January 26, 2012

Fixing holes

Wait'll Yoko has her say . . .Every top pipe band needs a composer and, ideally, it has two. I’ve been reading Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music-The Definitive Life by Tim Riley. My mother was a big fan of The Beatles, and some of my first musical memories are (along with my dad’s fondness for Jimmy Shand records) listening repeatedly to Rubber Soul and Revolver on our green wool living room rug. One of the first movies I saw in an actual theater was Yellow Submarine. I would have been five.

I know my Beatles, but Riley’s book opened my eyes wider to the Lennon-McCartney composing dynamic. The two were supreme collaborators and, more importantly, they were big-time rivals. Outdoing one another with musical originality was implicit.

Lennon showed McCartney his trippy “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and McCartney answered back within days with his nostalgic Liverpool memory with “Penny Lane.” McCartney’s maudlin 4/4 “Michelle” received a quick caustic 6/8 comeback from Lennon in “Norwegian Wood.”

At least until Magical Mystery Tour, they injected themselves into each other’s compositions. But from then on they drifted apart musically and emotionally. Almost all of the songs were still fantastic, but they lacked that certain Beatles brilliance when they worked collaboratively – for example, compare the collaborative “A Day in the Life” with the Lennon-only “Revolution.” (Incidentally, apparently McCartney’s “Fixing a Hole” is about him solving the gap in Lennon’s “A Day in the Life,” with the “woke up, fell out of bed” section.)

You can see a similar dynamic with other great composing partnerships in their heydays: Jagger & Richards; Simon & Garfunkel; Page & Plant. When they worked well together, they challenged one another with different thinking, and made otherwise predictable songs incredibly distinctive compositions. Their compositional styles pretty much mirror their very different personalities. The competitive and personal friction between them paid off.

Bands in the top grades are under pressure to be original. Just about every band with a distinct musical identity has a composer/arranger either in the ranks or on the outside funneling pieces to them. Bands that have two or more composers and arrangers who collaboratively debate, prod and critique each other’s works I would think have an advantage.

But that sort of constructive collaboration is usually stoked by a rivalry and competitive spirit. Goodness knows, pipers and drummers are driven by competition. But rivals often eventually fall out. They stop collaborating. They stop caring what the other thinks. They go their separate musical ways.

But as long as competitive composers can appreciate each other’s input, they and their bands should make the most of it. Great things happen when opposites attract.


  1. Some interesting ideas in the blog – perhaps there are similarities in the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson which helped propel them to such popularity. But just how does one consistently ” weave a love story into a proposition of Euclid “? Without having the two tear apart irrevocably, even were they to reconcile their essential imissibilty?

    Can you imagine having Jeremy Brett as your Pipe Major? Without Edward Hardwicke as P/S to counteract his edges?

  2. I would put it to you that every pipe band has at least one, if not two composers….What about the drummers? Overlooked again! More about that later…
    In my experience, I’ve found that most of the tension (if there was any) wasn’t between the 3-4 piping composers/arrangers within the band, but rather between them and the rest of the band. For example, the group would get together and sketch an outline or structure for a medley around one or two key compositions and then fill the blanks. Sometimes it would come down, say, needing an intro tune and at that point trying to create one. Once the medley was created, it would be presented to the band for evaluation. It was at that point that people would “intefere” and try to change a tune that didn’t spark their interest, suggesting something that didn’t fit with the flow. Or someone felt that there was perhaps too much harmony in a particular piece and end up ruining the tune by changing it. However, between the composers/arrangers, there was more or less harmony and a common direction/understanding as to what was being created.
    As far as the drum scores, the pipe tune composition group or a member from it would spend time working with the snare section composers (the lead tip shared these duties with one or two others) to fine tune the scores to fit the compositions.
    Again, not much tension there, but more of a mutual collaboration to emphasize the right notes and themes via rythms and dynamics, etc.
    Now back to the drum section composers in general. Think about this, pipe section tune composers…Imagine if you had to write the entire band repetoire…I mean everything. 2 sets, 2 medleys, 2/4s, 3/4s, 6/8s, jig sets, hornpipe sets, suites, etc.
    That’s what the lead tip and tenor leader is responsible for! Why do we always overlook that? That has to be source of some tension. Next time you see your drummers, thank them for all that work and complement them when they write a particularly good score. I’m sure that they’d appreciate it.



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