Lonely pipers

I saw the important bits of the Westminster wedding and accompanying parade. Lots of scarlet tunics, gilt and bearskin hats.

But not a single, lone piper to be heard by the billions served on April 29th.

Normally it wouldn’t faze me, but you’d think a small public homage to the intersection of middle-class Middleton and William Windsor-Wales – St. Andrew’s, Scotland – would be in order. They’ll be spending half the year at Balmoral soon enough, and the Windsors own a good portion of Scotland.

But apparently there’s some piping at the Buck House reception, with David Rodgers of the Irish Guards gi’in’ it laldy.

Seems that the rest of the world loves a piper at a wedding when the couple exits the kirk, but the royals are more about private pipers, playing out of earshot of the public, for their own amusement.

Pity.

True pipe strong and free

In all thy drones command.The Highland bagpipe is Canada’s national instrument – not officially, but it should be.

This isn’t to suggest for an instant that the pipes aren’t also Scotland’s national instrument, but I believe that Canadians would and should welcome such an official declaration. Here’s why:

Since I moved here in 1988 I am yet to recall anyone who lives here to say that they dislike the pipes. In fact, I’d guess at least 95 per cent of the time Canadian citizens, landed immigrants and permanent residents that I’ve heard comment say that they love the pipes. As with everything, there are detractors, but I can’t remember seeing anyone cover their ears at the sound of the great pipe.

One hears Highland pipes almost daily in Canada. Police events, political rallies, weddings, military repatriation ceremonies, fundraisers, celebrations, parades, curling matches and hockey games routinely feature a piper or a pipe band regardless of any obvious Scottish connection. These piper-rich events are often attended not just by WASPy Canucks, but also by immigrants from everywhere you can imagine. Highland pipes are even popularly featured in the theme music for Hockey Night in Canada – the country’s de facto national TV show.

Far more often than not, in Canada you hear quality piping – not necessarily Ian K. MacDonald-standard, but decently tuned and pitched instruments played with well-taught embellishments.

The realization that the Highland pipes are Canada’s national instrument solidified in my pea-brain last week. I was at a work meeting when I happened upon a Canadian citizenship ceremony. These momentous swearing-in events now take place in unusual and often public places, and this one was at a research science centre in downtown Toronto.

There were maybe 200 immigrants who were to be sworn in. An LED display scrolled the more than 120 countries that these folks came from. There was a judge in regalia and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer in full scarlet tunic.

Kaitlin Kimove welcoming new Canadians.And there was a piper – a very good one at that. Kaitlin Kimove from the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band piped in these soon-to-be-Canadian citizens. These immigrants were from places like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iraq Tunisia and Libya. When she struck in the pipes there were instant smiles and even tears. The pipes are as much a part of Canada’s culture and being Canadian as maple syrup, pea-meal bacon and Nanaimo bars. Pipe music is part of Canada’s sound track. Newcomers are practically indoctrinated to the sound when they step off the plane or boat.

Having attended several of these citizenship ceremonies (one of which in 1995 I was a participant), I can say that each is a poignant and meaningful moment in the lives of every single person there. The Mountie, the judge, the fellow immigrants embarking on a new life . . . the pipes.

The pipes are heard so often in Canada that I think they are simply a part of the country’s culture, spanning all provinces – even Quebec’s separatist-minded citizens who seem to have just as much affinity for the instrument as anyone. Piping and pipe bands are so familiar to Canadians that it’s perhaps a reason why the popularity of Highland games in the country is waning. Hearing bagpipes in Canada is no big deal.

The Scots co-opted the pipes from elsewhere, and so too has Canada. The Highland pipes will always belong to Scotland, but they can also be Canada’s national instrument. The Highland bagpipe could also well deserve to be the national instrument of New Zealand, or Australia, or other Commonwealth countries. Bring it on. It’s all good.

If you agree, there’s a Facebook page to “like.” If response is there, we’ll eventually take our petition to the powers-that-be in Ottawa to lobby them for official recognition. As always, your constructive comments are welcome.

Sticks and Stones

Sympathy for the devil's instrument.Lately I’ve noticed a few music podcasts talking about a nice “drone” effect in some new songs. It seemed strange, since I couldn’t recall anyone outside of piping or beekeeping mentioning drones before.

I was reading the excellent autobiography Life by rock legend Keith Richards (thanks, Briana!) recently, and came upon a passage in a part of the book where he discusses the distinctive sound he created with the Rolling Stones. It’s a result of “open” tuning he took from southern blues guitar technique in which only five strings are used and they’re tuned very differently. Examples of the sound can be heard on “Street Fighting Man,” “Brown Sugar,” “Gimme Shelter” and many other Stones’ songs. Keef writes:

The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes – the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It’s tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time. And because it’s electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work. And if you’re working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it. While actually you’re not playing. It’s there. It defies logic. And it’s just lying there saying, “$%&# me.” And it’s a matter of the same old cliché in that respect. It’s what you leave out that counts. Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other. And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position that note is still ringing. And you can even let it hang there. It’s called the drone note. Or at least that’s what I call it. The sitar works on similar lines – sympathetic ringing or what they call sympathetic strings. Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of what you are trying to do. It’s the drone.

So, essentially, the secret to the Rolling Stones’ distinctive sound is what Highland pipers have known forever. The allure of a well-tuned drone sound was borrowed, it seems by blues guitarists and then co-opted by Richards who, judging by what he writes above, pretty much kept it a secret.

There’s little wonder then why hardly any other band sounds like the Rolling Stones and no instrument on earth sounds like the Highland pipe.

Most excellent 2010

High Violet, The NationalCompared with 2009, I listened to less new music overall in 2010. There didn’t seem to be that many piping and drumming recordings released last year and, to be honest, stuff that comes in for review is often sent out to reviewers so quickly that I don’t get a chance to hear them. If the review is good, I’ll make sure that I purchase a copy.

But, to keep the annual streak going, here are my favourite tracks of 2010:

“Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” – from the CD High Violet by The National. This was my album of the year, and any one of several songs (e.g., “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “England”) could have made my list, but I like the simple 6/8 melody of this track. Brilliant musicality and a unique sound and semi-dark style.

“Dog Days Are Over” – from the CD Lungs by Florence + the Machine. I think this song may actually be from 2009, but it was re-released in 2010. I love the depth of Florence Welch’s voice – a cross between Cat Power and Grace Slick – and the reverb and rhythmical influences of Motown.

“Crash Years” – from the CD Together by The New Pornographers. This got a lot of rotations on my machine over the latter part of the year. Extremely listenable from the Vancouver collective.

“Desire Lines” – from the CD Halcyon Digest by Deerhunter. I didn’t much care for the rest of this CD, but this track stood out, and reminded me of “Nothing Ever Happened,” which made my 2008 list.

“Air & Concerto Ascenseur” – from the CD Live At The El Mocambo: Raw and Off the Floor by the Toronto Police Pipe Band. I heard this for the first time, live, at the band’s Toronto concert and it had an instantly favourable impression. It stands up on repeated listening, and also caught the ear of John Mulhearn in his pipes|drums review.

I could go on (Iain MacInnes, Kanye, Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend . . .), but a brief list perhaps suits for 2010. I find out about non-piping and drumming music from friends (thanks, Lorna!), so always interested to hear what your favourites were from 2010.

Kilt of personality

Celebrity is always relative and dependent on your perspective. Right now the Toronto International Film Festival is in full-swing, and I work in the area that’s heavily frequented by movie stars. During the festival – which they keep telling Torontonians is “the second largest after Cannes” – there are people who star-gaze, making it their mission to catch a glimpse of some adorable actor or another. But in 16 years I’ve never seen one during the festival.

That’s probably because I’m not looking for them. I like movies as much as the next person, but I don’t have a lot of time for putting “celebrities” on pedestals, or considering them as anything but famous regular people – who more often than not have serious off-screen personality and self-esteem problems.

As with every niche, piping and drumming has its celebrities. I remember as a Midwestern kid wondering what it would be like to see in-person great pipers whom I’d only heard on record or read about in that bitter little monthly digest.

When I finally got to Scotland and Canada, I was bowled over by how good these players and bands were in-person. But, when I got to speak with them and see them do something other than play their bagpipe, it was something of a let-down. We too often expect “celebrities” to do everything at the same level of excellence as the thing for which they’re famous.

There’s nothing like seeing one of your boyhood piping heroes physically sick with nervousness before competing, or swearing like a lobster fisherman, or getting falling-down-drunk to make you realize real fast that they’re just people, too, with familiar faults and frailties.

But things have changed a lot since the early-1980s. Just like movie-stars, famous pipers and drummers have a lot more to lose when they lose control of their celebrity persona. They’re far more conscious of their actions and how they may impact public perception. They’re not about to let down their guard at competitions and concerts. Their music is, increasingly, their job.

I also think that the piping and drumming competitive elite aren’t treated the same way, and perhaps we can blame – or credit – the Internet and social media for that. I think many people feel that they know a piping/drumming celebrity because they’re a Facebook “friend.”

I’ve written about the old-world hierarchies of class and “society” in piping being broken down over the last 40 years, to the point where income and social status mean nothing on the boards and in the circle. But with it also goes our notion of “celebrity” and, perhaps, our unreasonable expectations of our greatest artists to be perfect people.

In art, only hate itself should be hated

The only thing I really hate is hatred. When people say that they “hate” piobaireachd, a new pipe band medley, or, for that matter, any form of music or art, it bothers me. You can prefer one style more than another, or love a certain sound or sight, but why would anyone hate something as truly harmless as art?

You hear people in piping and drumming use the hate word frequently. “I hate that tune.” “I really hate what bass-sections are doing these days.” “I hate that band’s music.” It’s a word that, unfortunately, seems to be part of the piping and drumming tradition, perhaps borne of spite and envy and the ever-present need people seem to feel to compete on any level.

Some like to try to get a competitive edge by tearing down or belittling things they’re threatened by. Rather than minding only what they do themselves, they take a negative tack and discredit different approaches by using hateful language.

The other day I thought about different types of music. Like anyone else, I prefer some music more than others. But I can’t think of any music – whether classical, jazz, hip-hop or whatever – that I wouldn’t listen to and try to appreciate, if not enjoy.

My musical preferences run from hard rock to country to punk to bubblegum pop, even, and when it comes to music, I have many guilty pleasures. I was ridiculed mercilessly in the 1980s for admitting that I liked Debbie Gibson’s “Only In My Dreams” (which I maintain to this day is an intoxicating melody).

There is a sordid custom in piping to tear down that which threatens us. Dr. William Donaldson’s The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society is a seminal study of just such an example, in which piobaireachd was standardized by a group that set out to control the music in part by denigrating its history. The irony of ironies was that, when Donaldson’s book emerged, there was a strong and vocal attempt to – what else? – discredit his research, not to mention his training as a piper, each of which are impeccable.

There are those who are completely stuck in a hateful rut and, sadly, these folks all too often end up in positions of power. They try to eliminate things that threaten them by spreading hateful ideas, discrediting and belittling anything that is a challenge to their past and their status. They fancy themselves the protectors of some faith that really cannot exist in any art that wants to live in the present and future.

When it comes to art, the only thing to hate is hate itself.

Perfect pitch

Outta there!Referees, umpires and judges can make mistakes. Every competition that requires an element of human officiating is subject to human error.

The technically “perfect” game (for non-baseball fans this is a game in which one side never reaches first-base; it’s happened only 20 times in the 130-year history of Major League Baseball) pitched by Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers the other night was nullified by a mistake in judgment by highly-respected veteran umpire, Jim Joyce. On what should have been the final, 27th-straight batter grounding out, Joyce ruled the batter safe at first, thus spoiling the rare perfect game and the no-hitter.

Baseball fans immediately wondered whether the umpire’s decision would be overturned by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, by overwhelming video evidence that the umpire erred, but Bud Selig decided against that. He contended that “the human element” is an integral part of the game, so the decision would stand, even though he, the umpire, Galarraga and everyone even remotely interested knows that it was in fact the twenty-first perfect game. What a shame.

The age of instant recording has also affected piping and drumming competitions. It probably started in 1974 when Bill Livingstone famously had his second-prize revoked in the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting when a listener in the audience cannily produced a tape recording showing that he had made some note mistakes. After the results were announced, upon hearing the recorded evidence the judges convened and decided to alter their list. Much hue and cry ensued, but it probably helped to put a spotlight on Bill, who went on, as we all know, to greater things.

Today instant replay is more than ever a factor. Video from pipe band competitions is available within hours of even the least significant of contests. More than once, there have been some visual things – blown attacks, hitched bags, dropped sticks – that seemed to have not been noticed by the judges.

There’s a school of thought with many judges that it’s only what’s heard that ultimately matters. Who cares about false fingering if you can’t hear it? A piper might not “get up,” but if it didn’t affect the sound, then what difference does it make? Didn’t that bass drummer play just fine with one mallet? The bagpipe sounded great without a middle-tenor going, so why get all worked up?

There are other judges who feel that these technical “errors” should be punishable. If you can see the mistake, then it should be duly assessed. The assumption is that if you detect it with your eyes, there must be some negative impact on the sound.

The Sunday morning quarterbacking that now goes on on YouTube is bigger than ever. This is the pipe band world’s version of instant replay, and perhaps it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that results can be altered by the officials, if the oversight is grievous enough. But that’s unrealistic.

What is realistic is a post-event conversation between judges before each submits his/her final result. In effect, this is as close as we should come to reviewing the recording to share notes to increase the likelihood of a fair result being rendered. The consultative judging process acknowledges that our competitions are subject to the human element, that mistakes might be made and that no one is perfect.

Been there

All uphill from here.We all have to start somewhere, and this week I’ve been carried back to my earliest days as a piper as I’ve been going through and scanning family photos that my dad left behind. I’ve actually taken a full 10 days of vacation to work through them, since he was a keen amateur photographer and, perhaps because he was a professor of history and wanted to keep a record of things for history’s sake, he pretty much took a photo of everything. Everything.

He missed the digital photography age, and used only film. But he never used print film; strictly slide film, and would pick out the best to have enlarged. He used slide photography like we use digital – no big deal if you mess up the shot. The result is about 40 years of slides, numbering I think about 15,000 images. That’s a lot scanning, but it’s kind of now or never.

Hell? Hello? Is this thing on?But here are a few shots of my first years on the pipes, circa 1976-’77. I think the one of me with the natty plaid shirt on is the very day that my new R.G. Hardie pipes arrived directly from Glasgow. I remember the bag loosely tied to the stocks, and made of cowhide as thick and tough as beef jerky. My dad was upset that they sent it with the wrong tartan bag cover – MacFarlane, not some family sett.

My dad, ever the promoter of his kids, used to volunteer me for various piping performances. I’m not sure exactly what these two events were, but see the people in the one of me playing in the parking lot. Next stop: The Argyllshire Gathering.They are almost totally oblivious to the noise going on around them, even the gents merrily having a conversation within a few feet of me. Note the 1970s pimp-chic with the guy with hat. Maybe they’re hoping that, if they ignore it, it will go away. Maybe it’s an event for the hearing impaired.

The one with the guy in the clever robin’s-egg-blue suit is a wonder. It looks like the Jim Jones Cult needed an official piper to lead the members to something. I don’t remember any Let's play ball instead . . .Kool-Aid being served, thank goodness.

The other is perhaps the first day of spring warm enough for me to regale the neighbors (American spelling, since it was in the USA) with my sight-reading stop/start tunage. I’m wearing the St. Louis Cardinals’ retro 1876 cap in honor (US) of the 100th anniversary of the National League, brown corduroys and yet another tartan shirt. That’s my friend Nathaniel Heidenheimer in the Giants’ cap probably a bit freaked out by the scene: me squalling away on the imitation-ivory-grinding Hardies; my dad snapping away at his own hobby; Nathaniel frozen, wondering where to look.

But we all start somewhere and I think we’ve all been there. The instrument begins as a lark, progresses into obsession, then, if you’re lucky, transforms into a passion. We persevere.

Dead lament

Pure dead brilliant, that.The newspaper image of the late motorcycle fanatic dead and embalmed astride his bike as a fulfillment of his last wish gave me the heebie-jeebies this morning. But, then again, why should it? Dead is dead, and the usual supine “sleeping-inside-the-coffin” pose is every bit as disturbing, when you think about it. Death is creepy, no matter what.

So why not encourage people to have a final image of you doing what you love to do? I suppose for some people their favourite pastime is sleeping, so the pancake-makeup casket thing is appropriate. But, given that so many of us pipers and drummers are obsessed with our hobby (our “avocation” as Michael Grey once aptly described it to me), perhaps one of us will include instructions in our will to kit us out in Highland dress, prop us up and somehow attach the instrument to us in  a lifelike pose.

Since wearing dark sunglasses is okay for motorcycles but taboo for piping/drumming competitors, we could conveniently have our eyes closed, looking for the life (or death) of us like we’re really into the music. I suppose it would be a challenge to stand a cadaver upright and keep the hands on the chanter or the sticks, but we’ll leave that to the morticians to negotiate.

I remember in the 1970s Ian Cohen, a friend in the now-defunct Invera’an band (he still plays with the current St. Louis Caledonian Pipe Band, I think) with a last name at the time as unlikely as my own for a piper, had “George” – a life-size mannequin that stood in his living room in number-one dress. It was a bit creepy, but also wonderfully campy. (A decade ago I gave up trying to convince Julie to get me a mannequin for my birthday or Christmas, on which to hang my kilty gear when not in use. “Not in ma hoose!”) George would be there watching over us as we played vinyl LPs of the latest Shotts album on his Marantz turntable.

One of the most selfish things I’ve ever heard of in piping is Robert Reid’s famous wish that all of his piping manuscripts and what-nots should be buried with him. I suppose he didn’t want to share his secrets with anyone. Perhaps like Donald Shaw Ramsay making wholesale deletions of truly helpful material in the interview I did with him in 1989, maybe he rationalized it by contending that he had to learn the hard way so no one else should have it easier. Unfortunately for Reid, some people’s lasting impression of him as a result of his miserly wish is of a bitter and unsharing man, which may explain why the Cameron-MacDougall-Gillies style is all but dead, at least relative to the all-sharing MacDonald-Nicol-Brown approach. 

Anyway, there are many in the piping and drumming world whose identity as a person is piping or drumming. Their instrument is as much a part of them as that guy’s motorcycle was. So what better way to create a lasting impression than making the final image the one that defines you?

Kids these days

So much to do.When it comes to piping and drumming, kids have it a lot harder today. I’ve come to this conclusion after once again trying to get back into a more regular routine of practicing. I say “trying” because, inevitably, that routine is more like a sporadic, when-I-can-block-out-all-other-distractions-and-temptations, series of sessions that gradually, slowly, maybe, do the job.

When I was learning to play in the 1970s and ’80s, distractions and temptations consisted of games of corkball, kickball, capture-the-flag or kick-the-can; building the occasional model airplane or boat; a train set; or the baseball Game of the Week on TV on summer Saturday afternoons. Sure, there were moments of getting up to no good with friends, but, by and large it was easy to find time to practice. In suburban St. Louis there wasn’t much else to do and, however nerdy piping may have been, it was something to do that was at least marginally less boring.

Maybe because it was so routine, I hardly remember practicing at all. But it must have been a lot. I do remember practicing exercises while watching one of the three or four TV channels (until my mother would turn off “that idiot box”), or listening to ballgames on the radio, or, yes, doing homework. When it comes to multi-tasking (read: ADD), I was an early adopter. I’m still prone to playing scales while doing something else, but I really don’t recommend it – you end up doing both half-way and, evidently, years later you won’t remember any of it.

It amazes me that there are any kids pursuing piping or drumming today – and it’s positively astonishing, come to think of it, that the boys and girls who do somehow become committed to or afflicted by it are playing at a standard that is, overall, better than ever. The siren-songs constantly blaring from the Internet, or the 500-channel TV universe, or video games, or alluring retail temptations that are positively everywhere one would think would make today’s young piper or drummer a rare breed indeed.

So, my hat is off to every young player out there who today has the focus and commitment to do this crazy, still very nerdy, thing.

Back in my day, we had it a lot easier.

Blackjock!

If you’re on the side of expanding our pipe band music, is there a better place to try that than Las Vegas? Vegas “is what it is,” as they say, but, really, it’s the most untraditional place on earth. I shouldn’t say that. Its tradition is this: no tradition.

As pipes|drums reported, the planners of the April 2011 $2-million pipe band gamble are considering creating a Grade 1 “Concert” competition event in addition to the traditional Medley and decrepit MSR events. They’re being super-accommodating, asking the bands themselves for their thoughts as to how the Concert competition could work. There’s really no need.

It’s Vegas, baby. If there were ever a place simply to see what happens, and let bands do whatever-the-heck they want, this is it. Personally, I would not have any problem with a band of Elvis impersonators, or a couple of Bengal tigers, or scantily clad showgirls tarting up their tartan show. Musically, bands can simply let ‘er dangle (as I write that, I’ll always hear Scott MacAulay’s voice), and go for it. Set a limit on time, but only for scheduling reasons. Fifteen minutes, no-holds-barred. Maybe require that Highland pipes have to be used at least some of time – but that’s it.

A few years ago there was talk, and even negotiations, with Florida’s Disneyworld to create the pipe band extravaganza that Vegas subsequently landed. It seemed like a good idea, until it became evident that the good people at Disney just saw it as a large group to pay to get into their theme park. For all they seemed to care, it could be a trombone festival, just as long as you brought your money.

At the time, there was something odd to me about placing a pipe band competition in the land of Mickey Mouse and Goofy, but it’s even more counter-intuitive to hold it in Las Vegas. If I were to identify a place on earth that is the polar opposite of the traditional Scottish world of piping and drumming, it would have to be Las Vegas.

Please, don’t mistake me. I think this is a golden opportunity. I love juxtaposing things in surprising and counter-intuitive ways. Mash-ups are one of the most interesting developments in music and the arts as a whole.

I have nothing against Las Vegas, but there’s a reason why its art museum closed in 2008. The only culture that people who go to Vegas want is no culture at all. Hold an anything-goes Concert event, have fun, let it all hang out for a weekend. Let it happen in Vegas.

And whether it then stays in Vegas is up to the pipe band world to decide.

Most excellent 2009

Orbital MetricHope everyone had a good Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or whatever you prefer to do.

I might have listened to more music than usual in the last year, since I find it more accessible than ever. In recent years I’ve listed my favourite five tracks and five albums, but this year I’ll just list my 10 personal favourite tracks from the year.

Perhaps I should have separate piping/drumming and non-piping/drumming lists, but mixing them up is part of the fun.

These are the ones that seem to have stood up best over the year, one or two coming in late in 2009 to make the cut, as it were. In order: 

  • “Satellite Mind” – Metric, from Fantasies – I’ve now played this song at least 100 times. Still sounds fresh and unbelievably catchy.
  • “The Cure” – Tegan and Sara, from Sainthood – Hey, nothing wrong with doing the 1980s even better.
  • “Ae Fond Kiss” – Wendy Stewart & Gary West, from Hinterlands – A lovely rendition of the Burns song, Stewart’s voice paired perfectly with the texture of West’s backing vocals, whistle and accompanying cello.
  • “Loaded”The Idle Hands, from The Hearts We Broke on the Way to the Show – More retro-’80s stylings in a Psychedelic Furs / Joy Division sort of way.
  • “Field of Gold” – Simon Fraser University, from Affirmation – Almost as moving on CD as it was on the night.
  • “Bull Black Nova” – Wilco, from Wilco (The Album) – My favourite track from one of my favourite group’s most recent album.
  • “Comme Des Enfants” – Coeur de Pirate, from Coeur de Pirate – If Annabel stays with the piano this could be her. I don’t really know or much care what the words mean, but they’re pure French charm. (Thanks, Lorna!)
  • “Cello Song” – The Books, from Dark Was the Night – Love this cover of the Nick Drake song, which actually would be great for a pipe band to adapt.
  • “A Thousand Curses on Love” – Bill Livingstone, from Northern Man – For most of August and September I could not get the waulking song base of this track out of my head. A good thing.
  • “Poyntzfield Reprise” – Manawatu Scottish, Twelve-Thousand Miles – by far my favourite track on this excellent pipe band studio album.

Just didn’t quite qualify: “Just Breathe” – Pearl Jam, from Back Spacer; “1901,” Phoenix, from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix; “Hell,” Tegan and Sara, from Sainthood; “Wilco,” Wilco, from Wilco (The Album); and “Captain Jack Murray,” John Mulhearn, from The Extraordinary Little Cough.

Those are mine. What are your favourites from 2009?

Yes comment

Sting like a sharp B.So 72 per cent of pipes|drums readers feel that those who post comments to articles should put their true name to them. I’d guess that most of those who make up that 72 per cent are people who don’t generally post comments, since everyone can provide their real name.

Online publications struggle with this. I haven’t seen any newspaper or magazines sites that allow comments also require that commenters provide their real name. It’s interesting, though, that major newspapers and magazines diligently check to ensure that the writer of a letter-to-the-editor in their printed version is truly the author, and would rarely allow a “name held by request,” much less a pseudonym.

It’s a quandary. It’s still all about dialogue, but it’s also about credibility. Some would say that they don’t pay attention to comments made by people who don’t include their true name, but what about a public meeting? Unknown people stand up to make valid comments all the time, and folks still listen, don’t they?

It’s all about the subject matter and the delivery. Piping and drumming used to shout down or ignore dissenting or unpopular views by sweeping them under the rug until they went away. That’s changed, mainly due to new mechanism to exchange ideas without fear of reprisal.

I’d love to authenticate every comment to every pipes|drums story before enabling them, but would wonder whether 1) it would dissuade people from commenting, and 2) take too much time for too little return.

Also, I haven’t studied it, but have a feeling that a much higher proportion of pipes|drums commenters put their name to their post than is true of forums. I’m pleased every time that highly credible people like Bill Livingstone, Alistair Dunn, Donald MacPhee, Duncan Millar, Jim Kilpatrick, Bruce Gandy and many other famous folks have no trouble backing their frequent comments with their name.

Just like more mortal pipers and drummers try to imitate their playing, I’d hope that people also emulate their sense of integrity.

Musical ecosystem

Balanced on an axis.Every ecosystem reacts to foreign invaders. Earthly things merrily exist in their particular environment, change occurring over eons and epochs in Darwinian sloth . . . then suddenly a bunch of things come off a jet plane and all hell is unleashed.

Scotland is not called the Auld Country for nothing. The “New Town” in Edinburgh was first established 230 years ago, about the time that the United States was born. While Scotland’s cities are among the most modern in the world, and it’s the place where many great inventions were made, paradoxically there are centuries-old traditions that exist simply because they exist and that’s the way things have always been done.

The new worlds of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, by comparison have few traditions, and those that exist are years rather than centuries old. Religious holidays become commercial festivals; days of homage to great leaders are declared; musical trends start and stop every minute.

Thanks to jet travel and other technology, Scotland’s piping and drumming ecosystem has been infiltrated by foreign invaders, brought on partly by Scots themselves. The missionary work in the 1960s and ’70s of Seumas MacNeill, John MacFadyen, John MacLellan, the Balmoral Bobs, Donald MacLeod, Alex Duthart and others brought the gospel of good piping and drumming to the colonials. Other Scottish pipers and drummers, like John Wilson, Roddy MacDonald, James Barrie, James MacColl, Jim Kirkwood, James McIntosh and others – outright emigrated to the new world, and embraced the cultures of their new homes, profoundly improving things through their tireless teaching.

New world pipers and drummers not only worked to perfect their craft, but injected into it new traditions by consistently questioning why things are done the way they’ve always been done in Scotland for hundreds of years. Piping and drumming’s new world has readily tweaked and even thumbed its figurative nose at the traditions of the art. Those disruptions have usually not gone over too well in the Auld Country.

It’s a culture clash. While Scots are accustomed to maintaining traditions, the new world generally has less tolerance for doing things the same way. As such, the challenges to established piping / drumming ways over the last 30 years by and large have originated from outside of Scotland: the resurrection of the bass-section; the rise of summer schools; judging accreditation; solo grading systems; new light music compositions and styles; pushing the boundaries of the pipe band medley; “kitchenpiping”; aristocracy replaced by meritocracy . . .

As with everything, there are exceptions, but the large majority of biggest challenges and changes to piping and drumming traditions over the last 30 years have originated from outside of Scotland.

I’ve been a piper and bandsman in the United States, Scotland and Canada for decent amounts of time in each country. The three cultures treat change very differently. The struggles with change that piping and drumming has had, I believe, are largely due to a struggle of cultures. The Scottish piping ecosystem that existed and hardly changed for hundreds of years was significantly disrupted by an influx of foreigners, exiting jet planes with their new ideas and acceptance of change. It has been an invasion of fresh ideas to some, of pests to others.

The remaining traditions of piping and drumming – the MSR, the uniform, competition formats, to name a few – are sure to be challenged by the pressure to change. The mindsets of players from various countries vary, each with different ideas of what’s “acceptable” and what’s not. These clashes of cultures are responsible for the massive changes to our musical ecosystem that will continue faster than ever with the worldwide piping and drumming population explosion.

There can be no doubting that great changes have occurred since the advance of piping skills in North America and Down Under. Now, as piping and pipe bands go even more global – continental European countries and Asia, especially – how will these diverse cultures further impact upon the traditions and mores of our musical environment?

Facebook TMI

FB TMIIf a generation’s label lasts five years these days, then this must be “Generation Facebook.” A recent blog-post by Michael Grey prompted me to think, as his writing (words and music) is prone to do. It seems that much of the piping and drumming world, just like much of the world in general, is “on” Facebook.

I’ve been at it for three years or so, and don’t tend to do too much with it, except follow friends, link p|d stories and tweets. My interest in FB tends to rise and fall.

But lately I’ve noticed some late-adopters to Facebook from the piping world. Some of these, I’ve also noticed, are quite prominent pipers and drummers who are still active, to be sure, but whose glory years were maybe back in the 1970s and ’80s – well before Generation FB.

I wrote a few years ago about venturing to Scotland for the very first time (as a piper) in 1983, and heading to the Skye Gathering at Portree, and seeing the late, great John D. Burgess. Yes, he, too, was human, although his playing to me was super-human. It was a thrill to see and hear him, Iain MacFadyen, Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald, John MacDougall and others after years of reading about them and listening to their recordings.

To some extent, I’m finding that Facebook is sapping the mystique from superstar pipers and drummers, especially when they post stuff that portrays them as the regular people they really are. On one hand, it’s great that they can connect to the mortals but, on the other hand, the excitement that I felt in 1983 of actually seeing and meeting these people is irreplaceable. For me it was like finally seeing Bob Gibson pitch and Lou Brock steal a base after forever gazing at their baseball cards.

I don’t know. Something just doesn’t quite sit that well with me seeing the legends of piping and drumming carving turkeys or sitting around in their jammees with their family on Christmas day on their Facebook page. It spoils a mystique.

There’s a lot to be said for maintaining an air of mystery, and some of the greatest figures in piping and drumming history were, not coincidentally, some of the most enigmatic. There’s a fine boundary to be drawn between modesty and TMI.

I swear, it’s true

Capt. Haddock made it count.So, a new “research” study reveals that profanity can be good for you. Apparently, it helps to ease pain. This is welcome news for the pipe band world, which I’m sure previously thought that swearing was debilitating to band morale and the pipe-major’s health. It’s welcome information that the pain of a badly blown D can be relieved by a choice cuss.

I must confess, I quite like swearing. But, like everything, try to do it in moderation. A good oath blurted out at the right time can really emphasize a message. I don’t think I know any adults who never swear, but I know many who rarely let out a good curse-word and, when they do, you know they really mean it. They make it count.

And then there are those who swear all the time. Cursing is part of their everyday language and just about every sentence includes sharp Fs and Cs. You end up not even hearing it, and after a while you realize that they have an affliction and you start making fun of them behind their back. If the good people at Guinness gave such an award, I’m sure one or two very famous pipers might have the world record for the highest percentage of swear-words in normal conversation.

There’s a lot of swearing in pipe bands. Since kids generally join bands that include mostly adults, they are indoctrinated to the wonderful world of cussing at an early age. Like good blowing and solid attacks, swearing is a learned skill in pipe bands, passed from generation to generation.

But I remember that even before I joined my first pipe band at the age of 12 I was already swearing like Captain Haddock. I can only imagine that the language of tweens is at least as filthy now as it was in the 1970s, so most kids joining the pipe band universe won’t be shocked. And if their parents are alarmed, they should f&*#ing chill.

There was a recent story about a piping teacher who was dismissed from the school system that he taught at for many years because he allegedly exploded with a bit of profanity in the presence of a young student. While piping and drumming teachers would be wise to rein in the invective, I can’t help think that, gosh darn it, it’s all part of good training for a life in piping and drumming.

Besides, it’s damned good for you.

In rotation

  • FantasiesMetricFantasies (standout track: “Satellite Mind”)
  • John MulhearnThe Extraordinary Little Cough (standout track: “Captain Jack Murray” feat. Roddy MacLeod)
  • Steve EarleTownes (standout track: “Colorado Girl”)
  • The Ting TingsWe Started Nothing (standout track: “That’s Not My Name”)
  • Wendy Stewart & Gary WestHinterlands (standout track: “Ae Fond Kiss”)

Special tweets

Rockin' robin.pipes|drums is always keen to push boundaries and try new things. Tomorrow, April 4th, will be another first for us, when we attend the Toronto Indoor Games, and provide Twitter updates throughout the day from @pipesdrums.

We added a Twitter feed to Blogpipe a few days ago, so any “tweets” (a really twee term, but so be it) are automatically fed to the section of the blog. If you’re so inclined, you can follow the Twitter updates throughout the day either via the blog or directly from Twitter.

I signed up for Twitter last year and didn’t do much with it until recently. I’ve been a Facebook user for a few years, and find that much more interesting. While Facebook engages friends more with pictures and personality, Twitter is more of a push thing, where people and companies can deliver thoughts and links to those who are interested. My Twitter posts are automatically uploaded to my Facebook status, so that’s another way to follow and comment.

I don’t for a second presume that anyone is particularly interested in whatever random thoughts I might have, but, if you are, then so be it. I’m happy to provide them if there’s a chance is prompts useful dialog.

This little experiment tomorrow may be the bomb (as the kids, I think, still say) or, then again, it might just bomb. It does come on the heels of the April Fools story about judges texting and Twittering while competitors play. I won’t be doing that, but will try to provide a little bit of insight into the day. I’ll be interested to see what the reaction will be.

I’ll look forward to your comments and/or your Twitter responses to posts throughout the day. Nothing ventured . . .

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?

Ad newseam

We salute your change.Quite a few pipes|drums readers sent a heads-up about the drum-major with the Cleveland Cleveland Firefighters Memorial Pipes & Drums quitting his band after he got in trouble for “making eye-contact” (read: winking and waving like Benny Hill) with President Obama at last week’s inaugural parade. Apparently, protocol strictly forbids even looking at the new president, although the Chosen One waved or winked or whatever back at John Coleman.

(It reminded me of the rock-star, Prince, 20 years or so ago, communicating with his “people” during his tour only by telepathy. No one was allowed to speak to him, including his girlfriend at the time, Sheena Easton, who was soon dumped for not being able to know what her wee purple man was thinking . . .)

Similar to the previous discussion on advertising acceptance, deciding what qualifies as pipes|drums news can be a difficult call. While “Colemangate” grabbed the attention of entertainment-focused outlets like CNN and “Good Morning, America,” I didn’t think it deserved the attention of pipes|drums. It wasn’t about piping / drumming; it was about one person’s breach of protocol.

Potentially, the “news” that could have been reported on pipes|drums could have been about the attention that the story got from mainstream news sources – the news becoming the news, if you follow, but still I didn’t think the story was about piping and drumming. Never mind that it was a drum-major, it had nothing to do with the actual playing of a bagpipe or pipe band drum.

Piping and drumming-related things occasionally garner mainstream attention. Often, it’s a piper who gets arrested for “noise pollution” when playing in public, or it’s some regulation that says that bagpipes are potentially dangerous to workers or soldiers’ hearing.

Personally I find that stuff tedious and I think most readers do, too. But occasionally, like when the mainstream media sensationalized Hugh Cheape’s 2008 book about the Highland bagpipe as being a relatively modern invention, it crosses into pipes|drums news territory.

If Obama had covered his ears, rolled his eyes and declared pipe bands Satanic when the Cleveland band marched past, well, then that would have been a pipes|drums story. But a drum-major doing what he did didn’t qualify as piping and drumming news, and the mainstream coverage of it was not about piping and drumming, either.

Most excellent 2008

Very swift.I wish I could listen to more music than I do, but here are my favourite songs and albums from 2008. My choice of favourite CD of the year surprises me, too, maybe, but this is one of the most likeable albums imaginable, whether you’re an eight-year-old girl or a 45-year-old dad. Just about every one of the songs on Fearless could have made my top five tracks. (Thanks to my colleague, Lorna, for late-year suggestions!)

CDs

  1. Fearless – Taylor Swift
  2. Jukebox – Cat Power
  3. Asking for Flowers – Kathleen Edwards
  4. Modern Guilt – Beck
  5. Lochbroom – Alasdair Gillies

Tracks

  1. “Song to Bobby” – Cat Power
  2. “L.E.S. Artistes” – Santogold
  3. “Breathe” – Taylor Swift
  4. “Nothing Ever Happened” – Deerhunter
  5. “Profanity Prayers” – Beck

What were your favourites of 2008?

A gift

Four scrawling birds.My Mother and Father, gone now, when it came to our worthy interests, would do anything to support my brother and sisters. My Dad was a child of the Depression and my Mom a Glasgow Blitz evacuee, so they knew what doing without was like. For my Dad, the next economic crash was always just round the corner, and his austerity with money had no limits. But if my brother needed a top-of-the-line acoustic guitar, they found a way. A sterling silver flute for my older sister? It became so.

And when it was time to move from my set of imitation-ivory-mounted 1975 Hardie drones to a vintage R.G. Lawrie instrument, well that, too, happened without question. They wouldn’t throw money at things that they considered frivolous or mind-rotting, like a colour TV or a microwave, but if it involved the arts, second-best just was not acceptable.

The first few years of my scrawling away at the practice chanter and the aforementioned pipes (which I remember eventually arrived directly from the 1970s-era Renfrew Street shop replete with the wrong tartan bag-cover and a laughable hide bag that was as tough as a Rottweiler’s chewy-toy; back then non-UK pipers truly got the crap products and service), they would always get me a few piping-related things at Christmas. But, not being in the piping club, they didn’t exactly know what comprised a “good” piping product, the things that a well-taught kid, already sensitive to piping peer-pressure, would really welcome.

I appreciated their attempts, and they tried their best. But when you’re hoping for the latest LP from Shotts and under the tree sits The Best of Scotland’s Military Pipes & Drums, well, it’s hard for a moody 13-year-old to keep a smiley façade. After a few years of Christmastime guesswork, they realized that this piping thing is a club that only playing members can comprehend, and demanded explicit details from me as to what piping stuff I needed to uncover further whatever unknown talent I might have.

My Dad, as an inveterate collector, started collecting for and giving to me. Pretty much any in-print pipe music book was acquired, including all of the Piobaireachd Society releases, the Kilberry Book and the large Guards, Queen’s Own and Irish Rangers collections. He would place orders for all of the best vinyl records, solo and band, so those of Burgess, the Edinburgh Police, Dysart, Donald MacPherson, John MacFadyen – you name it – were played non-stop on our crackly lo-fi record-player. (When I got to the eighth grade, I realized I had missed crucial years of pop music and was woefully out of step with normal kids.)

As a historian, he knew how to get research material, so my Dad set about collecting every magazine on piping and drumming there was. Eventually every issue of the Piping Times was his/mine, as were the International Piper, the North American Scotsman, the Piper & Dancer Bulletin, the Pipe Band and several periodicals that flamed out after a few issues. I can’t remember doing much schoolwork between the ages of 12 and 18. Instead I pored through these magazines, played the proverbial grooves off of piping records, and spent hours on end playing tunes from books.

I can imagine all the parents of young pipers struggling to figure out what to give their sons and daughters who have consumed this weird Airtight-flavoured piping Kool-Aid at this time. They should know that their support some day will be realized as the greatest gift.

Product

Burn, baby, burn.

This is a lengthier post, but I hope you still read it.

There has been some hand-wringing in Ontario and other parts of North America lately over apparent declining interest in our “product.” While some Ontario Highland games, like Maxville and Fergus, are thriving with bigger-than-ever crowds, others, like Chatham and Sarnia, have recently closed shop.

Jim McGillivray recently described it as “Rome burning,” which might be over-stating things a shade. For the last 10 years, he and others have called out for a reinvigoration or even reinvention of our product – the thing that we sell to Highland games organizers.

The RSPBA and the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario sell a turn-key product to events. For a flat fee, these associations will come in and run all of the piping, drumming and band competitions, and stage the massed band or march-past spectacles. As anyone who has been to several RSPBA or PPBSO events can attest, they’re pretty much the same format from contest to contest.

Most other associations have a different model. They will “sanction” designated competitions that agree to allow them to coordinate the judging and advise on competition formats and some recruitment of competitors. In essence, they ensure that competitions are of a certain quality. But games organizers can much more easily stage creative and different events, so variety from contest to contest is greater. It’s a more competitive and capitalistic approach. Over time, competitors gravitate to the events that are run the best and are the most fun to attend.

But what about the idea of our “product”? What actually is the product that we have to sell?

Here’s a fact we should all face: ultimately, the general, non-playing public does not much like bagpipe music. Let’s accept it. The average person is not drawn to our music for more than a few minutes because, in its usual style, it’s not very accessible or understandable or, dare I say it, enjoyable. This has always been so.

Our musical product has not seriously changed in 100 years. Medleys are more adventurous, but the large crowds that listen to the top-grade competitions at the World’s and Maxville do not comprise the general public; they are the same competitive pipers and drummers and friends and family who have always listened. It’s a captive audience that has grown over many decades. The more competitors a competition can attract, the bigger the crowds listening to the competitions.

The large general public that attends Fergus and Maxville doesn’t much pay attention to the competitions. They come out for the Highland dancing, the caber tossing, the sheepdogs and the grand spectacle of the massed bands. We can, and probably should, add 15-minute freestyle Grade 1 band events in concert formation, but I still think that the general public won’t really care. Performing facing the audience makes sense, but droves of punters aren’t suddenly going to appear because of it.

New competition formats could freshen things for pipers and drummers, however, the competition music will still be relatively inaccessible, because it will inevitably at least compromise when it comes to arguments about “Scottish idiom” and technical complexity that we identify as necessary in order to have a serious competition. At the end of the day, no competitive pipers and drummers want to do away with competition. It’s what they do. Most of us are competitors and get off on winning. Relatively few of us are frustrated artists.

I think that our non-competition “product” for the games still works. It can be tweaked to offer more variety and showmanship, but, if so, that product inevitably will have to leave out many of the lower-grade bands, and allow the more practiced and accomplished higher-grade bands to do the work, and they will want compensation.

The people who cry out for a sweeping change invariably are those who have been around the longest. They’re bored because they have heard and done it all before, hundreds of times.

But I don’t hear competitors younger than 30 express the same desire for sweeping change, because, just as it was for the now jaundiced veterans 30-odd years ago, our competition format is addictive and alluring to a certain type of piper and drummer who spends years getting it. (I also have never heard anyone from the UK suggest that their Rome is burning, but maybe that’s a different story.)

It’s a quandary. Do we accept that the music we play is arcane and boring to the vast majority of non-players and alter it so dramatically (I’m picturing other instruments, marching formations, electronica, light shows . . .) to attract a big general-public crowd? Or do we continue along the same course, mainly pleasing ourselves and our friends and family?

And, if it’s the latter, why not hold our own competitions that subsist on our own dues and entry-fees, holding them in parking lots and fallow farmers’ fields? Why can’t associations therefore move away from being competition machines and instead become event promoters?

I’ve never been to Rome, but I understand that today it’s an awesome place that respects the old while celebrating the new. Perhaps our Rome needs to burn for us to get better.

On

Wait till the Tri-State area sees my evil Drone-a-nator!It’s winter, it’s cold, there’s not a lot of piping and drumming going on, we’ve said everything there is to say about the Blessed Camaraderie of Tenor Drummers . . . so it’s time for a list.

Here are my favourite TV shows, although I confess that, because of time and watching live baseball almost every day from April to November, I catch up on some of these shows by DVD.

  1. Madmen. This is brilliant TV, especially for someone who works in marketing. A real study of a period just before so many societal things were about to change.
  2. 30 Rock. Funniest. Show. Ever. Me want foooood!
  3. Frontline. I never know when this deadly serious PBS program is on, but when I happen upon it it’s always riveting stuff.
  4. The Office. This has recently come close to a shark-jump (the episode where they get locked inside the building was relatively lame), but it’s still brilliant character acting and timing.
  5. Phineas & Ferb. While reading the morning’s news, I end up watching this show many weekday mornings with Annabel. P&F features maybe my favourite cartoon character ever, Doofenshmirtz, head of Evil Incorporated, and the voice of Ashley Tisdale as the borderline personality disorder-afflicted sister, Candace. When I was a kid all we had was total crap like Speed Racer.

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