August 26, 2013

Piob band

More than ever I am convinced that the real future of piobaireachd is in pipe bands. For sure, ceol mor will continue to be played by solo pipers working to be the best ape of the current “authority” so as to gain the next prize, but listening to the Inveraray & District Pipe Band’s glorious rendition of “Catharine’s Lament” made me realize, once again, that piobaireachd is tailor made for pipe bands.

I say “once again” because every time a great pipe band takes a run at complete versions of the great music great things seem to happen. Even drummers like it. “The Old Woman’s Lullaby” by Invergordon Distillery in 1967. “The Desperate Battle” by Dysart & Dundonald, 1978. The 78th Fraser Highlanders and “Flame of Wrath,” 1998. “Field of Gold,” Simon Fraser University, 2009. “His Father’s Lament,” Toronto Police, 2009. “Cabar Feidh gu Brath,” 2011, Spirit of Scotland. “Queen Elizabeth II’s Salute,” ScottishPower, 2013. And Inveraray.

At Piping Live! this year the Piobaireachd Society presented a session on recently composed piobaireachds, and the organization’s attempts to welcome new settings and interpretations. It was nice to hear, and more power to them. But they seem to be missing the obvious: the pipe band. It’s the pipe band that takes the music that is in many ways an anachronism in the hands of the solo piper, and transforms ceol mor into the dynamic and vibrant and uplifting experience that it can be.

Most of bands mentioned above are led by great piobaireachd players and, in the case of Inveraray, they brought in six-time Clasp-winner Murray Henderson to orchestrate “Catharine’s Lament” with percussion and strings in a way that he always imagined it. Perhaps Murray heard it that way because that’s the way it was presented to him by Bob Nicol – sung with dynamics and swells and nuances that are simply impossible with a solo pipe. Add percussion, multi-layered harmony, tastefully arranged “other” instruments and piobaireachd reaches its musical potential.

Pipe bands clamor to create the next “suite,” and some, like the 78th Frasers and Toronto Police, have gone as far as to merge the original suite with the competition medley, with varying degrees of success. But a piobaireachd is really the original piping suite (and many pipe band suites could be classified as piobaireachd), so it all makes great sense.

If the Piobaireachd Society were smart – and indeed it’s full of brainy people – the next book in their Collection would be complete arrangements of ceol mor as played by great pipe bands. Right now we see the Argyllshire Gathering and Northern Meeting showcasing piobaireachd, with some judges doing their best to punish those who stray from the familiar. These are the annual navel-gazing celebrations of the big music that no more than a few hundred in the world truly care about. This is not a criticism; it’s fact. Piobaireachd as played by solo pipers is a competitive exercise rather than a musical advance.

If piobaireachd is to have a future beyond the stagnant renditions by solo pipers (and I include myself in that group), it is in pipe bands.


  1. I agree. Bagpipes have for too long been looked upon by the general public as “that noisy thing from Scotland”. It’s time to show the world that there are Great pieces of music written for the pipe. Done properly these can be very moving. Piobaireachd shouldn’t be hidden away, it should be shared with the rest of the world, like the great music it is.

  2. This article is spot on and deserves to be taken very seriously. The fact that our fines and most musical soloists are actively involved is our surest guarantee of musical continuity. Good taste must prevail at all costs, like unaccompanied traditional song (Scots as well as Gaelic) most of the “orhestration” is contained in the singer’s performance. i am convinced of this after taking a lifetime leading rôle in Scots ballad singing defending Jeannie Robertson’s style which is redolent of all the phrasing and light and shade issues in pibroch and other foirms of Scottish music. I therefore suggest a minimum of accompaniement following the description you give of Murray Henderson’s approach. Pleqase don’t be too hard on ther Piobaireachd Society, without them there would have been no platform for pibroch.
    One hears more and more of the desire to hear “musical” performances aand the acceptance of aleternqativer settings for competition must surely sharpen the competitors ear a

  3. “Piping Live” could pick up on this like the quartet competition and have a night of 4-6 bands presenting tunes. Could be a very creative night.

  4. You left out “Andrew MacNeil of Colonsay from the SFU “Down Under” CD. STILL the first tune I would play for someone, particularly non-pipers, who had never heard Piobaireachd before. I would follow that with a couple of other band versions from your list, then the William and James Barrie “Ancient Piobaireachd” CD. After that I would start the transition to some of the performances by the great soloists. I don’t think it would be difficult at all to hook people on Piobaireachd if they heard it in a way that’s slightly more familiar first. I don’t see the need to be an ape of a particular solo stylist though. Even if you play a traditional setting there is still a lot of room for interpretation and individualization of a particular tune. I’ll never be a, “great,” but I can always leave a good impression by interpreting something my own way. As long as my D doesn’t go flat because of the damned air conditioner.

  5. Take cover, Andrew. I can hear the traditionalists taking up arms and marching your way! I agree with you. There are only two kinds of music; good and bad. People get too hung up on Piobaireachd being strictly a solo instrument thing. That view is based on no other premise than the fact pipe bands did not exist when Piobaireachd came into being. The other thing I dislike and find counter-intuitive is the convention and ‘which school are you from?’ attitudes. Such views are purely anti-art. Good call. I agree, Piobaireachd needs all the vehicles possible to keep it flourishing. I’ve heard it played on all manner of instruments. Good music sounds good on anything, generally. Piobaireachd does benefit from orchestration, harmony etc. In lieu of emochure and dynamics on the bagpipe, this is the best available method to improve on this gap. Good blog!

  6. I will never forget the first time I heard the City of Toronto Pipe Band(Cabar Feidh) play the Desperate Battle of the Birds medley at the Toronto indoor games in the early 70s. That was the most amazing musical performance I had ever heard. Everyone stopped talking and their full attention was on the band. At the end the medley, there was a very loud applause from the audience. That competition was recorded by my dad and I played it in the car all the time. To this day that is one of my favourite medleys.

  7. Played by soloist pipers piobaireachd is a phantastic cleansing of emotions and it fosters focusing and meditation. Cannot say that of the same music when it is played by bands. Just my experience. Soloist pipers, I feel, are really serving the auditorium, pipe bands are more entertaining.

  8. In musico modulamine, non uniformiter, ut alibi, sed multipliciter, multisque modis et modulis, cantilenas emittunt. Adeo ut in turba canentium, sicut huic genti mos est, quot videas capita, tot audias carmina discriminaque vocum varia.
    When they come together to make music, the Welsh sing their traditional songs, not in unison, as is done elsewhere, but in parts, in many modes and modulations. When a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers.
    A quote from Gerald of Wales 1194
    Studies of Bardic verse, prose language and music from Ireland Scotland Wales and Brittany over the last hundred years show, in my view at least, that the current revival of our music has deep roots in an an enduring tradition……and so does the bickering 😉
    But there are always the few who are able to rise above and carry things forward…
    My big revelation was hearing what Alan Stivel and Dan Ar Bras could do with a Piob back in the 70’s
    Great thread

    1. Gioogle Translator says ‘In the musical and keeps good, but not uniformly, as in other places, but in many ways, and in many ways, and the modules, they emit songs. So much so that the crowd who play, as is the custom of this nation, you can see how many heads, so many of the songs you listen to the various voices distinctions.’

      mmmm…think we’ll maybe just stick with the Latin!

      1. Here’s another translation…..
        “musical rhythm, not uniformly, as elsewhere, but in many ways, and in many ways, and music, ballads emit. So much so that the crowd who play, as is the custom of this nation, you can see how many heads, so many of the songs you listen to the various voices distinctions.”
        & now in Chinese….

  9. There is no doubt that these pipe band performances (including a very tasteful Donald MacDonald version of Too Long in this Condition by Inveraray Pipe Band led by Murray Henderson at a concert in Aberdeen in 2012) can widen piobaireachd’s appeal, lending colour and dynamics which the solo pipe does not have. There will always be those who prefer it on the solo pipe, and probably many who like both.

    The long string of performances heard at the competitions is certainly for the small band of devotees, players and ex-players mainly, but it does little to widen piobaireachd’s audience, and the pipe band audience is big and growing, as well as being innovative and enthusiastic.

    I wonder if any of these pipe band versions have been written out? And I wonder if they should be? Maybe that would stifle inventiveness in future performances? They are preserved in that they are recorded, so can always be heard.

    As the current president of the Piobaireachd Society I know that the Society will do what it can to encourage ideas which make piobaireachd attractive to a wider audience. We are surely far from Kilberry’s notion that to popularise is to cheapen.

    1. Well said, Jack. I’ve largely been put off learning and playing Piobaireachd until now (the onset of my 40’s) because of the many puritanic attitudes that surround it. It is a regret of mine. In a solo setting, I have always appreciated it is probably more for the player, less the listener. A day-long Piobaireachd contest is really for the tragics. You put it far more kindly than me. Pipe Bands probably do provide a better vehicle to take it to a wider audience and also allows for all manner of musical presentation with harmony etc. While I respect and acknowledge there are accepted teachings, the one issue I have never been able to reconcile is when players are dismissed outright by a judge because they play in a style from the ‘other stable’ to that of the judge. I am aware of one particular judge who hasn’t got a nice word to say about the playing of someone who’s won everything, many times. All because of the style he has chosen to follow. So, if that player and judge cross paths, what is the point for either party?? Imagine if every professional maestro/conductor on earth was schooled the same way…………….yawn!

  10. “For sure, ceol mor will continue to be played by solo pipers working to be the best ape of the current “authority” so as to gain the next prize…”

    There are other reasons I play solo piobaireachd, and your condescending statement, in the first paragraph no less, is insulting, unnecessary, and unhelpful to your thesis. Band performances of great piobaireachd certainly can be great, but that depends more on the band, than the piobaireachd.



Forgotten Password?