Dastirum gu sein im Piob – I Am Proud to Play a Pipe!

This is my theme song (like Ally McBeal – remember that?) and “Dastirum”, or pride, is the title of a new CD by veteran piper Allan MacDonald. This is piobaireachd with a difference. After years of playing by the book (literally, in this case) MacDonald decided something was missing from his performances of ceol mor. He has taken his approach back to basics and produced a CD of piobaireachd quite different from anything I have heard before.

This is not a stilted attempt to “modernize” the form, by adding swirly synthesizers or heavenly choirs in the background. Rather, MacDonald appears to have lived with the music (and sung it) until more natural phrasing emerges. (It probably didn’t hurt that he has also been hanging out with Barnaby Brown, the guy who rapelled down a sea cliff to pipe in a cave, and on whose label, Siubhal, the CD is being released.)

I have been able to listen to two tracks from Dastirum – The Lament for the Young Laird of Dungallon, and The Lament for Alasdair Dearg MacDonnel of Glengarry. Both begin with Allan singing part of the ground, after which he strikes in and plays the whole tune on the pipes. The interpretations of the tunes on Dastirum are being hailed as a watershed in ceol mor. Bill Livingstone, Pipe Major of the 78th Fraser Highlanders, and prodigious piobaireachd player of recent years, said he wished he hadn’t heard MacDonald’s playing:

I can’t play the tunes any other way afterwards, and I want to win the prizes

It’s a telling comment, and exposes the way piobaireachd has been interpreted through the prism of competition these past 100 years.

I can’t wait to hear the whole CD and, of course, Allan’s take on I Am Proud to Play a Pipe, which is naturally included in this collection.

The Desperate Battle – with live birds

There was a magic moment at the Salt Lake Highland Games this past weekend.

The piobaireachd judge, John Partanen moved his competition around the corner from its original location to beneath one of the entrance archways to the fairgrounds. That gate was not being used and I guess he was seeking a little more shade. It was a wide archway, more like a tunnel really, about 20 feet wide by 30 feet long, and about 15 feet high in the middle. Playing surrounded by concrete and stone produced a really nice acoustic, and began to draw a crowd to the opening of the arch. Among the audience was a pair of swallows who, it turns out, were nesting beneath the arch. They were quite concerned to discover 110 decibels suddenly showing up outside their front door and began to flutter around the drones of the pipers as they played.

Strangely (or appropriately) the tune they seemed most interested in was The Desperate Battle of the Birds, played by Sande Storms, of the Salt Lake Scots. She expressed some frustration with elements of her performance after she finished playing, but I pointed out to her that it was probably the best performance of that tune ever, since it was the only one featuring actual birds.

Salt Lake Highland Games

Well, it was a busy weekend.

The Salt Lake Highland Games started on Friday night with massed bands playing for a fireworks display. We had to play Scotland the Brave over and over for about 10 minutes. Seemed more like 10 hours. The worst part – we all had our backs to the fireworks so we couldn’t see them. I heard they were really good, though, from someone who was there.

Crawl into bed at about midnight, and crawl out again to be back at the games for solo registration. 8am.

This was my first time in solo competition, and I had never even watched one to know what I should do. I asked those who were old hands, and who happened to be standing nearby, for help and they told me what to do, where to stand, and so on. The competition went about as well as I suppose I could have expected. I didn’t place in the light music, but I got a fourth place in the piobaireachd which was very gratifying. The adjudicator was John Partanen (a fellow Finn!) and he was really helpful. After I got my score sheet I went back to see him to ask what advice he might have for me, and he was good enough to sing my entire tune, to give me an idea of what I might want to be aiming for.

So I dipped my toe into solo competition, and I didn’t get burned! On to the Payson Games in July…

The Rout of the MacPhees

OK, so it would be nice to play a tune that commemorates a great victory of your clan over the degenerates who live in the next valley over. Sadly, for the Macfies this is not the case.

The Macfies (or MacPhee, MacPhie, etc.), despite a long and interesting history there, were finally kicked off their ancestral island of Colonsay in 1620, just as another group of people, an ocean away, were arriving to settle the Americas. The Macfies had resisted as long as they could, but their relatively small number, coupled with some double-crossing, finally ushered in the end of their occupancy. The clan moved onto the mainland where they dispersed. Many ultimately moved to North America.

There is a tune that commemorates this dispersal. It is called The Rout of the MacPhees. For better or worse, it is the one tune in the ancient repertoire that names my family, so I feel a certain attachment to it. It is not often played, and I have not been able to find a recording of it, other than Donald MacLeod on practice chanter, on his set of instructional tapes. Lewis Turrell, of New Zealand, became the first overseas player to win the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting in 1958, playing The Rout of the MacPhees. He learned the tune from Donald MacLeod, and is himself still playing ceol mor, although in his 70s. I called Lewis at his store in Auckland, to see if he had recording of himself playing the tune. Sadly, he did not, but I am sure he will be glad to see that it features among the Piobaireachd Society’s set tunes for 2008 in the Silver Medal list. This means it is likely to be played during the 2008 season, and I may yet find a recording.

For now, I will try to learn the tune, and there is a new point on this story arc. About 15 years ago the Clan Macfie organized a gathering on the Isle of Colonsay. The clan piper, Bob McFie, wrote and played a new piobaireachd for the event. Next step is to contact him and see if I can start learning that tune.

Piobaireachd Society Set Tunes for 2008

Every year the Piobaireachd Society publishes 3 lists of about 8 tunes it “recommends” for performance in solo piping competitions in the coming year. The lists are for Senior, Gold and Silver Medal competition level. The Society’s recommendations are basically the de facto tune list for solo piping in piobaireachd.

Some have complained these lists exemplify the Piobaireachd Society’s rigid control of what tunes (and which versions of those tunes) get played by the top players; others say the lists ensure a good rotation, so that the more obscure tunes get a periodic airing on the boards. Either way, you can expect to hear selections from these lists played over the next competition year, because, after 100 years in this position, the Society is unlikely to lose its influence any time soon.

The list of tunes for 2008 is out and it makes very interesting reading. No big surprises in the Silver and Gold Medal tunes; they represent the usual trip through the repertoire, with some nice highlights I’ll mention later. The big shake up is in the Senior list. This is the list of tunes we can expect to hear played by the top players at the prestigious competitions. The list is composed entirely of 20th century tunes, including a tune by a French composer, Patrick Molard, who is actually still alive! It seems that perceptions of the Piobaireachd Society, as a cartel of old guys determined to freeze the music in late 1800s time, are increasingly invalid.

That said, the old tunes in the silver medal list are pretty darn cool as far as I am concerned. Included for 2008 are The Rout of the MacPhees and I Am Proud To Play a Pipe. Obviously, I Am Proud To Play a Pipe needs no explanation – it’s my theme tune! The Rout of the MacPhees is a tune I have written about before. As a descendant of the Clan Macfie, I have been on a quest to find a good recording of this tune. More on this in a later post!

Utah Piobaireachd Society – April Meeting

Last night was the monthly meeting of the Utah Piobaireachd Society. We started out by discussing the “pulse” of a tune, and how it’s not the same as a beat in light music. Then we illustrated this for ourselves by group-learning MacCrimmon Will Never Return. It’s a cool tune and quite repetitive, but it shows clearly how the timing of ceol mor is different. I really like the fluidity of it, although it’s sometimes hard to make the mental switch from the regular western idiom we grew up with.

After the group session, some of us played our tunes for the others. We heard The Company’s Lament and Struan Robertson’s Salute in their entirety, and I played the ground and first variation of The Lament for Captain MacDougall.

After the meeting was over, I spent some time with Gordon Nichol looking at different tunes, and he suggested I try learning MacCrimmon Will Never Return, in addition to my other tune. I drove home listening to all the versions I have (thank you, ipod), so now I’m raring to go!

March Drive-by

It’s been a while since I wrote. A two-week visit from my parents (from England) has given us plenty to do. Now we’re getting back into our routines. Here is a drive-by of my piping March:

My old band performs with Rod Stewart

The Celtic Spirit Pipe Band, of Buffalo, NY got a cool gig at the beginning of the month. Apparently, when Rod Stewart comes to town, he likes to have a local pipe band open his concerts. This time it was my old band that got the nod. According to my ex-Pipe Major, Joe Baschnagel, it was a great evening. Playing in front of 20,000 people an a circular stage is not to be missed!

A few days later Celtic Spirit headlined another concert with a popular Buffalo Irish Step dance company, Rince Na Tiarna. In a curious confluence, I learned a couple of days ago that the concert was arranged and promoted by a former colleague of my wife. More evidence of the smalltown-ness of Buffalo, I suppose.

I finally attend a meeting of the Utah Piobaireachd Society

It took me three missed meetings, but I finally got there. A great evening of Ceol Mor, although I was puzzled it was attended only by members of my band. Turns out the other two bands locally have their practice on the UPS meeting night. I will have to see if we can change the night, so the others can be there.

I play a funeral in a very old cemetery

I got a call to play a funeral in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. It’s a beautiful location, with a lot of historically significant people buried there, including Brigham Young, who is kind of a popular guy around here.

On to April…

The Rowan Tree – reason to lament

Well, I found out more about the tune Lament for the Rowan Tree, courtesy of the Bob Dunsire Bagpipe Forums.

Turns out it was inspired by the abandoned cottages of crofters who had left the highlands. Here is what the composer, Donald MacLeod, wrote about the tune in his book of piobaireachd:

Traveling through the Highlands, one often sees the ruins of crofter’s cottages, left derelict when the occupants sailed away to begin a new life in a new country.

At the gable end of each ruin stands the Rowan Tree, planted so long a go as a defense against evil spirits. It has witnessed the joys and sorrows of family life and listened to the laughter of children, as they played around the house. The lonely Rowan now stands sentinel, as if awaiting the long absent family’s return.

Interestingly, another Donald MacLeod, over a century earlier, was a witness to the forced removal of the highland crofters from their land during what is now known as the Highland Clearances. The earlier MacLeod was a stonemason on the estate of Strathnavar. Here is how he described the scene (repeated all over the Highlands during this period), as the residents were evicted from their crofts and the crofts were burned:

Nothing but the sword was wanting to make the scene one of as great barbarity as the earth ever witnessed. The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description.

We are a homeschooling family, and my children and I have been studying the period of forced removal of the Indian Nations of North America to reservations during roughly this time period. It seems that many of the evicted Highlanders ultimately forced to emigrate could have witnessed scenes in the new continent similar to those they left behind.

No doubt the depradations suffered by the native peoples of this continent are recalled in their laments too.

O! Rowan Tree, O! Rowan Tree

At this time of year (halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox) the Celtic peoples observe a festival called Imbolc. This observance has spread out with the people, and is also observed here in the United States, where it is sometimes called Groundhog Day.

Apparently, the festival has traditional links with the Rowan Tree, the ubiquitous tree of the Highlands. Not surprisingly, there are tunes about the Rowan Tree. The best known is the 4/4 march of that name, a standard for any pipe band. Perhaps not so well known by pipers is the fact that the tune has words, and very beautiful ones at that. Here is the first stanza:

Oh! rowan tree, oh! rowan tree,
Thou’lt aye be dear to me,
En twin’d thou art wi’ mony ties
O’ hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first o’ spring,
Thy flow’rs the simmer’s pride;
There was na sic a bonnie tree
In a’ the countrie side.
Oh! rowan tree.

The tune and words date from the early 19th century, and the focus on family ties the words to the Imbolc celebration, which tended to be one of family and community. One of my extended family of friends has a daughter called Rowan. I used to play The Rowan Tree to her before she was born. (I’m sure this is the deep-seated reason she has such a love of music – at 2 3/4 she is a self-described opera diva.)

More recently (in piping terms), Pipe Major Donald MacLeod composed an elegant piobireachd called Lament for the Rowan Tree. I am trying to find out more about this tune. Superficially, it sounds as though it may be based on the familiar song, but I don’t have the sheet music and it’s not that easy to tell. I will pick the (multiple) brains of the piping forums.

In any case, the days are lengthening and that’s always a welcome sign.

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.