June 15, 2008

Good morning

Sunset or sunrise?About 15 years ago, the 78th Fraser Highlanders decided that it would play its Megantic Outlaw “suite” as one of its competition medleys. The piece, which can be heard on the band’s CD of the same name, was about six minutes long, and was a musical impression of the tale of a celebrated figure in Canadian history.

The medley/suite was played one time in competition, at the then Canadian Championships at Cambridge, whereupon one judge, Archie Cairns, lambasted it, as I recall, writing on his scoresheet something like, “This does not fit the pipe band idiom.” I believe the band didn’t win as a reult.

After that, the suite was essentially bagged, not played at the own-choice medley events at Maxville or the World’s. In effect, the band caved for fear of risking losing points because the judges might not like the content, no matter how well it was executed.

That was a watershed decision, as I see it now. Had that band played “The Megantic Outlaw” at the World’s, then, who knows, perhaps the predictable HP/Jig/Air/Strath/Reel (the Jig and Reel sections interchangeable) might not be so predictable. Since then no Grade 1 band has competed with anything significantly different.

Until yesterday, that is, when the Toronto Police shook things up by playing a Gershwin-inspired selection that obviously rallied the crowd, but not all of the judges, one of whom once again apparently didn’t like or understand the content. (I didn’t hear the whole contest, so I can’t comment on what the other two bands played or the kind of sound and unison they produced.) The medley includes very little that is musically familiar to the pipe band enthusiast.

Looking back again to 1980, the General Motors band (the forerunners of the 78th Fraser Highlanders) regularly brought down the house with a creative (for the time) medley, but which also didn’t do well with the judges.

I’m a firm believer in art over-reaching its creative boundaries in order to move things forward. Impressionism was almost universally panned. Picasso was a heretic for cubism. Pollock splattered paint and offended many. Warhol called depictions of garbage art.

In my mind, full credit goes to the artists who are willing to sacrifice money and prizes by being courageous and, at times, outrageous. For the rest of us they fall on their swords.


  1. …don’t forget about Igor Stravinsky ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rite_of_Spring ).

    I’m really enjoying all the comments flying around the internet after this performance (and that there were no riots in Georgetown). I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much interest in one medley. I hope they keep it up as it should be the bands that drive the evolution of the idiom, not the judges.

    Most of the responses I’ve seen have been positive, so maybe this kind of medley will catch on. Variety is what makes the medley contests fun to watch. The traditional music of the idiom can always be evaluated in the MSR.

  2. Disagree completely. What a bunch of twaddle. Archie Cairns had it right. There’s no place for this jumble of notes in pipe band competitions. M

  3. I for one applaud the Metro Police for having the courage to present this form of a medley, and sent a note to the composer and pipe major to say just that. Sure, it may not be to every single persons taste, but a 40 second rattle of 16th notes disguised as a reel/pipe by some lower grade bands is indeed much worse.

    Is it bad because the music is not good or more to the point, do those people just not have any use for the expansion and evolution of our music. Jumble of notes, I think not, perhaps some should take a refresher course in Music theory. I understand that the melodic line may not ring true to everyones ear but just calling it crap and not explaining why or coming up with a better solution os no better either.

    I personally hope that this is excepted and it becomes another option for bands to experiment and stretch the envelope more again. One might remember that playing all these round reels and such took a pretty good beating at first 25 years ago, not to mention playing a “free flowing” slow air, how dare they.

    Bruce Gandy

  4. Andrew;

    I think you put it very well that it is sometimes necessary for an artist to ‘over-reach’ to move things forward. I think this will help promote the survival of pipe bands and highland games in Canada. New challenges and new directions are needed for our art to grow.

    Let’s face it, the traditions of pipe bands and highland games are receding. Note the inability for games such as Hamilton, Sarnia and Fort Erie to attract sponsorship. Scots no longer immigrate to Canada in the numbers they used to. Most people in Canada of Scottish origin are not 1st or 2nd generation where the traditions are strongest. With fewer coming over the connections to the ‘auld’ country are in decline. Maybe musical rejuvenation will help to counteract this and attract more people to pipe bands.

    Personally I was not enthused with the medley tunes Toronto played. I did however think the drum core was spectacular and I appreciated what they did for its musical creativity and willingness to create a new paradigm in pipe band competitions. I think they must be recognized and thanked for that.

  5. I had heard this medley in its beginning stages and like many others I’m sure, I was amazed that someone could even think of playing this medley in serious competition. I told the Composer that I did not get it at all. After hearing it in it’s entirety with harmonies and drums for me it was not bad at all. The one thing I did notice though is that every one is talking about the TPPB, I think that is fantastic, I don’t think they will win the worlds with this new medley any time soon, but they seem to be having fun and we all seem to be talking about it so I think they accomplished alot by playing it.

    On the other hand I would really like to see the complete reverse on their second medley with old traditional tunes, I mean like Macnish Distillery stuff, there are so many tunes that we never here any more it would be really awesome if we had bands playing more of that stuff as well.

    good luck guys


  6. As I stated earlier on YouTube, it is very difficult to make an evaluation of a pipe band performance from one static position. The biggest concern I have is just how the judges will handle critiquing a performance like this.
    Whether we like it or not, judges set the standard. If they don’t like it or won’t accept it, very few bands will be willing to spend the money to play “it” in competition if they have a pretty good idea what the result will be. I would imagine this is what stopped 78th Frasers from continuing onward with the Megantic Outlaw medley.
    I still think there is room for a “concert” performance contest somewhere down the road. The EUSPBA tried this once and it was trashed by one of its own Voice editors…
    Musically/artistically, I did not like the picture TPPB were trying to paint. However, I very much appreciate the fact that the issue of what is and is not acceptable will be the point of discussion at many (at least I HOPE it is many) judges seminars in the not too distant future.

  7. What an interesting day at Georgetown. Peel stepped up, 78th did their thing, but for me it was the Polis that stole the show. There are the haters and the inovaters, congrats to having the the bollacks to step outside the box, try something new in competition and for me personally, totally have my attention from start to finish with no idea what to expect next. To the traditionalists, we have the M-S-R, to the inovators, push the limits and evolve the medley even more as the Frasers did some 20 plus years ago.


  8. Someone once wrote/said: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like!”

    It is wrong (and a touch high and mighty, it must be said) to dismiss opinions against the Toronto Cops performance, by simply implying that a certain depth of musical know-how is required to truly appreciate what is being presented. That argument flies in the face of what music is truly about.

    Music is written for the masses, not the judges. However, the juges have a bigger say on the contest paddock and, whether we want to admit it or not, have certain expectations about what they are going to hear. We train them to expect it!

    I heard the performance in question and did not enjoy it at any stage. The start was loose, ambiguous and lacked the ominous feel it was trying to create because of the lack of dyamics the bagpipe has (something some people overlook or ignore).

    I am all for trying things that are ‘new’………mind you, we have 9 notes to work with, so in my opinion it is more about melody than structure. The performance came across as a ramble of ponderous tempos, no distinct or effective key changes, and too few passages of melody (the fundamental).

    The absence of embochure and/or volume dynamics with the bagpipe is a fact that some people believe they can side-step. I disagree, and this very thing made this particular performance flatline from start to finish for me.

    It would appear that some people are frustrated keyboardists/guitarists/saxophonists etc, who are trapped in a piper’s body. My tip is to deal with it and appreciate that we are not these things when we don a kilt and play a celtic-orientated/flavoured/derived/iconic instrument.

    If you must be ‘different’ (by the way, why do we feel this is so important and/or achievable with such a limited scale?) then change the instrument like the Bretons do with alternate pitched drones, for example, and introduce other elements like the Bombarde, huge percussion sections and various interludes etc. They have the right idea and seemingly have few boundaries, however they would consider that there are parameters to stay within in their idiom.

    For me, the contest format does not allow for such things like Toronto Met’s suite to be truly expanded and/or expressed, nor do they bring the best out of a pipe band. Save it for the concert stage or the studio (with additional instruments).

    Until contests are run like they are in Brittany, keep dreaming.

  9. I listened to the performance on YouTube, and while I can’t say that it was my favorite piece of music ever, I certainly didn’t hate it and I applaud the Toronto Police for having the guts to go with something so completely different. There were many things that I enjoyed in their medley, and a few that I didn’t. However, just because we didn’t love this particular piece of music is no reason to put the kibosh on all future diversions from the norm. Future developments of the medley will no doubt improve upon this watershed performance – the important thing is that the groundwork has been laid. The police have opened up the door to the development of medleys that stray from the predictable and I can’t wait to see where it goes. Let’s pat them on the back for trying, and help them improve the piece to address the criticisms. The prototype is never perfect.

  10. At first I loved it, then the second listen, I thought “man this gets old quick”, and then a third and fourth listen had me grinning, and waiting for the 6min. & 35sec. mark to come. We all perform for the people. And if anyone else can tell me they have received a loud cheer 3/4ths of a way through a medley, please do stand up and pat your self on the back. To those that say it’s a jumble…you are correct.

    med·ley / Pronunciation Key – [med-lee] Pronunciation Key – noun, plural -leys, adjective –noun

    1. a mixture, esp. of heterogeneous elements; hodgepodge; jumble.

    2. a piece of music combining tunes or passages from various sources.

    –adjective 3. Archaic. mixed; mingled.

    Good on you Ian, for going through with what you had planned on for the bands revival.

  11. Getting a cheer mid-performance tells us little, and is certainly nothing new.

    Is playing a suite more imaginative than compiling a medley of individual tunes to tell a story?? No it isn’t.

    Why are people trying to paint this as a “water shed” moment? A band came on, broke with the norm at the start, played a series of tunes (dressed-up as a “suite”) and then stopped. Did the earth move for anyone? Most on here are at pains to say they loved the music, and prefer to talk about being different. Define different in this context – i.e. time limit, 9 notes, pipes and drums, step off the line etc etc.

    Different? Similar things have been done before. All medleys are different.

    Musical? How many people could whistle even one bar of this straight after hearing it for the first time?

    This was a stunt to get some attention. Mission accomplished and well done for that! Just make sure you get your MSR steaming along and your chanters sparkling on the Green otherwise……

    Will FMM ever try this on the contest field, or need to? Of course not.

    Were Toronto ever seriously a chance to beat the 78ths at this contest? To those applauding the “courage” to play this suite, just remember it is easier when you have little to lose.

  12. It’s “a departure from the norm”, does that work for you Andrew? The easy thing to get out was that it is different. Other than 78th, starting a Medley with a walking tune, and some of the early and middle 90’s Vale medleys, this was a bit refreshing and “different”. I for one would think if they plan on the worlds, that they might want to think about using only some of it. Maybe the Slow phrase to the end. I believe it would get the attention the Shotts got last year in thier medley, from the slow air on seemed to be one piece of flowing music.

    Now can someone please find a video of Durham Regional and thier ode to Rush?

  13. I’ve read much on a number of web sites regarding this medley as well as listened to it many times now and I have a number of observations.

    1. Every time I listen to this medley it gets better. It keeps your interest because it is a huge break from the norm, and it sounds really good. It also sound like a lot of fun to play and is certainly of a skill level that qualifies it as a competitive ‘medley’. I can say the same of a number of grade 1 medleys of the past, but this is different.

    2. On another site someone made an observation that this is in fact NOT a medley, but instead one large intricate piece. This to me is a startling truth and probably the one I would be most concerned with if I were competing with this. It’s a cheap distinction, but if someone wanted to get picky with the rules they might have a point. To be safe I’d change the name of the middle segment to something, so there are technically 2 tunes… a medley… Like I said, cheap distinction…

    3. This whole thing reminds me of the progression of DCI (Drum Corps International). This comparison has been made before in terms of judging etc. but now I’m seeing a very similiar pattern in terms of performance.

    In the 1980’s, DCI shows were also very structured, each corps played an opener (stop), concert piece (stop), drum solo (stop), and closer. That was it, virtually every corps, usually playing show tunes or segments of classical pieces.

    In pipe bands, the medley generally consists of a march on (opener), strathsphey reel slow air jig (pick the order) (concert) with a jig or hornpipe (closer).

    Today, DCI is a COMPLETELY different animal. Most corps don’t even break between pieces, it’s a total package designed to evoke different reactions and emotions throughout.

    I believe TPPB has started the next natural progression in the grade 1 ‘medley’ performance. We will always have the MSR, and the medley at least in the lower grades, but I believe over time this medley will serve as the beginning of a new era in the top grade pipe bands. Talk to any grade 1 band leadership and they will tell you the same thing, they are looking for something different to put out there. If your not sure about that, count the increase in tenor drummers over the last decade.

    This is a break from tradition, plain and simple (just like tenor drummers actually playing instead of swinging). But it is also a natural musical progression and evolution of the competitive pipe band. If we reject it, I believe we reject the concept of progress.

    Now may not be the time, but then again…


  14. Sorry Michael, I was having a bad day.

    Certainly not your best work in my opinion, but I can appreciate what you are trying to do here.

    Go for it.

    The Green awaits. 🙂

  15. We worry too much about judges and competitions. We have to please ourselves and allow our own musical ideas to be expressed. In my “advancing” years, I am now beginning to think of contests as concerts, where we try to perform our own music to the very best of our ability, always trying to improve on our previous best performance. I can then have a great day out, listen to the rest of the concert, socialise with friends, go for a little walk round the field with the other bands at the end and listen to a little speech in which some bands’ names are mentioned. Sometimes you even hear your own band’s name. Michael, if this medley is what you want to do, go for it. You might not win the competition but you will win friends, and your ideas will be argued over and debated for a long time to come.

  16. As a very long time Pipe Band Fanatic and Anti Traditionalist, I’ve seen a lot of things come and go but I hope this one goes sooner than most as I absolutely hated it. I don’t say that out of malice, I hate Peebruck too and the structure of this medley reminded me of that genre of the trade. It’s just musical nonsense!

    While there was a lot of really clever gimmicks to please the Punters, the overall composition left you high and dry in terms of musical satisfaction.
    Same effect as if you go to hear a Metalica concert and they break out into a Hungarian Polka experiment and you wish they would finish so they can get onto the real music they are famous for. There is a certain amount of predictability in any music, and you’ll notice that most Hits are really simple and don’t need to be complicated abstact concepts that has to be explained to the listener in order to appreciate it.

    To Mike’s credit, there is a lot of brilliant composing inside this jungle of notes as there is some catchy phrases that could be expanded into a great tune and include some of the fantastic bridges he has developed here.

    In basic 101 medley conctruction, you don’t want to drag out the Rhythms for too long as we see with endless reel finales, but you don’t want to change up the Rhythms to soon either as you just start to enjoy the selection and then it’s gone.

    This experiment may have been a failure in terms of a pipe band medley, but it did demonstrate the potential to do much more than what we hear with the semi traditional Pipe Band Medley that we have now.

    Always open to new things, just make it Rock and something you can dance to!

  17. I remember “The Megantic Outlaw” medley very well. I was the ensemble adjudicator that day at the Cambridge Games and did, in fact, place it first. It’s interesting to look back at its structure and many things from the medley that seemed to some as “outside the envelope” have now become commonplace in today’s medleys.

    From my standpoint as the ensemble adjudicator last Saturday, this Toronto Police Medley was outstanding. I could counter every negative argument I have seen posted here, but will resist the temptation.

    I applaud Michael, Ian, Doug and Regan for their creative achievement and congratulate the entire band for having the courage to musically challenge us as they undoubtedly did.

    Bob Worrall

  18. Everyone is treating this musical development and the previous ‘Megantic Outlaw’ effort as though they are new and earthshaking. they are both exciting and interesting but they are simply “more of the same” to army pipers! Does anyone remember the century-and-a-half old British Army ‘Crimean Long Reveille’? Has anyone listened to any of the numerous recorded efforts over the years of Scots Greys descendants The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards? Perhaps only people like Bill Livingstone, Kenneth Eller or Bob Worrall can remember performances and recording by the Regular Army battalions of the Black Watch (RHR) of Canada or Pipe Major William Gilmour’s Second Battalion The Royal Canadian Regiment The magic word here is, should be and, in my opinion always has been, entertainment…not competition!

    Hugh Macpherson



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