Piobaireachd in North America

Last week was the annual Midwest Highland Arts Fund Winter Storm competition in Kansas City, Missouri. The event features three top-flight piping competitions – two in piobaireachd and one in light music.

The list of competitors is interesting, because they are mostly quite young, and many already play with some of the top bands. Some have also competed in major solo competitions in the UK. Despite all their experience, it must still be quite intimidating to play in front of the panel of world-class pipers who were assembled to judge the competition. The formidable list included Andrew Wright (President of the Piobaireachd Society), Willie McCallum and Angus MacColl.

The Captain, Ken Eller, has generously made recordings of the three competitions available on his website, so I’ve spent the last few days listening to the prize-winning performances. The recordings show the healthy state of piobaireachd in North America, and I think anyone listening should feel optimistic about the future of the Big Music in the hands of the next generation of pipers.

Winter Workshop

Yesterday I attended a workshop for the pipe bands in the Wasatch Front. I had a great time and it was really good to just hang out with members of the other area bands.

The highlights were a piobaireachd class I took with local pipemaker and teacher, Gordon Nichol, and then later, the instructors’ recital.

Gordon has taken the initiative (along with some others locally) to found the Utah Piobaireachd Society. I missed their first meeting back in November, so this was the first time I had met him. He seems like a really nice guy – knowledgeable, but unassuming – and clearly has a great love of the music. It turns out he also teaches some of the younger members of my band, and he offered to give me any help I needed.

At the recital Gordon played The Desperate Battle, despite some rib pain, which he said was bothering him. I certainly didn’t notice. It was also really good to hear our band instructor, Justin Howland, play some of his competition tunes. You’ve got to feel good about being in a band with an instructor of that caliber – Justin sounded just tremendous. Of course, he would probably disagree, but the whole day sure made me feel good about having access to this level of help with my piping.

184 years later…

Exciting news! Ross Anderson of Cambridge University, together with Roderick Cannon, has scanned a full copy of a heretofore unpublished Donald MacDonald manuscript. MacDonald published the first collection of piobaireachd in 1820 and was working on a second collection. This is the draft of that collection. Anderson and Cannon have generously made the manuscript public and here it is.

I have peeked at a few of the pages, but it is going to take a while to look at the whole thing. There are 282 pages! From what I have seen, though, the quality of the images is good and the notation is also very clear. It would not be difficult at all to play from this manuscript. Thank you, gentlemen!

Dae you hae a guid Scots tongue in yer heid?

If you understood that, and if you answered in the affirmative, then “The Scots Leid Associe wants ye tae uise it!”

To clarify, my brother sent me a CD of pipe music and he had to order it from the Scots Language Society, or Scots Leid Associe. The society exists to promote the use of the Scots (not gaelic) language. To my ears, it sounds like the old people I heard when I lived in Bo’ness and Falkirk in West Lothian, although, according to those people, they were speaking a specifically local dialect peculiar to their own town. I remember two of my friends (both in their 40s) who had lived their whole lives in Bo’ness having a conversation in front of me using all the dialect words they could think of. It was largely incomprehensible.

My brother said that when he ordered the CD, he spoke to John Law, who edits the official Scots Language magazine. He was “a friendly guy, but hard to understand”. Perhaps I will call him sometime. The CD is tremendous – Andrew Wright playing piobaireachd, including two tunes that I hope to be able to play soon: Hail to my Country, and The Lament for Captain MacDougall. My old band, The Celtic Spirit Pipe Band used to play the first variation from Hail to my Country, and it’s good to hear the whole tune being played. Check out my old band playing and then take a look at the Scots Language Society’s CD offerings. They have stuff you won’t find anywhere else.

Piobaireachd and Mandelbrot

We visted some friends yesterday. They showed us a math movie about fractals and the Mandelbrot Set. Sounds dull, but these things are actually very beautiful.

One of the talking heads interviewed defined a fractal as a form, which no matter how many times it was magnified, always contained a further level of fine detail. Furthermore, the details look rather similar, but not necessarily identical at any level of magnification. The classic example of this is called the Mandelbrot Set, which looks rather like a bug, but on further magnification reveals startlingly beautiful detail.

The mathemusician in me immediately thought of piobaireachd. A simple tune, but the further you play, the more complex it becomes. Of course, the tunes end and fractals never do, but I like how formulaic and yet random both are. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this. I think I will post on the piping boards and report back.

Energy Drinks and Possible Endorsements

My wife and I are both fond of energy drinks. My choice is Sobe’s No Fear, while she always drinks Red Bull.

The manufacturers of energy drinks go out of their way to brand their products as alternative – their drinks are different and therefore enjoyed by unusual people during edgy pursuits. If you think sliding down a mountain blindfolded on a sofa is a cool way to spend your afternoon (you were asleep all morning) then you might enjoy…

This gets me thinking. Angus MacColl just won the Glenfiddich Championship playing The Red Speckled Bull. Isn’t this a perfect opportunity for Red Bull energy drinks to come in with sponsorship for the coming solo piping season? In fact, The Red Speckled Bull is one of the list of set tunes for next year, so even more people are going to hear it played. One of the stories behind the tune is that of a mad farmer wrestling a bull with his bare hands. What could be more extreme? Can you imagine the shaky home movie of this posted on the Red Bull website? For goodness sakes, they already have a music academy, with a contributor called Greg Wilson. Second to Angus MacColl at the Glenfiddich last weekend wasGreg Wilson the piper. The two Gregs could get together and make an electronica version of the tune.

Step up Red Bull. Become the official sponsor of the 2007 Piobaireachd Society Senior Tunes. Blue and silver bag covers for all competitors.

My Theme Tune – Part 1

OK, everybody. Now I have the music to I Am Proud to Play a Pipe. Step 1 Complete.

Next I have to listen to it a lot – I have Bagpipe Player software to help me with that.

And I have to try out some of these strange cadences and grace notes. At the outset it almost seems as though I will need a different mindset and even a different pair of hands to play piobaireachd. The whole thing is so different from light music. I will tap the talent from the Piobaireachd list on the Bob Dunsire forums.

More anon….

Piobaireachd – get it while it’s hot.

Any serious Ceol Mor fans should check out the BBC Radio Scotland Pipeline show for this week while they still can. It features Murray Henderson playing “Lament for the Harp Tree” at the Northern Meeting. This tune may not be the longest, but it has to be a contender. I timed it at 25 minutes and change. Anyway length apart, it’s a very beautiful tune, and Murray’s bagpipe stayed in great condition throughout.

You have until a week from tomorrow to listen. Then the BBC switches to the next edition of the show.