Piobaireachd Society Sound Recordings – A Sampling So Far…

Well, I’ve only been a member for week and already I’m suffering from piping sensory overload.

All members of the Piobaireachd Society get access to a special “members only” section of the Society’s website. In this section are the annual proceedings of the Society, publications of the Society, and a daily-expanding list of tunes available for download. I said that I would review a few of the tunes that have been made available, so here is a quick look at a few of the highlights. I won’t go into too much detail, since it’s possible that a few of you reading this are not members – yet. (By the way, if that is the case, and you are serious about the music, I think this really is the time to join. With the now widespread use of the internet amongst piping people, I think we’re going to see an explosion of interest in piobaireachd. It’s early days yet, but the Society’s online resources are going to make it possible to get under the skin of the 20th century history of piobaireachd performance in an unprecedented way.)

I will start with my review of Hugh MacCallum’s performance of the Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon. This is a very big tune, and one with which I am very familiar; I have listened to Hugh’s nephew, Willie McCallum’s winning performance of it from the 2005 Glenfiddich Championship almost weekly over the past few years. When I made that recording (from the BBC Radio Scotland Pipeline show), it was preceded by an interview with Willie, in which he describes his approach to the tune and the influence his uncle had on his own interpretation of it.

Being so familiar with Willie’s performance, it was sheer joy to listen to what must have been a benchmark interpretation for him. Hugh’s performance has a lot of forward momentum (which you need, when a tune is 20 minutes long) but holds up briefly in all the right places. It’s actually quite deceptive – Hugh seems to hang on the upper note of each little “triplet” in Variation 1, singling and doubling, so that you think he’s going a lot slower than Willie, but the two men end up timing the whole tune to within 10 seconds of each other. That’s really amazing, for such a huge tune. The time flies by and the tune is over all too quickly.

I would also like to mention the quality of the recording. John Dow, webmaster of the Piobaireachd Society, is confronting the labors of Heracles to clean up these tunes and make them available, but the quality is really excellent. Even some of the other recordings, which are clearly pretty old, are cleaning up nicely thanks to his diligence.

Two other performances that I should also mention are duplicate recordings of the tune “The Marquis of Argyll’s Salute”. This is one of the shorter tunes in the repertoire. It’s a sparkling, loping tune, one that is a huge favorite of mine. Until now, I’ve had access to only an amateur recording (albeit a very good performance), but now there are two recordings of the tune on the Society’s list, one from Jimmy McIntosh and the other from John D. Burgess. I haven’t listened to these yet, but they’re next up!

I join the Piobaireachd Society!

[Anyone who reads my blog must wonder at its resemblance to the eclipse cycle. It’s not that there’s nothing to write about, simply that I neglect it between posts!]

In any case, this seemed like big enough news that I ought to make some sort of comment. Thanks to the generosity of my Mother (who actually got me into piping in the first place), I am now a member of the august organization that is the Piobaireachd Society.

It has been fashionable (since the Society was formed, really) to denigrate it for all sorts of reasons (and sometimes for no reason). Well, I’m here to tell you that an organization such as this is equal to the sum of its parts, and I’m delighted to become a part of it as it enters its second century. Times are changing, and the Piobaireachd Society is well-poised to become the major positive influence on the continuing history of this beautiful music that it ought to be.

Anyone who cares about the music should consider joining and add their efforts to the mix. In recent months the website has been dramatically overhauled and now features a fantastic members’ section, with a lot of archival materials including some stunning recordings. I’ll try to review of few of them in the weeks ahead as I get to grips with them all – I think there are about 40! The webmaster, John Gow, has been hard at work and some public thanks is probably due him for his efforts!

Anyway, expect to hear more from me in coming days and weeks, and I will try to review some of the tunes that are available on the website (including those available to non-members), just to give you a taste!

The David Barclay Memorial Competition – Year 2!

Yesterday the Utah Pipe Band presented this excellent indoor piping and drumming competition for the second year.

Just as it was last year, this competition is a welcome addition to the piping scene in Utah. It’s timed perfectly, since most bands have yet to begin the serious work of preparing for the next season, the previous season’s music is still relatively fresh in most players’ minds, and the Fall is often a quiet time in piping.

This year the venue moved to the Hidden Hollow Presbyterian Church in Draper, a quiet neighborhood of this suburb of Salt Lake. Last year’s early-season snow storm was absent, and present were two new faces to Utah in the form of the piping judges – the husband and wife team (also Pipe Major and Pipe Sergeant team) of the Triumph Street Pipe Band, David and Shaunna Hilder. Two of the pipers in my band joined Triumph Street this past season, so they were able to arrange the inclusion of these prestigious names in piping.

The event went off without a hitch (as far as I could tell) and I even played half-decently! I competed in the 2/4 march, the slow march and the piobaireachd. It was my final outing this year with my piobaireachd, “The Rout of the MacPhees”, and I played it as well as I ever have done. The piobaireachd competition was held in a large room with a high ceiling and a wooden floor. The acoustics were big, and it sounded as if I were playing in a baronial hall somewhere. I closed my eyes and pictured the stag’s heads and shields on the walls. David Hilder gave me some excellent comments and I even took second place – a wonderful end to the 2008 season.

Thank you Utah Pipe Band, for organizing this wonderful event. Long may it continue!

Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay

Usually, when I write about the Isle of Colonsay, it is in connection with the Clan Macfie. This, of course reflects my family’s links to the clan and the island. It should be noted, however, that the Macfies gradually left Colonsay during the 17th century, after which they became part of the ubiquitous worldwide Scottish diaspora. Over the next century or so, a new family became predominant on the island, the MacNeills, a situation that is still in place today.

John MacPhee’s book, “The Crofter and the Laird” documents his year on Colonsay in the late 1960’s, during which time he interviewed a number of the MacNeills of Colonsay. For the most part, they had dispensed with the name MacNeill for everyday business (since they all had the same name), and substituted the places on the island where they lived as working surnames. Thus, Andrew MacNeill, who farmed the land on the island of Oransay (to the south of Colonsay, and ephemerally connected at low tide by spit of sand) was known as Andrew Oransay.

This Andrew Oransay turns out to be a major piping authority, and not only that, but a link to one of the two schools of piobaireachd. Piobaireachd players like to trace their piping lineage, through their various teachers, back to the MacCrimmons of Skye in the 17th and 18th centuries. The path back to the MacCrimmons splits (somewhat contentiously) in the 19th century, with two schools of thought claiming “correct” interpretation of the big music. One style ultimately came to predominate, although the second has always had its adherents, and Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay (as he is known in the piping world) turns out to be one of the latter. He won a few competitions before the Second World War, and appeared to be a rising star but, on returning from the War, never made the promised impact on the competition circuit. Still, he was much in demand as a teacher and a mentor, and it becomes clear that many influential pipers who did go on to competition victory could thank Andrew for his assistance in doing so. One who benefited from his help was William Barrie, a Canadian piper, who later wrote one of the most famous “new” tunes of the past few years, “Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay“. This tune has been recorded by the current World Pipe Band Champions, the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band.

He was also ready to help out anyone who asked for his piping help, including several members of the Bob Dunsire Piping Forums, an online forum for piping discussion (of which I am a member). Recently, one of the regular members asked fellow posters to supply any memories they may have of Andrew. A very interesting discussion has developed, during which at least one person has revealed he possesses a large amount of correspondence and taped material from Andrew.

The discussion is still ongoing (and I have yet to find out in which year he died), but little did I know when I walked/paddled across to Oransay with my family on a soaking wet summer’s day in 1985 to visit Oransay Priory, that I may have been yards away from one of the major figures in 20th century piping.

A Pastoral Moment

Last night I played for a outdoor wedding at a beautiful and secluded ranch in the mountains outside Salt Lake City. I was asked to play for about a half hour prior to the service, while the guests were arriving.

About half-way through this, the wedding organizer came up to me and asked if I could hear the bull in the next field. Sure enough, after each set of tunes there was a distinctive bellow coming from the field behind the trees. I asked if she thought the bull was happy, or unhappy with the piping. She said she couldn’t tell.

There is a piobaireachd tune called “The Red Speckled Bull”. I decided to play the ground of the tune just for the bull and see if he liked it. When I finished, I listened. Total silence. I wasn’t sure if this signaled approval or not, and I was getting ready to play another tune – this one about a cow – when the wedding party arrived and I had to switch to more traditional tunes. So I still don’t know if the bull was happy with my choice of tune, but I’ll bet not many pipers get to play that tune in the presence its namesake.

I abandon my pipes…temporarily

Last night my band, the Wasatch and District Pipe Band played its annual fund-raising concert.

Our usual MC, Jeff Mann, was unable to be present, since he had to travel to California for meetings connected with ANAPBA (the Alliance of North American Pipe Bands Associations), of which he is currently Chair. Someone in the band (don’t remember who) suggested I replace Jeff. I’m assuming this is because of my affable manner and cool British accent, not because I’m the most dispensable piper in the band.

Anyway, the evening seemed to go pretty well and, although I felt fairly wooden in places, people said nice things about my hosting abilities after it was all over.

The sound of the final tune had barely died away when some members of the band rushed, Le Mans-style, to their vehicles to begin the overnight drive to Pleasanton, California. (The band is competing in the final Highland Games of the season this weekend in this suburb of San Francisco.)