Art with a difference


The Daniel Liebeskind extension to the Royal Ontario Museum under construction, Dec 2006.


Toronto, like many North American cities, is experiencing a building-boom just now. Fortunately, a lot of it is by really well known architects, including two Frank Gehry ventures and a couple of Daniel Liebeskind projects. The most prominent of Liebeskind’s is the very controversial extension to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) that I pass every day that I bike to work. I’ve been following its progress over the last two years.

A lot of people don’t like it. The ROM is this hoary neo-Romanesque pile that houses the requisite and predictable mummies and dinosaur bones, and which has suffered from declining attendance over the years. So they raised private and public money, finally, for Liebeskind to do his thing, which is to shake things up and get people talking. Liebeskind has relatively few completed projects, but those that have been erected, like the Jewish Museum in Berlin, get a lot of tongues wagging. Positive or negative, his buildings get a reaction.

Which it seems to me is what the best art is originally all about. Bland and safe buildings, paintings or music may play to the masses and generate income, but no great artist became great by playing it safe. I like Liebeskind’s ROM extension because it’s a jarring mass of angular glass and steel jutting dramatically out of this familiar, “museum-like” structure. The very art housed in that museum is there because at one time it too was dramatic and jarring, and that’s the statement Liebeskind makes. It’s unsettling to those who eat roast beef and Yorkshire pudding every Sunday afternoon and wish Toronto would be made up once again of only WASPs.

You know where this is leading: competitive piping and drumming. Our greatest, most memorable and highest-impact exponents are those who do things differently. The Strathclyde Police under Iain MacLellan were one of the greatest competition bands ever – maybe the greatest. They certainly set a new benchmark for tuning and tone, but did they advance the art? Will it be remembered for more than having its name engraved on a lot of major trophies? Conversely, there are bands and soloists who may have paid a competitive price for challenging the art.

For my money, give me quality with a difference. Give me Liebeskind, Calatrava and Gehry. Who do you think are the bands and pipers and drummers today who are making a lasting artistic contribution?

Game on

My wife always delivers the goods, and this Christmas was no exception. Under our tree for me was double boxed-set of St. Louis Cardinals DVDs just released. There’s every game of the glorious 2006 World Series in one set, and the other is a group of about 10 discs with Cardinals’ greatest hits, starting with Bob Gibson‘s 17-strikeout masterpiece in Game 1 of the 1968 Series with the Tigers.

I suppose I should have been working on the next pipes|drums feature or readying the next exclusive interview, but yesterday I spent two hours watching Game 3 of the 1987 World Series against the Minnesota Twins. I started with this because I never actually saw any of the ’87 Series. Why? Because I was living in Scotland as something of a bagpipe bum at the time.

Back then you had to rely on the International Herald Tribune to get scores about two days after the games. I sometimes would splurge to buy a rare copy of USA Today, which one newsagent on Edinburgh’s High Street carried, and my Dad used to mail wads of clippings from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. There was no internet or satellite TV, and the 1984-’87 baseball seasons are pretty much a big void. I’ll always remember sitting in my room in Andrew Stewart Hall at the University of Stirling‘s halls of residence when I learned of Bob Forsch’s September 1984 no-hitter via one of those clippings envelopes.

Game 3 of the ’87 Series was a pitching gem by John Tudor, who for three years was unbelievably good. This was a game that I listened to, along with all of the others, on a little short-wave radio, barely catching the Armed Services Network as it whistled in and out. Back then, between stints of busking on Princes Street, I worked at Mama’s, a restaurant in the Grassmarket then owned and operated by a couple of Canadian actors, Angus MacInnes and Phil Craig. (It’s still there, even though they sold around 1990 and returned to very successful careers in film and TV.) I would work until closing, and then stayed up until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. to listen to the games.

Missing that Series was particularly hard. I graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1985, followed the Twins and went to a lot of games at the Metrodome. I got to know the Twins as well as the Cardinals, so the two teams meeting the World Series was a personal convergence.

I guess I’ve given up a lot of “normal” things in preference of abnormal piping pursuits. But at least one of those absences was finally filled yesterday.

Tie one on

Iain MacDonald (Saskatchewan) is always good for ideas, and his response to Bruce Gandy’s response to my recent blog on autographs got me thinking about my collection of pipe band neckties.

To be honest, I ‘m not sure whether the tradition of trading band ties still happens much. Used to be (and perhaps still is) that, like footballers after international matches trading shirts on the pitch, pipers and drummers would often swap ties with members of rival bands in the beer tent or on the ferry home.

My vintage Duthart-Shotts tie.There are two types of people: collectors and non-collectors, and I am definitely in the first group, whether baseball cards, pipe-music books or vintage British railway posters. When I played in Scotland I amassed quite a collection of ties from Grade 1 bands. I never did attain a Strathclyde Police tie, since back then they seemed far too grown up to do that sort of thing. I always wanted to acquire a Muirheads tie, and wonder actually how many of those exist.

It wasn’t until the 1970s and the rise in popularity of non-number-one-dress that band ties became prevalent, of course, and I’m a proud owner of ties from now-defunct bands: Monktonhall, Woolmet & Danderhall, Toyota, the RUC, ScottishGas. I often wear the Eagle Pipers Society tie I scored from Martin Docherty, the former Fear-an-Tigh of that erstwhile organization.

But by far my most prized tie is the 1979 Shotts & Dykehead model given to me straight off of the collar of Alex Duthart. Like the autograph hound I used to be, I probably brashly hinted that I liked his tie and, like the altogether brilliant guy Duthart was, he thought nothing of presenting it to me.

I have maybe 30 ties in my collection, but I wonder who out there has the largest assortment of pipe band ties. If you think you might have a collection worthy of a feature article in pipes|drums, drop me an e-mail message and let’s talk!