Repetition, repetition

RepeatSignPipe bands and solo pipers are generally reluctant to introduce unfamiliar tunes into their competition repertoire. It’s usually regarded as an unnecessary risk to unveil a medley of all, or even half, newly minted, previously unheard content. When it comes to MSRs, those of us who have been around a few years have heard “The Clan MacRae Society,” “Blair Drummond” and “Mrs. MacPherson” ten-thousand times.

But why is this? I repeat: Why is this?

I read an interesting article last spring on the National Public Radio Shots blog about repetition and familiarity in music. “Not only does every known human culture make music, but also, every known human culture makes music [in which] repetition is a defining element,” the piece said.

Essentially, the premise is that repetition in music works because of what’s known as the mere exposure effect. People are generally tense when it comes to the unfamiliar. Humans through millions of years of self-preservation are naturally suspicious and wary of change. Only after a while, when we get to know someone or something through repetition and familiarity, we tend to warm up to them.

It’s a fascinating little piece that produced a eureka moment for me and pipe music. Pipe music is similar to other music. The rock song that we didn’t much like the first time gets better and better with repeated listens. More frequently the instant likeability of a new song is due to that song being a lot like a familiar song – derivative, even. (I was happy to remember that I alluded to that in a review of a St. Thomas Episcopal School Pipe Band CD almost 15 years ago.) Record labels often encourage their artists to go after a familiar and popular sound. Why? It’s more likely to be liked.

We know, too, that pipe music derived from Gaelic song, which some feel is in part derived from birdsong. It’s music that repeats itself, through a communal chant while waulking cloth, or a curlew repeating its song to attract a mate, or “Cameronian Rant” riffing on the same theme for eight or 20 parts, or the hypnotic effect of a piobaireachd like “The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy.”

Bands that have competed with a wholly new set of tunes can only hope that the judges will do the unnatural thing and react positively. Like it or not, it’s instinctive to reject altogether unfamiliar music, no matter how well it’s performed. We can admire the artistic effort, but, if we don’t like the music, pretty much no amount of tuning, unison and tone will overcome that natural rejection.

And that is why pipe bands and solo pipers stay with the familiar. They want to succeed, and to succeed, the music – on the whole – must be liked. And to be liked, it bears repeating.

And that is why substantial change in styles of pipe music takes generations to take hold. At best, a band that values winning (and what’s the point of competing if you don’t want to win?) might throw in a few original, but certainly derivative, tunes in a medley, or make a jig out of a well-kent strathspey’s melody-line.

Certainly and, perhaps, sadly, ScottishPower intertwining “A Flame of Wrath” in a medley tempted some fate. It’s a familiar piece to any solo piper, but, the trouble is, there are very few serious competitive solo pipers who are RSPBA adjudicators. Judging from the results, I think many adjudicators must have been dumb-struck because, to them, it was for all purposes unfamiliar and they reacted naturally. If the band stays with it in 2015, the overall reaction to the now familiar music will likely be friendlier. They should warm up to it.

The rare instances of pipe bands that competed with non-derivative, completely original, “avant-garde” selections (78th Fraser Highlanders “Megantic Outlaw” 1991; Toronto Police medleys 2008-2013) might have been noble and ingenious efforts to push the art ahead quickly and dramatically on the competition field, but accepted that the art was more important than the winning. There are exceedingly few competitors who will voluntarily reduce their chances of competition success to make a musical point.

And so our art, because it is so wrapped up in competition, progresses at a snail’s pace. Each new generation of pipers discovers “Blair Drummond” or “Itchy Fingers” and enjoys the first few thousands plays at least. The few who stay with competition for three of four decades find that, at an advanced age, it’s very unlikely that musical change can be effected when new generations of wide-eared young pipers and drummers keep coming in, marveling at every last over-played note of “Cameronian Rant.”

We relish the familiar. Repetition gains familiarity, which in turn gains warmth and acceptance, and if familiarity breeds contempt, by that time, it’s too late to effect serious change.

Sadly, sadly, it is forever, forever so-so.

Break it down

“I broke down.”

These are the saddest of possible words a competitive solo piper has to say.

The ignominy of going off the tune and skulking from the competition stage (even if the “stage” might be a parking lot or a bumpy patch of grass in a farmer’s field) is perhaps unique to our wee club.

Is there another musical instrument where the performer, after making a mistake, simply stops and walks off? Sure, small children at violin recitals might get so petrified that they break down and cry. Despite the tune, I am certain there are no breakdowns with banjo players.

But I’m talking about experienced and fairly mature performers think the best option is to go away, deflated, sporran between their legs in shame.

I lost the bottle.

He crapped the bed.

She lost the plot.

I made a *&$% of it.

He broke down.

I think pipers might be singular in this respect. It is somehow acceptable for us just to bugger off rather than continue the performance with little or no chance of a prize. Notwithstanding a physical mishap, like a hole in the bag or a reed falling out, where the instrument is no longer playable, it’s part of our tradition, it seems, to flat-out give up the ghost rather than persevere.

The show must not go on.

“How did it go?” solo pipers ask each other. “I got through it,” is often the response, not saying it was good or bad, but only confirming that you didn’t break down, because it’s always a possibility that the person stopped playing part-way through.

Many years ago I had a spell at the games when I couldn’t seem to “get through” any event. I had the equivalent of what golfers refer to as “the yips.” I was playing well enough in practice, but as soon as I got out there my brain wouldn’t allow my body to work right. The traditional piper thing to do was and is to simply stop. The right thing to do would be to keep going no matter what, just to prove to yourself that you can indeed, “get through it.”

At least finishing – as hard as it might be – is something to be proud of. There is absolutely zero pride, I suggest, to be gained from breaking down.

The strange thing is that there is not an experienced piper at any time in history who has never had at least one breakdown in competition. Breakdowns seem to happen less these days, but they still occur even at the very highest levels in the very biggest competitions.

It’s another peculiar and questionable piping tradition: the breakdown.

So, let’s break it down: is it better to stop and slink off, or is it better to get back on it and finish the tune?

Hatred unwelcome

The Highland pipes draw attention. The volume and distinct sound of the instrument – especially when played poorly – get a reaction from people, so pipers are often seen in protests and parades.

Pipers who work their entire lives to be the best musicians they can be are invariably annoyed when “pipers,” who only want to be a spectacle by making as much kilty-noise as possible, go out and give the musical instrument and all of those who strive to be excellent musicians a bad rap.

It’s disturbing that things Celtic often seem to attract a certain racist element. Skinheads donning “utilikilts” and Celtic knot tattoos often add a noisy “piper” to the mix.

It makes my skin crawl.

The latest is a racist in Oregon who happens to use the Highland pipes to draw attention to his disgusting views and spitting vitriol. His MO seems to be to use Highland wear and the pipes to stand out from other hate-mongers, and, evidenced by the media attention he’s receiving, it seems to be working. (If you must investigate, you’re on your own – I won’t promote him any more than necessary here.)

Someone in the musical world of Highland piping needs to say it:

This hatred has absolutely no place in the culture of true pipers and drummers.

The world’s pipers and drummers are utterly and completely inclusive of all race, economic status, religion, sexual orientation and political belief. If you meet one who does not subscribe to inclusivity, kindly tell them to do us all a favour, take up the triangle and go away.

Real pipers and drummers enjoy and nurture the common bond that our music creates. We are colour-blind and completely tolerant – uninterested, actually – in what our fellow pipers and drummers believe, unless, of course, it is a “piper” or “drummer” who refuses to be part of that ethic. The only people we exclude are those who are not inclusive in their thinking.

Real pipers and drummers reject intolerance and racism. Those who embrace those things are not welcome.