Pipeband-palooza

Ungraded.The Montreal games’ decision to forgo piping and drumming competitions due to the expense is telling. Like everyone else, I’m disappointed. But I also understand the economic challenges of holding a full slate of band and solo piping and drumming contests, and I can’t fault them for deciding not to go ahead with them this year.

Rather than pay a lot more to have the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario mobilize their turnkey operation of contests, with standardized judges, stewards and rules, Montreal is reportedly spending about half as much money simply to hire four or five top grade bands to perform a mini-concert on the day. I’ve been told that each invited band will receive a flat-fee of between $4,000 and $5,000 for their musical stint, which, I also have been told, would last no more than an hour. That’s a festival of pipe band music.

And that’s pretty good going for the fortunate few bands and the paying customers. It’s Pipebandpalooza. As a listener I’d want to attend Montreal to hear this festival of pipe banding, even more so than the usual full day of competition. Montreal can do this for that fairly inexpensive rate because the bands involved will be competing the day before at the North American Championships, a few hours’ drive away, in Maxville, Ontario. I’d think that other events without performers essentially already there would have trouble getting so many bands without paying a lot more for travel, but they could probably get two bands at double the fee.

So, this is the new quandary that I think we will see more and more of around the world. Highland games really only want the sound of pipes and drums. They don’t necessarily desire the peculiar cultural phenomenon of our little competition club, which is, as I’ve said many times before, not exactly attractive to the non-playing punter. The stuff we play for competition is technically demanding, tailored for clearer critical analysis, but it’s just not interesting to the large majority of those who don’t have a vested stake in it.

The reality is, if I were organizing a Highland games I think I’d be tempted to do what Montreal has done. I’d put on a pipe band show that’s accessible to and fun for non-players – the ticket-buying public who I need to be a viable operation.

But there’s still plenty of room for piping and drumming competitions as we know them. After all, pipers and drummers have repeatedly confirmed that they like these events, and don’t necessarily want to compromise or corrupt what we do to become a show for non-players. As a result, I’m seeing more Highland games opt out of the whole massive competition thing, but I’m also noticing more self-sustaining piping and drumming contests, held on their own, without the trappings of heavy events, dancing, sheepdog trials and a sanctioning pipe band association. The two formats are gradually going their separate ways.

As far as I can see, the World’s is the most successful example of the self-sustaining event. Anecdotal evidence and observation tells me that there are very few listeners at the World’s who don’t have a vested interest in the competition. The competitors alone attract about 7,000 people, and their friends and family bring attendance way up. As a result, it’s basically self-sustaining, provided it remains popular with competitors. Either way, events that are based purely on piping and drumming competition are scalable – they can expand and contract with the entry. (Note the May 29th Kingston, Ontario, event.) Just find a field, park or parking lot, tell everyone in your organization that there’s a competition, gather start-up funding, and charge everyone for admission, entry-fees and parking. Bob’s yer uncle.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that the familiar competition format is in danger of collapse. I do think, though, that, if we continue to reject the notion of changing our system radically, then we’ll just go our separate ways. There will the self-sustaining, competition-only events, and there will be the Highland games that hire guest bands to entertain the crowds. Montreal’s Pipebandpalooza (and they can pay me later for the name) is just a first radical start to the inevitable change.

Been there

All uphill from here.We all have to start somewhere, and this week I’ve been carried back to my earliest days as a piper as I’ve been going through and scanning family photos that my dad left behind. I’ve actually taken a full 10 days of vacation to work through them, since he was a keen amateur photographer and, perhaps because he was a professor of history and wanted to keep a record of things for history’s sake, he pretty much took a photo of everything. Everything.

He missed the digital photography age, and used only film. But he never used print film; strictly slide film, and would pick out the best to have enlarged. He used slide photography like we use digital – no big deal if you mess up the shot. The result is about 40 years of slides, numbering I think about 15,000 images. That’s a lot scanning, but it’s kind of now or never.

Hell? Hello? Is this thing on?But here are a few shots of my first years on the pipes, circa 1976-’77. I think the one of me with the natty plaid shirt on is the very day that my new R.G. Hardie pipes arrived directly from Glasgow. I remember the bag loosely tied to the stocks, and made of cowhide as thick and tough as beef jerky. My dad was upset that they sent it with the wrong tartan bag cover – MacFarlane, not some family sett.

My dad, ever the promoter of his kids, used to volunteer me for various piping performances. I’m not sure exactly what these two events were, but see the people in the one of me playing in the parking lot. Next stop: The Argyllshire Gathering.They are almost totally oblivious to the noise going on around them, even the gents merrily having a conversation within a few feet of me. Note the 1970s pimp-chic with the guy with hat. Maybe they’re hoping that, if they ignore it, it will go away. Maybe it’s an event for the hearing impaired.

The one with the guy in the clever robin’s-egg-blue suit is a wonder. It looks like the Jim Jones Cult needed an official piper to lead the members to something. I don’t remember any Let's play ball instead . . .Kool-Aid being served, thank goodness.

The other is perhaps the first day of spring warm enough for me to regale the neighbors (American spelling, since it was in the USA) with my sight-reading stop/start tunage. I’m wearing the St. Louis Cardinals’ retro 1876 cap in honor (US) of the 100th anniversary of the National League, brown corduroys and yet another tartan shirt. That’s my friend Nathaniel Heidenheimer in the Giants’ cap probably a bit freaked out by the scene: me squalling away on the imitation-ivory-grinding Hardies; my dad snapping away at his own hobby; Nathaniel frozen, wondering where to look.

But we all start somewhere and I think we’ve all been there. The instrument begins as a lark, progresses into obsession, then, if you’re lucky, transforms into a passion. We persevere.

Let er dangle

The Livingstone Sr. Invitational assembled the usual excellent piping talent with the usual small crowd of solo piping devotees, familiar handful of young learner-pipers and the customary consternation by older pipers (me included) as to why, oh, why more enthusiasts and learners don’t bother to attend these state-of-the-art demonstrations of musical excellence.

Nevermind. Of note was a relatively older roster of competitors. Of the eight, I believe all but a few were younger than 30, and most were older than 35. That the winner, Bruce Gandy (age 39) may have been (marginally) the oldest may say something, too, about the current condition of top-drawer solo piping in North America – or at least those who want to travel to this contest.

By far the youngest of the lot was Gordon Conn of Calgary. I’m not certain of his age, but I’d say he’s probably 19 or 20. Gandy, Grey, Troy et al.’s performances were all excellent, but I would say that the most memorable playing for me on the night was the hornpipe and jig that young Gordon threw down.

Kids today seem to set as the solo piping light music benchmark not what might win a Silver Star (although I’m sure that’s important, too), but what guys like Stuart Liddell and Fred Morrison can do with their hands. While most competitors in this own-choice light music event went with tried-and-true hornpipes and jigs (e.g., “The Man From Skye,” “Allan MacPherson,” “Donald Cameron’s Powder-Horn”) , taking a calculated conservative strategy, Conn chose tunes that would allow him to – as the late, great Scott MacAulay would have said – “Let ‘er dangle.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1r3EiLbuP_E&w=320&h=240]

That Conn’s hornpipe (“Mr. and Mrs. J. Duncan’s Golden Wedding”) and jig (“Karen Nuttall”) were composed, respectively, by Gordon Duncan and Scott MacAulay, pipers who left us far too early, I know carried some additional meaning to not a few people attending.

I liked that Gordon Conn executed the tunes in an edgy, seat-of-the-pants style – exactly the way the composers of the tunes would have done it themselves. They were pipers who lived on the edge of the moment, and objective number-one was always fun.

Damn the prize. Scott and Gordon I’m certain would have loved to see Gordon Conn, a young piper with a huge career ahead of him, do what he did.