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.

How do I look?

I mentioned yesterday that my wife gave me a birthday present that was older than I was. Well, yesterday evening another surprise birthday present, this time exactly as old as I am. In fact you’re looking at him right now!

My wife conspired with a friend of hers (who is a designer of some note) to update my website and you are now looking at the results – namely me – in all my piping glory.

My wife’s friend has a very popular blog and is in demand as a designer also, so I am hoping some of her web mojo (say this in an Austin Powers voice) will pass to my site.

So, that’s the style part in place. Now you need great content, right? Stick around – I’ll do my best.

Some help from the past

It was my birthday yesterday. My wife gave me a present that is older than I am.

It is a little book by Seumas MacNeill called “Piobaireachd – Classical Music of the Highland Bagpipe”, and was written in 1964 as a companion to a BBC radio series. I curled up in a chair and read most of it last night. MacNeill explains the form of Piobaireachd comprehensively, but succinctly, and with a dry wit that makes the book fun to read. The book is also infused with MacNeill’s obvious enthusiasm for the music.

It is interesting to read what is also a snapshot of the state of piobaireachd some 40 years ago. Seumas MacNeill died in 1996, but I’m fairly certain he would have been happy with the way things are working out. Even here in Utah we now have an incipient piobaireachd organization – The Utah Piobaireachd Society – and, judging by the scope of discussions on the Bob Dunsire Forums, the future is healthy for the form.

This book is going to be very helpful to me. I thank my wife, and I thank Seumas.

They shall not grow old

Today is Veteran’s Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the UK. I don’t recall what other countries call it, but I believe the observance is nearly worldwide.

This morning I will march in a parade in my band’s hometown of Bountiful. I think I have inherited my grandfather’s attachment to this observance. At least as it is marked in Europe, although military people are much in evidence, the day is not a celebration of the military, but rather a day to remember the awful cost of war. The military is rightfully included because they were the instruments of a war that killed millions in Europe – mostly needlessly. But that seems to be the case with war most of the time.

The observance (I hesitate to call it a holiday) got started after the Great War, or World War I. I have a connection to this because my crazy great great uncle – R.A. Scott Macfie – joined the Liverpool Scottish Regiment and went to fight in the trenches. He kept meticulous diaries of the horrors he saw and many of them are now permanently housed in the Imperial War Museum in London. In that war many pipers in the highland regiments of the British Army died marching, unarmed, towards German lines. They would strike up a tune and set off. Most were shot in less than a minute.

Years later my grandfather joined the British Navy to fight Hitler’s Germany. My grandfather was always very serious about Remembrance Day. I think he was right. War is serious business. It kills people, and leaves non-fighters bereaved. On Remembrance Day we should remember those who died, and promise ourselves that we will learn the lessons of the wars already fought.

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the Sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon
For the Fallen (1914)

New tunes

Yesterday (Thursday) was band practice night. For the first time this Fall we had pipes out. Up to now all rehearsals have been on practice chanter. As I listen to myself, I am amazed at how far I have come in the last year. With a collection of challenging tunes I am being stretched and I am enjoying it!

The weeks of playing the tunes slowly are beginning to pay off. I breezed through our opening quick march, did reasonably well in the jigs and made a OK showing in the strathspeys. The reels were a bit too much for me, but I was happy to make it as far as I did. Standing in the circle and playing the tunes with the band was wonderful. I feel like a real piper.

Onwards and upwards…

I turn my back for two minutes…

Well, two days actually. A lot can happen in 48 hours.

On Tuesday, the mid-term elections of course. I would have posted (honest) but I got a call early to go out and help with poll watching. My wife was the one doing the watching, but she needed some company and a chauffeur. I was happy to do what I could to help. Being a resident, but not a citizen, of the U.S. it is sometimes frustrating to have to watch politics from the sidelines. Only U.S. citizens can vote, so when a non-voting opportunity arises to help then I’m there. No piping Tuesday, but plenty of Drive-bys. We visited six polling places in the end, and finished the day at the Democrats’ victory party. By a curious coincidence, the party was held in the same room where I had played a piping gig just 10 days earlier.

On Wednesday I awoke to news of the election results (we all know how that turned out) and also to the very sad news that Bob Dunsire had died the previous day. Bob started the huge piping forums that many, many pipers belong to. The internet has affected most people in the West, and pipers as a group are no exception. bobdunsire.com has become the online talking place for pipers and drummers since 2001. The boards are moderated by highly respected pipers (World Champions in some cases) and visited by people ranging from absolute beginners (“I had my first chanter lesson yesterday – I’m so excited”) to the likes of Willie McCallum and Alasdair Gillies.

I send my condolences to Bob’s family, and to all of you who are pipers I say, join the forums and add your voice to build up the community.

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.

Neighborhood Watch

A neighbor of ours stopped by a few days ago to give my kids some halloween candy. She said, “we haven’t heard you practicing lately”.

Ouch. It’s true, I haven’t had the big pipes out in our little circle for a while. Despite the overwhelmingly positive response I usually get, I still feel reticent about playing. For all the people who say they like it, I can’t help thinking “is there someone indoors cursing me and wishing I would stop?”

Well, I didn’t want to disappoint our neighbor (especially after her gift to the children) so the following day I stepped out into the circle and played for about 15 minutes. As luck would have it, the neighbor arrived home just as I started playing – with maybe a dozen assorted children and grandchildren. They all stood around until I was done, and applauded. A couple of other families showed their faces and cheered too.

I guess I shouldn’t be so concerned. I have to figure that if the ones that like it are so vocal, anyone who didn’t would also speak up.

They’ll be hearing less of me soon anyway. Winter is approaching in Utah and the daytime temperatures are unlikely to exceed 50 degrees from now on. (Then 40 and then 30!) If I go outside to play, no one else will be out there and I won’t be able to take it for more than a few minutes at a time. Time to learn some slow tunes. I’ll try out the grounds of some piobaireachds for them. Then see if they still want me to play.

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.

Slow Down

Slow Down!

This has been the cry of our in-house band instructor the last few weeks. As we have started back in with regular band practice for the Fall, my band, the Wasatch and District Pipe Band has been getting back to basics.

This is great for me, because, as a new member, I never really got to grips with all the tunes in the band’s competition medley last season. I managed to get the three tunes of the march medley memorized and halfway decent, but the eight tunes of the main medley proved too much in addition to everything else in my busy schedule.

So, we are playing through all eight tunes at considerably reduced tempi, in some cases at half-speed. The goal is to get the band to focus on technique (opening up doublings, placing gracenotes at the correct point of the beat, etc.) but for me it also gives me a gentle introduction to a competition set that I would never have dreamed of being able to play a year ago.

They’re good tunes too. Our opener – Coppermill – is wonderful swinging 2/4 marchlet and it just gets better from there.

The next challenge is to become so good at playing these tunes I get a regular spot on the competition roster. With over 20 active pipers, not everybody can play in competition. Still, all this technique work should help with solo skills too. Competing or not, I’m having a blast.