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!

Not another novel about piobaireachd!

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve just come across another novel that features piobaireachd.

Dedicated readers of this site (you know who you are) will recall that back in July I wrote about the novel “A Certain Slant of Light”, by Cynthia Thayer. That story used pipe tunes (many of them piobaireachd) as chapter headings, and made the playing of ceol mor an integral part of the plot.

During one of my oddly intuitive searches of the Salt Lake City Library’s catalog, I came across a novel just published this September called “Not Yet Drown’d”, by Peg Kingman. In this book, the protagonist sets out on a search for her missing (supposed dead) brother. The search is in part provoked by the sister’s posthumous receipt of a collection of his possessions, including the manuscript for a piobaireachd enigmatically retitled “Not Yet Drown’d”, that the bagpipe-playing brother had been working on before his “death”.

So, I should say at this point that I have not yet read the book – I just picked it up from the library yesterday. [I did notice (in a little pre-read flip) that the novel contains a moment of some family relevance: the protagonist is a witness to the historic landing of King George IV at Leith in 1822. A direct ancestor of mine, John Macfie, was the senior Magistrate of Leith at the time, and the first to greet the King when he alighted that day.] The piobaireachd presence in the book centers on the tune already mentioned, and bundles it together with the long-lost manuscript of Joseph MacDonald.

The author, Peg Kingman is a piper herself (not surprisingly) who also happens to be an ex-tea merchant. Not a lot of those around, I suppose. You can hear an interview with her by Rick Kleffel on his podcast Agony Column. So I now have music for two piobaireachds specifically written to be part of novels in just the past few years. I’ve discovered a whole new genre, and the Piobaireachd Society is blissfully unaware. I should add it to my categories – will there be more?

Piobaireachd Workshop – 2nd Meeting

Last night I hurried along to the second in the series of Piobaireachd workshops given by our band instructor, Justin Howland.

I have been practicing since last meeting (take note, Justin!), and I am beginning to get the hang of the edre movement. In an earlier post on piobaireachd technique, I referred to an article by Jim McGillivray in which pipers are exhorted to practice the edre “relentlessly”. The reason given is that, apart from being a very common movement in piobaireachd, the edre forms the back end of many other movements – including the crunluath fosgailte. Practice the edre, and you’re improving the others too.

So, last night I got a chance to see if my edre practice was paying off. I have to say that I was pretty happy with how I’m doing. Justin’s method of playing everything at a glacial speed from the outset forces you to focus on technique. We all sounded fairly solid at the slow speed we had been practicing since the last meeting, and so Justin increased the tempo. By the end of the workshop we were playing the 2nd variation doubling almost up to speed, and the crunluath doubling considerably faster than before. This is just the second workshop, and already I can see results.

Towards the end of the workshop, Justin dissected the urlar for us, using a notation I had not previously seen. He had us write numbers and symbols under the notes to show how to phrase the ground. It’s like math canntaireachd. More on this as I continue to work on it…

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.

Piobaireachd workout!

Last night Justin Howland, my band’s resident instructor hosted the first in a series of Piobaireachd Workshops.

Five others were in attendance, and certainly from my perspective it was a great evening. Justin used a kind of back-to-front approach to the tune he had selected – Too Long in This Condition. Thus, we learned the two doubling variations, so that the theme notes would be prominent. The other effect of learning the parts of the tune in this order is that you take care of the most technical aspects of the tune first. Since these are the features that require the most practice, the theory is that you will finish learning the tune with all the technical pieces in place!

In the case of this tune, the technical features consist of the edre and dare (or E- and F-throws) and the crunluath fosgailte, which contains the edre. My edres are not that great, so it was good to give them a public workout. In addition, I’d never attempted to play the crunluath fosgailte, so overall it was a challenging workshop. Despite this, Justin is a very patient teacher, and evidently good at teaching a group with mixed abilities, so I didn’t feel at all awkward.

I’m looking forward to the next meeting in two weeks time.

Too Long in This Condition…

I refer, of course, to my current instructorless state.

Time and again the question arises on the Bob Dunsire Forums, “How do I go about learning piobaireachd?” and in almost every case the first answer is “Get an instructor!”

This past season I have been teaching myself The Lament for Captain MacDougall, and I even had some moderate success with the first two parts at the local Salt Lake Highland Games. My untutored condition is about to change, however, thanks to the efforts of Justin Howland, our band instructor (and resident Grade 1 soloist). Next Monday will be the first of a piobaireachd workshop series taught by Justin.

To get us started, Justin has picked the tune “Is Fada Mar So A Tha Sinn”, or “Too Long in This Condition”. It’s a beautiful tune – actually not “Too Long” (just the Urlar + 5 variations) – and is from a group of tunes with the Fosgailte structure. These are tunes that use the crunluath fosgailte (a kind of high-hand crunluath) in place of the regular crunluath, which produces a lighter more rippling sound. I’ve never tried to play this embellishment, so it should be interesting for that alone.

In any case, it goes without saying that I’m looking forward to Monday, and kudos to Justin for initiating something like this.

Piobaireachd Technique – Advice From An Expert

My previous post drew some comment about whether or not one had to be very experienced to interpret piobaireachd well.

I have an article written by Jim McGillivray called “Piobaireachd Technique: Perspiration before Inspiration”. Jim is very experienced player and competitor, so when he speaks on the subject, it’s usually worth listening to. The article was given to me as a photocopy by my old Pipe Major, so I can’t tell you where it’s from, but I think it is from an old copy of the magazine “The Voice”.

The article is basically in two parts: the first a short essay on why good technique is so important, and the second a description of the more common movements in piobaireachd, and how to nail them!

What is interesting to me is how Jim puts technique into perspective. He makes the case for practicing all the movements (edres, taorluaths, crunluaths, etc.) relentlessly, until you can play them effortlessly. You have to put in the repetitive work, before you can play the tunes well.

If you’re thinking about the gracenotes, the argument goes, then you can’t feel the song.

I think this is a really interesting point, and it gets to the heart of balance in performing any kind of music. Flawless technique, devoid of expression can be produced by a robot, and is boring to listen to. (When my daughter took Suzuki-method violin classes briefly, we learned this the hard way.) On the other hand, the enthusiastic and motivated performer playing a tune that is obviously too hard for them can be just as painful. (That’s me, playing my 2/4 march at the Salt Lake Games this past Summer.) Expression is vital, (or the music will not be), but you need to have at least a minimum level of technique to execute the tune you’re attempting to play.

A highlight of the games I mentioned was hearing Alex Morrill, one of our younger band members, play Struan Robertson’s Salute. He had a few note errors here and there, which is to be expected – he was playing in Grade 3, but he clearly had adequate technique for the task at hand, and he gave what I thought was a very beautiful performance. I guess John Partanen (the adjucator) agreed, because I think Alex got first place that day.

Anyway, my point is that as long as you are able to play the notes and the gracenotes on a well-tuned, steady pipe, and you can keep it up to the end of the tune, you then need to add your personal take on the expression and you will be ready to give your listeners a performance to remember. From there, the only way is up!

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.

Piobaireachd in a novel

I have just finished reading “A Certain Slant of Light“, a novel by Cynthia A. Thayer.

The novel hits close to home for me for several reasons, not least of which is the central role played by piping. Without giving away too much, the protagonist is a retired piper, living a somewhat hermetic life near the coast of Maine. Circumstances throw him together with a young, pregnant women on the run from her church and husband.

You won’t get any more plot spoilers from me, but an interesting feature of the book is that to each chapter is attached the first line of a pipe tune, many of them piobaireachd. Included are: Too Long in this Condition, The Daughter’s Lament, The Unjust Incarceration, Lament for the Children, The Sound of the Waves Against the Castle at Duntroon, and (I was pleased to see) I Am Proud to Play a Pipe.

Although Ms. Thayer acknowledges Andy Rogers and Bob Worrall (both pipers of note from Eastern Canada), it struck me from reading the novel that she must also be a piper; she writes about piping, and the finer points of piobaireachd, with the air of a performer, and even includes a piobaireachd she has written. Maybe I will try to contact her and get the scoop.

The book was enjoyable, gripping even, and I will be recommending it to my literary piping friends.