Flatten the grass

BzzzzzzBzzzzzplop . . . . . . BzzzzzBzzzzzplop  EEEEEEEELike many other people I’ve been listening to Ceremonials, the new disc by Florence + the Machine. Of course, it reminds me of a great pipe band. Florence Welch’s powerful, instant-on voice makes me think of a pipe chanter, except one with a three-octave range, multi-layered, with complex harmonies and counter-melodies textured in.

I just read that her new album has hit the number-one spot in the UK charts, so there must be a market for BIG music that carries certain sameness, and which is highly infused with Celtic style, crazy outfits and wispy heather visions of the moors. She also often uses lots of lower-toned drums, often in rhythmical, chant-like ways, which fits with the current sound of many bands.

Bill Livingstone once talked about listening to the 1980s vintage Strathclyde Police when they were “in full sail,” conjuring an image of a clipper meeting the waters head-on with wind. The pipe band-sailing ship analogy is even more apt today with much larger bands developing huge visual and sonic power.

I could see Florence + the Machine doing something with a pipe band, just as I could hear a pipe band covering one or two of her songs in a concert. Our music is often criticized by outsiders for always sounding the same with unwavering loudness and a dearth of dynamics. But there is no denying that a pipe band at its best produces impressive and beautiful energy that, as George Campbell would say, “flattens the grass.”

I’ve also read some criticism of Ceremonials, contending that the songs remain the same from track-to-track. But Florence Welch clearly works within a formula that rings true with many people. Sometime, pipe bands try too hard to be something they are not and can never be. Instead of working with what they have, they strive to overlay pipes and drums with other stuff, seemingly never content with, It is what it is.

I’m not saying for a second that there is anything wrong with that. I’m a vocal proponent of pushing the boundaries. But some artists are able to hit upon a formula without ever becoming formulaic. They recognize what they’ve been given, their limitations, and get on with making the most of them.

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.

A list

By the right, check, mark.So pipes|drums readers feel that the greatest pipe-major of all time – at least for competition-oriented bands – is Richard Parkes of Field Marshal Montgomery, followed closely by Iain MacLellan, Glasgow/Strathclyde Police and, also close, SFU’s Terry Lee. All great choices, and the entire list is a who’s-who of legendary names, each making a great mark on our history.

Of course, if military pipe-majors were included, then one would have to consider the likes of Willie Ross, G.S., Donald MacLeod, John MacDonald (Inverness), Angus MacDonald, John A. MacLellan, Jock McLellan (Dunoon), Willie Lawrie . . . and on and on.

But sticking to those who focused on the competition racket, the poll I think captured all of those who had won a World’s, and the hope was that readers would consider other merits.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a proponent of constructive change for the better. So, a pipe-major’s impact and legacy beyond winning a bunch of prizes would play a heavy role in my choices. Here are my personal picks for the top five competition-oriented pipe-majors of all time:

1. Tom McAllister Sr. – this may surprise readers, but to me Tom Sr. is the George Washington, John A. MacDonald or Sir Robert Walpole of the modern pipe band world. I mean, McAllister Sr. was the one who came up with the two-three-paced-rolls-and-an-E introduction, revolutionizing the way pipe bands played together. He is the founding father of the pipe band as it is defined today.

2. Donald Shaw Ramsay – DSR was the man with the vision to expand the pipe band repertoire. Before he came along, it was stuff played over and over, and Ramsay was the first to suggest that pipe bands could actually do more than march along the street or compete with an MSR – bands could actually put on a show for non-pipers / drummers, complete with things in – gasp! – compound time.

3. Bill Livingstone – while Ramsay prompted a change to adopt a soloist’s expanded repertoire, Bill Livingstone in the 1970s and ’80s sent pipe bands into completely uncharted waters. “Deadrock” pushed musical boundaries and buttons, adapting content from Ireland, England and Hebridean Scotland, while expanding the notion that top bands should introduce completely original content. A great leader also looks to the greatness of those around him, and Livingstone’s ability to embrace the ideas within his bands is a leadership quality that is often overlooked. Add to that the first non-Scottish band to win, and the virtual invention of the pipe band concert format that bands imitate today, and he makes my top-three.

4. Iain MacLellan – of course there are the 13 World Championship wins, likely never to be equaled, but to me Iain MacLellan was the Donald MacPherson of the pipe band world. He elevated the idea of tone to a completely new level with his Glasgow/Strathclyde Police bands with a clarity unrivaled for more than a decade. He was the first to make precision tuning a science, literally blowing bands off the park. MacLellan not only set the new standard for sound, he raised it to a level that wouldn’t be matched until, arguably, the Victoria Police in 1998.

5. Iain McLeod – I was surprised that McLeod garnered only 2 per cent of votes, leaving him near the bottom in the results. McLeod’s Edinburgh City Police was the first true superstar pipe band, touring the world throughout the 1960s and ’70s, with the first pipe section comprising all elite players. McLeod picked up Ramsay’s trend towards expanded repertoire, and set the stage for the modern pipe band concert format. Five World titles are nothing to sneeze at, either.

So, those are my top-five pipe-majors. It was difficult to choose, and by no means should the accomplishments of the rest be minimized. I might change my mind in a year, or tomorrow and would have no trouble respecting anyone else’s preferences and reasoning. They’re all great pipe-majors, and may well make your list, which you are of course encouraged to submit.


Pleased to meet me.If I had lots more time, along with analyzing products made in Pakistan (see recent blog) I’d love to do an assessment of pipers’ hands. Seriously. My theory is this: pipers with smaller hands are usually more accurate and faster players.

It sounds ridiculous, and for certain there are guys with big hands who can really play. I tend to shake hands with a lot of pipers, and it seems like several times a year I’ll greet a really excellent player and notice to myself how small his or her hands are. Could there be a correlation?

Great, less-tall pipers certainly prop up the theory: Donald MacLeod, Gordon Walker, G.S. McLennan, Bill Livingstone, Donald MacPherson, Angus MacColl, Iain Morrison, Jim McGillivray . . . these hands have moved the piping world. There are also many taller great pipers with surprisingly small hands. When I see the nimble digits of, say, Bruce Gandy, there’s just a distinct quality and accuracy to the embellishments.

I remember Murray Henderson, certainly one of the greatest pipers of the last 100 years, saying at a summer school that he had to practice extra-long because of his unusually big hands. He said something about how it takes a lot of work to move his long fingers. So, as someone who could palm a basketball at age 13, maybe Murray’s joke gave me a subconscious complex as a piper. (Goddam genetics stacked against me; all my freakishly large-handed dad’s fault!)

So, perhaps one day I’ll get to this study of pipers’ hands. In the meantime, I’ll try to control the wringing.


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