March 30, 2012

What musical milestones?

Smashing.I was watching the movie Superbad again the other day. Seth, played by Jonah Hill, says about some girl’s boyfriend who he can’t compete with, “He is the sweetest guy. Have you ever looked into his eyes? It was like the first time I heard the Beatles.”

The hilarious crassness of Superbad aside, people talk about moments that changed the course of music. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Clash and London Calling. Nirvana’s Nevermind. Your choices will vary.

But how many game-changing musical moments has piping had? Not those that inspired you on a personal level (we all have those), but musical moments that altered the direction of everything. It’s an interesting and debatable question. Here are a few that I would suggest.

1957 – Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band debuts selections of small strathspeys and reels – never before had pipe bands ventured outside of marching tunes or “heavy” MSRs.

1967 – Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band‘s rendition of “The Old Woman’s Lullaby” – a groundbreaking pipe band take on ceol mor, complete (or replete, as some people may still believe) with cymbals and other colouristic percussion.

1980 – General Motors Pipe Band performs a glissando, or “slide-note,” in “My Lagan Love.”

1987 – 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, “Journey to Skye,” Balleymena, Northern Ireland – first suite by a pipe band, composed by a jazz musician, no less.

Maybe not enough time has passed yet to decide whether the Toronto Police’s 2008 “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions” should be included, but it may well be.

Interestingly, I’m having a hard time thinking of solo piping examples. Certainly many of the compositions of  G.S. McLennan and Gordon Duncan, for example, moved the art in a different direction, as have those of other tunesmiths. But by and large groundbreaking new musical artistry is made by individuals, but made famous by pipe bands. Perhaps there was a precise moment when G.S. first performed “The Little Cascade” in public. I don’t know.

And, yes, Donald MacPherson is credited with being the first to refine consistent tuning of Highland pipe, and bands like Strathclyde Police, Field Marshal Montgomery, Simon Fraser University and Victoria Police have set standards of tuning and unison, but not sure if they sent the music in a completely new direction.

What are other examples of great musical moments in piping and drumming and pipe bands that turned things upside down?


  1. It may seem strange to some that a single note should be included in this discussion however the largest spontaneous reaction to a piping performance I ever witnessed occurred at Georgetown some years back. The 78th were playing their medley which included the Lagan Love Song and when they played that glissando there was a spontaneous OOOH from all around the circle and beyond. One note but an unforgettable reaction.

  2. Dysart & Dundonald’s approach to tuning/ensemble was pretty groundbreaking in its day, and while I felt at the time that a lot of their material was borrowed from other bands, their approach to unison and ensemble was ahead of its time. They may have been the first band to really experiment with playing fewer drones to achieve the balance of chanter/bass they wanted. The McAllister reeds and later chanters that Shotts brought to the scene were also groundbreaking in terms of sound. To my mind, it was the first really consistent reed product and it changed the way a lot of bands set their sound. Iain MacLellan at Strathclyde Police picked up that idea, refined it, and then handed the Shotts band their lunch for about 20 years. I bet there would be pivotal moments in the drumming side surrounding Alex Duthart and his introduction of new material/approaches.

  3. The Scots Dragoon Guards playing Amazing Grace was a seminal moment. I guess the question is, was it moving piping forward or backward? Here we are 40 years later and every pipe band on earth still has to play it for the crowd somewhere in their repetoire or be asked “Why didn’t they play Amazing Grace?”

    I have to admit though, half way through a complex set, playing Amazing Grace is a nice break. 🙂 Not bad for a 240 year old English folk tune that was never heard on pipes until about 1971.

  4. Some of us were chatting about your post after band practice yesterday. A young man whose life is in the restaurant industry commented that he saw the bands mentioned in your last paragraph, as similar to large chain restaurants. In Canada for example you can go any Keg or Milestones anywhere, and find a nicely cooked steak. It’s always the same, and it will never offend. They learn to master the elements of a well known formula, and deliver it consistently. But you’ll never jump out of your chair asking to see the chef who has just dazzled you with something fresh new and exciting.

  5. The Beatles, The Clash and Nirvana were “always the same” and would “never offend”?! These groups made some of the freshest and newest music in history. The trick in art is to startle and attract and then be willing to lose a few fans as you startle and attract again and again. And, in the end, the art you make is equal to the art you take.

  6. Oh, I missed that you were referring to the last paragraph. I would agree, but a large chain restaurant is in the volume and dependability business. The less you offend and deliver perceived ROI, the more money (or, with pipe bands, prizes) you make.

  7. Geez Andrew….I thought you were hip to my style….so let me be clear…the young man referred to had nothing nice to say about FMM, SFU SLOT and the others known only by their acronyms or initials. He was bemoaning the fact that these bands are in a position to change things. They don’t and they won’t. They are so bound up in winning the WPBC (for many and complex reasons) that as long as their “style” continues to win that beknighted event, no change or advance in our music will take place. And therein lies the paradox of the WPBC….every band gets better at tone and unison, and nothing whatever happens in terms of advancement in the “art”…quotes for art but I think we do in fact qualify for the term, or would if any top band could show some “to hell with them” courage.

    1. Although I DO respect the likes of SFU, FMM, SLOT, etc., I “get” Bill’s point. I would like to see some pushing of the envelope but, as noted in AB’s listing of groundbreaking pipe band moments, none of them occurred in a competition circle…Maybe it is time for a third event (or maybe drop the MSR?) where the best bands are encouraged to do a little “pushing”?

  8. What about Stuart Liddell’s Blue Cloud/Mason’s Apron on SFU Carnegie Hall for a soloist moment? I would think, in my brief involvement with piping history, that that was a pretty remarkable/well-known event in solo piping.

  9. Likely in a decade or two from now people will talk about ‘those things that Shotts did’ in the past few years and refer to it as ground-breaking – the ‘big turnout’ at the Worlds medley, the tenor drum with the blowing tube, the mid/bass section with nine drums [a drum tuned at each note of the pipe chanter]. However, since neither of these stunts have been repeated enough to fall into the mainstream practice – like breaking off from MSRs or playing harmonics – they’ll likely gain their place in history as some ballsy moves by some ballsy guys. Still worth mentioning in my book, though.

  10. Using the word “art” in relation to pipe bands makes me smile. Pipe bands in the usual ways and places are more like sport, really, or maybe “spart.” The competing and the trophies makes the whole thing more like a dog show than an art show. I can think of exceptions, and I can think of great competing bands who have tried to venture out in relaxed settings, but given that the objectives of artistic endeavour and competing are so different [despite some overlap], the end products are going to be different. Still, within the understood limitations of the form, it’s pretty damn fun.

  11. To Bill Livingstone: If you are an athlete competing in some World Championships or the Olympics, you would not change a yota of your hard earned training experience. What has shown good wants to be perfect, and that is the special thrill in an outstanding competition. The maximum change allowed in this type of sportive top competitions is your hairstyle. Innovations and experiments IMO are for the stage. I think it is nice that there are both chances to showcase a top pipeband. What upsets me personally is, when a pipe band tries a difference by overpowering number of players.

  12. don’t even get that last comment to Bill Livingstone. I think Bill just pointed out to Andrew what the other chap was saying. Regarding what 78ths did with the 30 plus pipers just proved that there is a cut off point and for extra pipers. it didn’t add up to a whole lot, other than more opportunities for pipers to play mistakes, and let people doubt that the 30 odd pipers were even all playing (as judges couldn’t even get a sniff in to hear a single piper due to players shoulder to shoulder.

    you people really think solo performances and bands playing piobroch is a biggy in this tiny world of ours? they may be biggies in pipe band world, but overall it all adds up to squat.

    I tell you what amazes me, the ability of the pipes to stick around despite being hopelessly out of its depth. there is no other instrument in the world that can play piobroch like highland pipes, simply because the music was made to fit in the compass of its range. then pipes hit the marches scene, fair enough, making marches out of piobroch (black donald’s march for example) and you can keep all the tunes that were written for pipes by pipers too.

    once you hit the land of jigs and reels, it is really where you see the pipes inability to play music in its original form. have you heard all these jigs and reels and strathspeys for that matter, played on their original instruments, with their proper scales and two octaves? God I cringe when I hear pipes play “ripped” jigs and reels, as they just don’t have the range. it is like a picture being reduced in megapixels so it can be sent by email faster, as the splendor and detail of the picture/tune are left out to fit the medium.

    Pipers should be grateful they are willing to ignore what they ignore, THE MISSING RANGE IN THE INSTRUMENT


  13. Paul McCartney and “Mull of Kintyre” brought bagpipes to an audience that rarely (if ever) had been listening to them. I would bet that more people have listened to that recording than have heard “Amazing Grace” being played on bagpipes. Oh, and I would argue that an electric guitar can be used to play Piobaireachd better than it can be played as it can have the same sound registry with a similar tone, but allows for volume changes, glissando, vibrato, key changes and chording, all of which can lead to more soulfull sounds and emotions than just straight even tones only…but, why would anyone outside of our idiom want to play it..or listen to it…?

  14. I don’t see what all the fuss it about when it comes to pushing the art forward or being innovative. Most of the ground breaking bagpipe moments happened long before any of us drew our first breath. Pipers playing as a group, drummers playing with pipers, the first pipe band, playing music that’s not piobaireachd, the competition MSR, and so forth…
    The only thing that’s changed in the last fifty years is the addition of the medley to the World pipe band championships. Which last I checked is nearly is nearly as predictible the as the competition MSR. Scottish Power walking in with At Long Last hardly groundbreaking. What good will adding another event at the World’s do? Within ten years it will have settled into what the medly has become. Boring and predictable.
    The competitive the system is what holds the innovation back. I’m sure we’ll never hear someone play a piobaireachd the way Allan MacDonald does at Oban or Inverness because it`s radical and different from what people are used to. Bands won’t be free to explore so long as we press on with the current competition structure. The one thing in common The Stones, Beatles, The Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and Rage against the Machine all have is when they first hit the mainstream there was no point of reference. You didn’t know what you were listening to. You just thought what the hell is that. It’s good. It’s really good and you were hooked. These were artists that had the the liberty of exploring to their hearts content before they made it. What happened next was the record label asking why their second album doesn’t sound the same as their first.
    The other problem with the current system is that it’s run by old men. I’m not talking about the pipe majors. I’m talking about the judges. As you age your body’s ability to deal with dopamine decreases. This affects how you react to new musical experiences. It’s the reason your parents hate your music and you’ll one day hate your childrens despite the fact that we all say we’ll never become our parents. You can’t fight it because it’s biological. At a certain point new musical experiences lose their lustre. You pull out your old records and talk about how good it was in the old days. When you consider that almost the entire judging fraternity is well past the age where you’re able to enjoy innovative music. How would you expect them to roll out the welcome mat let alone show up to listen to it all day.
    In all honesty I think the current system works. As a solo player you can go to the big contests in Scotland long after you played in them and enjoy listening. Band players can go to glasgow for a week, take in Piping Live, and cap it off with the World’s. You couldn’t make something better to enjoy into your golden years. Sure certain things could use a fix here and there. A step in the right direction would be to relax the rules outlining what’s appropriate in a pipe band competition. This would provide a lot more options for how bands play their medleys. Eliminate the three paced roll. Let the pipers cut out to let the drummers do a fanfare. Get away from the circle and move to a concert setup. There’s a lot of things that have been done and are quite enjoyable. We should explore things that have worked in concerts before being innovative for the sake of being innovative.

  15. For solo piping I find it hard to believe that no one mentions John D. Burgess. His recording of tunes like “Paddy’s Leather Breeches” with all the birls in the 8th part, the “birls” on B in “P.M. George Allan”, his 6-part “Mason’s Apron”, and the “Ballachulish Walkabout” paved the way for all those who came after. Even those of us who lived in the piping “desert” of the southwestern U.S. realized that having fun with the music was acceptable.

  16. The 78th Frasers on the hill in Fergus, playing what I believe was the first public airing of Journey to Skye by Don Thompson.

    John Kerr and his drum corps playing the Medley in MacNish in Maxville and then again in Santa Rosa.

    Field Marshall at last years worlds. Totally innovative in the quest for tone.



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