April 12, 2009

For the ages

Good crop.Ever wondered why there are always these clever new tunes all the time by young upstart composers? I got to thinking about it last week after downloading venerable old rocker Neil Young’s latest album, Fork in the Road.

I’ve been a fan of Neil Young ever since I gave Harvest to my friend, David Swihart, for his twelfth birthday in 1975. I figured if the ultra-cool Dave liked it then it must be good, so I got a copy for myself. Most people think 1972’s Harvest is Young’s greatest album, and I would agree. I played the proverbial grooves off of it. He was 26 when he wrote most of the songs, and they remain as fresh as ever today.

Not so for his new album. I can’t hear anything remarkable about it, except for some of the cloying “creativity” about green automobiles and such like that’s positively cringe-worthy. He sounds like he’s just going through the motions, forcing himself to compose and release material even when a good friend probably would have told him not to.

Why is it that so often the new musical ideas come from the young? You would think it’s the other way around, since older musicians will have built up a greater bank of knowledge therefore, one would think, should be less prone to repeating the past.

For sure, there are great exceptions. U2 still creates fresh, new, catchy material. Beethoven was in his fifties when he was composing his ninth and final (and some say best) symphony. I picture the MacCrimmons being pretty old geezers at their compositional peaks. On the other hand, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney haven’t written a memorable song in 30 years, yet keep pushing out derivative stuff. I keep hoping beyond hope that they somehow return to the freshness they displayed in the 1960s and ’70s. And through the history of pipe-music publishing, the popular productivity of prominent composers usually dwindles once they turn 40.

I used to work at composing pipe-tunes. A few of them appear in the collections of friends, and I would say that two or three of them might be worth playing, although there’s nothing really remarkable about any of them. But I haven’t composed anything for at least 15 years and have little desire to try again, even though I constantly have ideas for doing things with existing music by others.

The idea that I’d really like to pursue is a study of the ages of pipers when they composed their most successful material and had their greatest output-volume. I’d be willing to bet most of piping’s greatest compositions were from those younger than 30. (If anyone wants to tackle that project, drop me a line.)


  1. Remember though that people write the music of their time. Adolescence is a time of upheaval, trying on a myriad of identities, experimenting with everything, working things out, exploring new ideas, reaching for the stars, protesting, and believing in this today, and that tomorrow. Similarly in young peoples’ music compositions. Then it all settles down, with some exceptions. People become family orientated, settled, having decided what it is they want. Their music will be similarly settled into some kind of groove more in line with this new life phase. Gross generalisation of course, but that’s the trend. When Paul McCartney was young he wrote Helter Skelter, whereas when older he wrote the Frog Chorus for his kids. In classical music, you can see a maturing with age – through the Beehoven symphonies for example, or look at the maturity in the late Beethoven String Quartets, compared to early works. Are you psychic Andrew because I’m 3/4 through a new piece called Life Cycle Suite (pipes in 4-part harmony) which is about the life phases of human beings. Because I’m in my fifties though, does this mean it’s bound to be a bland, unexciting, non-noteworthy collection of dross? Quite probably, but there again, I can always hope to be one of the exceptions to the general rule. I’ll be interested in the results of a study into the age of piping’s great composers. Especially G. S. McLennan!

  2. Like I said, there are many exceptions, and I’m sure you’re one of them, Janette. GS was in his 30s when he died; Willie Lawrie 24-years-old. John McLellan, Dunoon, I believe was still composing gems well into his late years. Bill Livingstone and Bob Worrall only started composing in a big way after they turned 40 and 35, respectively. And of course Michael Grey put together perhaps the most discussed composition of the last two decades last year.

  3. Excellent topic, Andrew! Not being a composer myself, I feel the only platform from which I can comment is as an avid student and fan of music. Your example of U2 is so accurate because the band acknowledges making many mistakes along the way in an effort to challenge themselves to try new things. U2 says that Achtung Baby was the result of four men trying to chop down The Joshua Tree. Many critics panned them for Zooropa and Pop, and now do so again with their latest release. Time has allowed the story to be told of the earlier albums. Although rough in places, Zooropa and Pop not only represent some of their most creative work, the sounds uncovered in both albums have been ripped an reused countless times by the “fresher” bands of contemporary pop. The point is this, younger composers are fresh, older ones become hesitant to shake things up. “It worked 10 times before, the same formula should work again…” Nope.

  4. To be honest, I can’t really agree. Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney were never *musically* innovative; they took, rebuilt, and remade existing styles in a fresh way that sold to the audiences of the time. Dylan is in many ways far more musically interesting now than he ever was as a young man. The drug-addles theatre that was the 1966 tour certainly makes for compelling listening, but I often wonder how much of it is the music and how much is the legend. But then again, isn’t that always the case? If piobaireachd was invented tomorrow, I can’t see it taking off; yet give it several hundred years of heritage and a venue to play it in and we have pipers queuing up to play it for us.

  5. Neil Young…one of my alltime favorites. To me it was, and remains, all about the lyrics. Many of his songs were and are “soul and/or spirit touchers.” Nevertheless, I do sometimes wonder whether or not Neil particularly cared (or cares) what anyone else thinks as evidenced by his latest release….Pipe music composers, painters, any and all “non-commissioned” artists should keep that in mind.
    If we were to examine the culture of the piping world, I think we would have to admit that most times we are reluctant to express our opinions OR our compositions for fear of what OTHERS might say. Of course, the Michael Grey’s of the piping world are welcome exceptions to that statement!
    In my opinion, I don’t think it really matters if I “like” a younger (or older) person’s particular composition. Hell, even the great French Impressionist painters of the 19th century weren’t in lockstep. For this reason, I think we must encourage creativity among pipers of all ages.
    If we stifle creativity, pipe bands will focus on pleasing judges while playing in a defined circle with their backs to the listening audience. Whoops…I guess it is time for me find my Cowgirl in the Sand…

  6. What I find interesting/fascinating with piping composers is what I call “idiom changers”. That is, a tune composed as a hornpipe, reel, etc. that just turns the idiom on its head. For example, Eric Rigler’s hornpipe “Walking the Plank” or Adam Quinn’s reel “Blue Cloud”. Then there are those very special people who present an entirely new idiom to the piping world; for example the “Suite” such as Mark Saul’s epic “Hell-Bound Train” or prodigious composer Michael Grey’s new idiom that I would call the “suite/medley” for lack of a better term. These are all very talented and gifted people. Now if someone could just have an entirely new take on the 2/4 competition march or the strathspey! Cheers, Doc

  7. Good point, Kent. To my mind, the biggest idiom-changer might be Don Thompson, who wrote “Journey to Skye” and who isn’t a piper or pipe band drummer. The whole idea of a “suite” for a pipe band didn’t exist before then to my knowledge. (By the way, I remember discussing with Michael and others what actually to label the composition that was to be named “The Immigrant’s Suite” – the first time I think that the word “suite” was used. We knew that the music reflected the path that an emmigrant from Scotland might take, but also that it wasn’t a “medley,” an “opus,” or “manatage” etc. “Suite” seemed to suit.)

  8. Sorry, can’t mess with the sets. They’re kind of like compulsive figures in skating or gymnastic competitions.
    The best fields for experimentation without consequences are the concert and/or CD/DVD. Still gets the message out there, but without the pain……

  9. Sorry Art, I am fairly certain the compulsory or “school figures” were dropped for men’s, women’s and pairs figure skating years ago. Never knew they were ever required for gymnastics….

  10. I’m really getting behind the times. Howevere, I cannot claim to be a gymnast or figure skater.
    That being said, though, those two fields certainly have their fair share of judging controversy. It just cannot be a coincidence.

  11. The short program in figure skating is the modern compulsory. They must fulfill a set of universally known and accepted required elements. Pretty much the same as an MSR. The team gymnastics events are similar as well in that they must perform required skills. It’s not until the individual events that gymnasts get creative with their programs.



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