one time. In fact, there’s nothing to say that the band couldn’t just stand there, tacit, for five minutes, in homage to Chares Ives or something.

If the Toronto Police didn’t have the musical clean-slate that the PPBSO membership prefers, perhaps they wouldn’t compete with their new pieces, unless it were to make a one-time, “Thelma and Louise”-like statement. I gather they were fully prepared to go down in a blaze of glorious disqualification had they been able to play in the Final at last year’s World’s.

I like that bands are free to push musical buttons and boundaries. I can also appreciate those who feel that it shouldn’t be allowed, that such challenges to the familiar are too much of an affront to our musical “tradition,” whatever that is. It’s a healthy, difficult debate.

After all the talk of the Toronto Police’s “Good Intentions” piece, I was eager to see how many bands might follow suit with their own brave attempts to explore their own new musical limits. So far, I haven’t heard or heard of any other bands anywhere in the world making such an attempt. (Please let me know if there are.) In fact, I’m noticing the direct opposite: bands harking back to material, styles and structures of the 1970s and ’80s, particularly the once-hackneyed-now-retro seamless transition from strathspey-to-jig or jig-to-strathspey.

I might be wrong, but while a lone band is aggressively blazing new musical ground, others seem to be retreating into the past, with the old being new again. Whether that’s a conscious rejection, or just plain happenstance, again, I don’t know.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Touchy subjects

Not a few pipes|drums readers have contacted me about the recent p|d Poll question, “Should full-time bagpipe-makers be allowed to judge pipe band competitions?” Other versions of the bagpipe-makers-judging query have been posed before on the Poll over the years, and it’s of course a hot topic. Always has been; always will be – even if some sort of rule(s) were established to address the matter.

Several readers coyly wanted to know what prompted the question. That’s an easy answer, of course: the results of the Grade 2 competition at the 2009 Scottish Championships last week.

Bob Shepherd was the ensemble judge of the Grade 2 competition. He makes bagpipes and chanters. (I played one for several years and still play a Shepherd reed that’s been going strong for more than a decade.) Shepherd’s reputation as a judge, teacher, pipe-major and all-round remarkable person precedes him.

For the most part the two piping judges seemed to agree on the placings of bands. The band that won the contest, Inveraray & District, had two firsts in piping, a first in drumming, and an eighth in ensemble from Shepherd.

Now, I was not at the competition so I of course didn’t hear Inveraray. I also have no idea what make of chanters or bagpipes or drums or reeds the band plays. For all I know, the band did something horribly wrong with its ensemble. I don’t really care.

But thanks to the RSPBA’s publishing of all judges’ marks, we know that Inveraray received a 1,1 (piping), 1 (drumming) and 8 (ensemble) scoring. We can also see that Seven Towers had 8, 9, 9 and 1; MacKenzie Caledonia received 12, 19, 11 and 3; and Central Scotland Police got marks of 17, 16, 15 and 2.

So, the question was posed in the Poll, causing concern with a few people (several from bagpipe dealers), as if asking a simple, albeit sensitive, question were taboo in the world of piping and drumming. Many other tough questions also have been posed, and many new ones are still to come. Bring them on; let’s get things out in the open so that we can gain better understanding.

I suppose debating touchy subjects is still unthinkable with some old-school folks. There is something of a tradition in our art that prefers to sweep things under the rug rather than discuss them in the open. pipes|drums rejects that tradition. Only by asking questions will we ever get answers.

The reason that tough questions are traditionally not asked elsewhere may be because many people seem to have an interest in not asking them; sweep it under the rug and leave well enough alone. pipes|drums doesn’t sell anything but subscriptions and advertising, and those funds are plowed back into the publication or given to worthwhile not-for-profit causes, so I think we might be more free to evoke constructive conversation about sensitive issues that have been unaddressed for decades.

I’m interested to hear what others think about bringing sensitive matters that have existed for decades, even centuries, in piping and drumming out into the open.

(By the way, the last time I looked, the answer to that particular question from 74 per cent of respondents was “No.”)

A request: please keep any comments on the subject of discussing sensitive topics. Anything off-topic won’t be posted. Thanks.

Offshore drilling

A few months ago I read an article called “Made in U.S.A.” in my favourite print magazine, The New Yorker. The story discussed the difficulty of finding products that are actually made in America, and to some extent bemoaned the apparent fact that Americans would rather buy cheaper goods manufactured offshore than pay more for stuff like electronics and furniture and many other things made in the United States.

The article prompted me to e-mail the magazine a quick letter-to-the-editor from the Florida beach-chair from which I was reading the article. The piece made me think of the Highland bagpipe market and the fact that over the last few decades numerous bagpipe-making businesses have started in North America, joining Dunbar of St. Catharines, Ontario, which I believe was the first maker to set up business in the colonies. John Walsh has been making fine instruments in Nova Scotia for several years now.

Cushing (New York), Gibson (Ohio), Kron (New York), MacLellan (South Carolina) and, most recently, Atherton (Illinois) are all U.S.-based makers of Highland pipes, and all of them (and Dunbar) are considered at least on par with instruments made in the United Kingdom.

My letter – which the magazine didn’t publish (those damned editors!) – made reference to the fact that all is not lost when it comes to U.S. manufacturing and craftsmanship, that there are reverse examples of North American ingenuity working to improve products and serve the world market.

This isn’t to say for a second that non-UK bagpipe makers are necessarily producing anything better than UK-made instruments, but I wonder if the UK media have ever written about Highland bagpipes being made increasingly more often on other shores.

I suppose there was a time when all pianos were made in Europe, but then that upstart Steinway set up shop in New York and conquered the concert-grand market (even though they seem to be struggling against Yamaha and Boesendorfer and the like these days). I also wonder if Yamaha, which seems to make high quality instruments of every other kind, will one day enter the Highland pipes and pipe band drum market.

Do Highland pipes “Made in Scotland” have cachet today? Do Americans, for example, prefer to buy “authentic” pipes made in the Auld Country, or, in this time of manufacturing losses, is there a preference to purchasing products made at home?


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