Radio Degrees of Separation

This week’s BBC Radio Scotland Pipeline show is definitely worth checking out, particularly if you are a piobaireachd fan.

In the middle of the show is an archive segment from 1971, when the show’s forerunner was presented by Donald MacLeod, himself a piobaireachd legend. During the segment Donald introduces part of a beautiful performance by Jimmy MacIntosh of the tune Tulloch Ard, recorded at the Northern Meeting in Inverness that year. While attending the Meeting, Donald met and recorded an interview with Angus MacPherson, who was 95 at the time, and had been to every competition there since 1894. MacPherson’s grandfather had been a competing piper going back to the mid 1800s. MacLeod asks him about the influence of the “new” pipers coming to Scotland from Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, and MacPherson talks clearly and enthusiastically about these “up-and-coming” performers from the early ’70s, many of whom are now retired!

It’s amazing to hear a clear voice from so long ago talking about competitions that go back generations further. I wonder how many such interviews the BBC has in its archives?

A Busy Weekend

It was Memorial Day in the United States yesterday and my band was busy!

We had three cemetery performances and four of our band members played with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for their weekly TV show “Music and the Spoken Word”.

The other bands along the Wasatch Front were busy too. Here is a nice multimedia presentation from the website of a local paper, The Salt Lake Tribune, featuring Jason Killpack, the PM of the Salt Lake Scots.

In addition, several Utah pipers, including some from my band were competing at a Highland Games in Costa Mesa, California. I haven’t heard all the results yet, but it sounds like they all did well.

Familiar Piobaireachd, less familiar version

If you like the tune “Too Long in this Condition” (and what’s not to like?) you should check out this week’s edition of Pipeline.

The tune is played by Pipe Major Roddy Weir (formerly of the Army School of Piping) but, unlike most performances I have heard recently, Roddy chooses to play the Binneas is Boreraig version. This version of the tune includes a variation not usually played. It falls between the ground and what is usually played as the first variation and takes the form of a kind of triplet variation. It’s interesting because it appears to interrupt what is usually the increasing level of complexity in a tune as the variations progress.

Justin, if you’re reading this, have a listen to the tune and tell me what you think.

Cherede Darievea – the tune with no name

Lovers of piobaireachd should definitely check out BBC Radio Scotland’s Pipeline show this week.

The star of the show this week (10th November, 2007) is a beautiful performance of a tune that actually has no name. I suppose this is an artifact of oral transmission, but many tunes in the ancient piobaireachd canon have come down to us with no name. When this has happened the tunes are left designated as “Nameless”, although the first few canntaireachd vocables are usually attached to the designation. In the case of the tune played on Pipeline this week, the tune shows up in only one manuscript source – Colin Mor Campbell’s Nether Lorn canntaireachd – and is usually referred to by those vocables, “Cherede Darievea”.

Cherede Darievea is one of the very long tunes in the repertoire. Iain Speirs is the performer this week, the recording having been taken from the recent Glenfiddich Piping Championships. He keeps a good level of forward momentum in the tune, but even so he comes in at a little under 19 minutes.

With the nameless tunes one wonders what they might once have been called. Still, even deprived of a back story, Cherede Darievea has a lyrical and haunting melody and Iain Speirs’ performance and beautifully set-up bagpipe are a delight to listen to.

The show switches editions on Saturday evenings so you still have a couple of days to listen. The tune is not often played, so be sure not to miss this rare treat.

Dastirum – the pipers speak!

Before the week is out, be sure to listen to BBC Scotland’s Pipeline show.

This week’s edition features an interview with two of the big hitters in contemporary piobaireachd interpretation, Barnaby Brown and Allan MacDonald, and performances from the new CD release on Barnaby’s Siubhal label, Dastirum.

I have written about this CD recently, but it’s worth pointing out again that the cutting edge of piobaireachd these days seems to be in revisiting its roots. I want to make it clear that I am not criticizing the competition style of playing piobaireachd that has evolved over the past 200 years. Whatever its detractors may say, I still think it produces beautiful performances, many of which I listen to on an almost daily basis! Conversely, I think I have a pretty good handle on the criticisms leveled at the Piobaireachd Society, and its historical control of the form. The late 19th and early 20th century saw a post-Victorian elite seize control of piobaireachd, and while this certainly resulted in a lot of standardization (and some corruption), I think we have the Piobaireachd Society to thank for preserving the music, albeit in a rather conservative manner.

The situation today is changing. The Piobaireachd Society is transforming itself into a very active tool for the study of the Big Music, as it continues to promote the publication and explanation of old manuscripts. Into this atmosphere of inquiry come Barnaby Brown and Allan MacDonald with their new/old approach to piobaireachd. Barnaby is a fountain of knowledge regarding bagpipes and piping traditions all over the world and Allan is a seasoned performer of piobaireachd in the conventional style. His frustrations with that style, and his research into other gaelic musics have brought him to a new, highly personalized approach informed by oral traditions and singing styles. The performances captured on the new CD Dastirum exemplify that approach, and are beautiful and lyrical.

In this week’s radio show Allan performs The End of the Little Bridge, an odd, chromatic-sounding piobaireachd (to me it sounds like The Fingerlock on speed) and I Am Proud To Play a Pipe. Gary West, the host, also interviews Barnaby and Allan about the music and plays a track from an earlier Siubhal release, Living Legend, which features the piping of Donald MacPherson. The track selected is Donald Gruamach’s March, a towering tune, sadly cut short on the radio show. I will have to find out if the whole performance is on the CD itself.

Well, that’s a lot of words! Now go listen!

Piobaireachd on old instruments

I heard an interesting pairing of tunes on this week’s edition of the BBC Radio show Pipeline. Gary West’s guest was Glenn Brown of Ontario, and he gave a fine performance of The Big Spree. On the same show Gary featured a tune called The Gathering of the MacDonalds of Clanranald. This was performed by Decker Forrest on a reproduction of a Donald MacDonald chanter, which would mean that the instrument should sound like those from the early 1800’s.

The differences between the tone of the modern instrument and the “old” one were quite marked. To my ears, I preferred the sound of the older instrument, but maybe that’s just my enthusiasm for archaia speaking. In any case, there is a movement within piping (similar to that in classical music), toward playing tunes on period instruments. I know the purists on either side will argue that their sound is the “correct” one – either true to the original, or allowing the evolution of the instrument to speak for itself – but I’m personally happy to listen to both.

Glenn Brown and Decker Forrest both gave beautiful performances of two great tunes, and I’m glad to live in times when I can hear both side by side.

Dastirum gu Seinnim Piob!

Well, after patiently waiting for one of the internet piping radio shows to play the track for months, I finally got lucky last week!

Crunluath, the weekly piping show on the gaelic-language BBC radio Alba, featured “I Am Proud To Play a Pipe”, played by Allan MacDonald.

The tune is essentially the title track of Allan’s new CD, “Dastirum”. Dastirum is a slightly obscure term, adopted into Scots Gaelic, but possibly Roman in origin. It roughly translates as “pride”, but in battle-cry kind of way. In that sense, the phase translated as “I Am Proud To Play a Pipe” is a strong, declamatory statement.

Allan’s path through the tune is a very different performance from one you’re likely to hear in competition. He reinterprets many of the familiar embellishments to give a very lyrical, almost extemporaneous feel to the music. In the taorluath variations he plays a timing I have not heard before, which propels the tune forward at a moment when performances often seem to languish.

This particular interpretation aside, I Am Proud To Play a Pipe is a beautiful tune, filled with unusual note patterns. I have seen it described as “probably non-christian”, due to its frequent use of the augmented 4th – an interval called the “devil’s interval”, and historically eschewed by the church. This, of course, endears to tune to me still more!

Oban – Home of the Argyllshire Gathering

The games season is in full swing in the Scottish Highlands, and that means lots of piping!

Two of the biggest competitions in the solo piping year happen at games a week apart: The Argyllshire Gathering, in Oban, took place last week, and The Northern Meeting, in Aviemore, is this Thursday and Friday.

Richard Hawke of New Zealand took the Gold Medal in Piobaireachd, a first for him. This signifies a graduation of sorts, for once a piper has won this medal, they will play only in the Senior Piobaireachd in the future. (That competition was won by the evergreen Gordon Walker, incidentally). For a limited time you can hear Richard’s winning performance of Rory MacLoude’s Lament, by listening to Radio Planet Pipe. You will also hear the second- and third-placed performances (both of Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarbert’s Fancy) played first by Niall Stewart, and then by Marion Horsburgh. Marion is also from New Zealand, so it was a good day for the Kiwis.

It is interesting to hear the same tune played on the same day, for the same judge, by two different people. Listening to them back to back can you tell the difference between the two?

Check out the full results on Andrew Berthoff’s Pipes|Drums, and look out for the results of the Northern Meeting soon.

New Links – Piping on the Web

Inspired by my compadre Justin (see below) I have updated my links section a little.

Check out the various links under “Listen Carefully”. These are the main piping shows I listen to online. Each one has a slightly different flavor, but you’ll hear piping of the highest quality on them all.

Orchestral Piping

The weekly BBC Radio Scotland piping show, Pipeline, was on hiatus this week. In its place was a live concert broadcast from the Celtic Connections Festival, a two-week festival of celtic music in Glasgow. The concert was titled Scotland’s Music Live, and featured various “celtic” performers, sometimes playing with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

I paid particular attention to two works: Calgacus, by Eddie McGuire, and An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Both are scored for orchestra and Highland Bagpipes and the piping was supplied by Robert Wallace, of the College of Piping.

I had heard of the Orkney Wedding, but never heard the piece performed; Calgacus was completely new to me.

According to a review of the concert in The Scotsman newspaper, Robert Wallace suffered “a critical memory loss” during his part in the performance of An Orkney Wedding but, since I don’t know the music, I couldn’t tell – it sounded fine to me.

The Eddie McGuire work was inspired by the exploits of Calgacus, a kind of Caledonian Boudicca. Apparently he led the Scots in battle against Agricola and the Romans. The piping in this piece was interesting – it sounded a lot like piobaireachd, and I may have to canvass the folks on the piping boards to find out if the tune was written by McGuire, or if it is an existing tune.

In both cases, though, it was interesting to hear the bagpipes played in serious orchestral music. I will also check in with my father – Elis Pehkonen. He is a composer, and was a colleague of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies when they both taught music in my home town of Cirencester. He will probably have something interesting to say about An Orkney Wedding, and he may know Eddie McGuire. I’ll keep you posted.