May 13, 2016

The vaulting

The late, great Prince we know kept a “vault” of thousands of his unreleased songs that he recorded over the last 35 years. Music industry vultures are already circling overhead, eager to get their talons into this musical meat while it’s still warm.

There’s a reason why they’re in a vault: Prince didn’t think they were worth releasing to the public. He had the good sense to put out only what he thought was his best work, since that’s what he would be known for, even after death.

I would think the songs in the vault were preserved like a personal scrapbook, or to revisit and glean ideas or improve to make them ready for public consumption. Prince was a man who cared more about his integrity and reputation, and would never sacrifice his definition of scruples for an extra buck. He even changed his name to a symbol, foregoing tens of millions of dollars in sales at the height of his career, just to make a principled statement to the record label and publisher that he believed cheated him.

Our best pipe music composers I think are just as discerning. When it comes to our music creators, we sometimes mistake “prolific” with “successful.” While Donald MacLeod published a boat-load of great compositions and arrangements, my sense is that he either chucked out or put into his own “vault” many times more tunes that he personally thought were inferior. I think the same would be true of G.S. McLennan, Roderick Campbell, Willie Lawrie, John MacColl and Gordon Duncan, to name a few long-gone writers.

It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.

I’m sure that most of our best living composers adhere to this. In many ways, they are better editors than composers, at least when it comes to the ratio of tunes they think are worthy of public hearing to those that aren’t. No one needs to know just how many crappy tunes they write to get a few gems. If Donald MacLeod and G.S. are renowned today for consistent brilliance, and the truth was that they wrote 10 duds for every good one, let’s not spoil things. That’s the way they wanted it. Rifling their “vaults” for unpublished manuscripts would be a disservice to their reputation and legacy. I like the perception that these guys never wrote a bad tune.

That said, I know of at least one living composer who has maybe five tunes that almost everyone in the world plays, and he claims that he has composed and finished only about 10 tunes total in his life. His “vault” numbers five tunes and his ratio of good-to-bad is one-to-one. That’s incredible discipline and a case study in meticulous judiciousness.

I would think the late Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald might have been of a similar ilk. He published few of his compositions but he had some serious hits: “Kalabakan,” “Lt.-Col. D.J.S. Murray,” “Turf Lodge,” “Alan MacPherson, Moss Park” . . . his ratio of good-to-bad must have been superb.

On the other hand, we all have seen since the advent of self-publishing the penchant by some composers to put out seemingly anything and everything – the proverbial throwing against the wall to see what sticks. They might be “prolific,” but no one really plays their music except perhaps the band they happen to play with, so how good are they as composers or editors?

I salute Prince for keeping things in reserve. Discretion and valour, as they say. He was as good an editor as he was a writer, and the two qualities need to go hand-in-hand if you want to leave your name and reputation etched in stone – even if it’s just a symbol.



  1. Andrew,
    Some great points. I would say though that when composing tunes one shouldn’t worry about being prolific. You never know what someone else may like.
    That said contriving tunes just for the sake of filling up a book won’t get you too far.

    Even when today’s good pipe music composers but out books, the percentage of tunes that you ever hear plays is usually small.

    As far as Prince, he is certainly an icon, I liked his music, but I can only name 3 of his 37 albums…I doubt many can name more than a few more. I does make you wonder what was in the vault.

  2. Andrew,

    I was interested to read your Blog on the demise of Prince Rogers Nelson and the possibilities of what happens next to his musical legacy.

    You are doubtless much too young to remember the death of Jimi Hendrix, but the quality of stuff churned out following his demise varied downwards from OK to utter crap, and made several people and corporations piles of unearned cash. Hopefully his purpleness will not end up similarly abused. (Incidentally I hear Prince neglected to leave a Will… that doesn’t help).

    I was once told by a work colleague that he kept two waste bins in his office. All incoming mail was filed as either requiring action (keep on desk) or rubbish/trash (put in the first bin). If he was not sure, he’d put the mail in the second bin and a third party (in this case the cleaner) would make the decision for him. I think that any composer or musician keeping a “Vault” is working with a similar mindset. You suggest that Donald MacLeod et al would either chuck out inferior works or keep in a Vault. That’s a definite two-bin logic. It leaves those of us who inherit the works to act as the cleaners and decide on their fate.

    By the time of his death in 1929, GS McLennan had published only his “Highland Bagpipe Music”. He did not publish what was to become “The Braemar Gathering”, although it had lain since 1918. Were DR and my father wrong to present this to the public in 1950? (No, of course not). Likewise the many previously unpublished tunes that appear in the Gordon Highlander’s Pipe Music Collections. To be fair, DR, my father and Brian Macrae cherry picked those they believed to be the best of the residues, but at no point did the composer have a direct say in the matter. Carrying your argument to an extreme, none of these tunes should have seen the light of day.

    And here’s the dichotomy for the likes of myself – what do the family do with what remains? We still have essentially three choices. Publish and be damned. Or put them in Bin 1 (i.e destroy them) or retain them in Bin 2 (the archive) for another generation? I cannot and will not destroy anything written by GSM. End of story. And why keep things hidden away to decay away over time? We have already lost some of our family archive (manuscript, medals, photographs) to, let’s say, “mysterious disappearances”. We’ll see what the future holds.

    Incidentally, I passed on a link to your blog to a Prince-obsessed friend of mine. He tells me that his Prince-obsessed wife had been thinking on getting a tartan Prince symbol as a tattoo. And lo! There it was on your blog. She’s delighted. He less so.




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