Tying a bridle

Woa there, little dawgie.Is it time to create a new competition event for pipe bands? Blogpipe and pipes|drums readers will be well versed in the debate, controversy and, unfortunately, occasional invective about the Toronto Police Pipe Band’s two “medleys.” (I won’t recap what they’re all about, but, if you’re not sure, just poke around the site for awhile and you’ll begin to understand.)

Pipe band people are almost equally divided between liking or disliking it, and many have a hard time juxtaposing something so musically different against the familiar idea of a pipe band “medley.” Judges have admitted that it is a difficult challenge to compare them and thus judge accurately, if such a notion is possible in trying to adjudicate any subjective art.

So, is it time to start a whole new pipe band event? Or, perhaps more accurately, is it time to put musical requirements on the “traditional medley” so as to better allow the existing anything-goes medley to thrive?

Non-UK associations have been challenged to expand musically, simply because of the pressure that the World Pipe Band Championships exerts on their bands. Bands resist most rule changes that may prevent them from preparing for their August Glasgow experience. If it doesn’t happen in the RSPBA, it tends to be rejected everywhere else.

But it seems to me that we can work around this roadblock. At the Grade 1 level, playing requirements could still be two MSRs. Associations that call for bands to submit two medleys, could reduce that to one. Then, a new event could be brought in: the “Freestyle Medley.” It could be an anything-goes piece that lasts maybe up to 10 minutes, with any instruments, provided at least some of them are Highland bagpipes and drums. Bands could assemble however they please.

But how, then, to ensure that “traditional” medley event is preserved? This would be difficult, if not impossible, since there’s nothing much traditional about the structure of non-Toronto Police medleys. Perhaps bands would be required to play only tunes from the familiar Highland piping categories. Maybe an RSPBA-like rule to start with certain tune-types? Perhaps providing a set list of tunes that could be played?

The challenge is more about what a band can’t do, than what it can.

In the 1970s there was resistance when the medley was introduced. But look at what it has done for the art. As the medley evolved bands were pressured to be different and innovative. Where once they feared not having original material, most bands now have budding composers within their ranks itching to create new stuff. Had it not been for the pipe band medley, today’s most famous tune-makers might be unknown and untapped talent. By allowing and encouraiging a freestyle / anything-goes category, a whole new level of creativity would certainly emerge, and that’s good for the livelihood of the art.

Personally, I’m against the idea of formally creating a third band competition category. I have no trouble with keeping the current medley format anything-goes. But it’s clear that not everyone feels the same way.

Perhaps it’s time to seriously consider opening things up, while simultaneously tying things down.

Bloomsday scenario

It’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, after the Georgetown games and the latest musical-envelope-pusher from the Toronto Police. Just like last year when the band came out with it’s “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions,” the comments are again flying around about the band’s “Idiomatica” entry.

I hesitate to call it a medley, since a musical medley, by Webster’s definition, is “a musical composition made up of a series of songs or short pieces,” rather than a cohesive single composition, which I believe “Idiomatica” is meant to be. You can’t call it a “selection” either, as that also involves, I think, selecting various existing tunes, much like a musical medley. Call it a piece, an opus or even an oeuvre.

Semantics aside, it’s bloody difficult to compare what the Toronto Police played against the more familiar formats of other bands in the contest. The pipe band “medley” has evolved more or less on its own, usually by bands dipping one timid toe at a time in the musical froth, trying a “different” tune here, an unusual rhythm there. Heaven forfend that a judge might react negatively.

There are actually very few musical requirements placed on a band in the rules of the world’s pipe band associations. The RSPBA has by far the most strictures, forcing bands to start with a “quick-march” at a certain minimum tempo and with the familiar three-paced rolls and a mandatory E.

The only musical requirement that I know for a Grade 1 pipe band medley under PPBSO rules is that it must be between five and eight minutes long. There are no stipulations as to what should be played or how many of the band’s pipers and drummers (or other instrumentalists, for that matter) can play at one time. In fact, there’s nothing to say that the band couldn’t just stand there, tacit, for five minutes, in homage to Chares Ives or something.

If the Toronto Police didn’t have the musical clean-slate that the PPBSO membership prefers, perhaps they wouldn’t compete with their new pieces, unless it were to make a one-time, “Thelma and Louise”-like statement. I gather they were fully prepared to go down in a blaze of glorious disqualification had they been able to play in the Final at last year’s World’s.

I like that bands are free to push musical buttons and boundaries. I can also appreciate those who feel that it shouldn’t be allowed, that such challenges to the familiar are too much of an affront to our musical “tradition,” whatever that is. It’s a healthy, difficult debate.

After all the talk of the Toronto Police’s “Good Intentions” piece, I was eager to see how many bands might follow suit with their own brave attempts to explore their own new musical limits. So far, I haven’t heard or heard of any other bands anywhere in the world making such an attempt. (Please let me know if there are.) In fact, I’m noticing the direct opposite: bands harking back to material, styles and structures of the 1970s and ’80s, particularly the once-hackneyed-now-retro seamless transition from strathspey-to-jig or jig-to-strathspey.

I might be wrong, but while a lone band is aggressively blazing new musical ground, others seem to be retreating into the past, with the old being new again. Whether that’s a conscious rejection, or just plain happenstance, again, I don’t know.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

In rotation

  • FantasiesMetricFantasies (standout track: “Satellite Mind”)
  • John MulhearnThe Extraordinary Little Cough (standout track: “Captain Jack Murray” feat. Roddy MacLeod)
  • Steve EarleTownes (standout track: “Colorado Girl”)
  • The Ting TingsWe Started Nothing (standout track: “That’s Not My Name”)
  • Wendy Stewart & Gary WestHinterlands (standout track: “Ae Fond Kiss”)