Jottings from Glasgow

Roddy MacLeod addresses the gathering at the Glasgow City Chambers.A few stand-out memories and observations from a chock-a-block week in Glasgow. There are hundreds more, but these came to mind first when thinking back on the week. They’re in no particular order.

Bagad Brieg

After almost 30 years of attending the World’s I realized that I had not once listened to anything but Grade 1. So, this year, I decided to will myself away from the Grade 1 Medley Final, and take a look at the Grade 2 final. There were 12 bands in the event, and several performances would have stood up well in Grade 1. But the medley that caught my ear was that of Bagad Brieg from Brittany. I was glad that they finished third overall, because I wondered if their more creative selection might alienate potentially traditionalist judges. Brieg’s finish included an impressive delivery of Gordon Duncan’s “Pressed for Time,” an ingenious and difficult composition that few bands would tackle. Brieg to me stood out from the fairly predictable fare of some of its competition, and I won’t be surprised if they are the next Breton band approved for Grade 1 by the RSPBA.

Armagh Pipers Club

I heard a lot from this band of uillean pipes, whistles, banjo and bodhran during Piping Live! They play an eclectic variety of Celtic stuff in a very acoustic and unplugged manner. They were the background entertainment at a reception at the Glasgow City Chambers put on by the city’s Lord Provost (read: mayor) for people connected with Piping Live! pipes|drums is once again a media partner with the festival, so I scored an invitation. The Armagh Pipers Club played away at the corner of the room, and it was splendid.

Glasgow City Chambers

Over the years I’ve been within yards of the Glasgow City Chambers (read: city hall) thousands of times, but I’d never actually gone inside. What a building. The deep red Italian Carrara marble is everywhere and it is stunning. The building was made in 1888 and, I was told, Glaswegians complained about its cost. But they must have stopped complaining once they saw the completed building. I kept thinking of The Simpsons “Stonecutters” episode. I highly recommend you have a look next time you’re in Glasgow. They don’t make them like this no more.

Roddy MacLeod practicing

The redoubtable Helen Wilkinson of the National Piping Centre kindly allowed me to plug in to their Internet connection throughout the week. While all the action was happening outside, behind the scenes the NPC’s offices were inhabited by employees and volunteers keeping things running. There’s probably not a busier person in Glasgow than Piping Live! and National Piping Centre Director Roddy MacLeod. But one day when I was posting a news story, a somewhat frazzled Roddy came into the offices, and disappeared into a back room where he proceeded to . . . practice. He managed to squeeze in about 15 minutes of his own solo playing before being interrupted with the latest crisis. I continued to do my thing, but couldn’t help but enjoy the loveliness of his playing and pipe. How Roddy manages the NPC and Piping Live! while staying at the top of the solo game is beyond me. MBE indeed.

The RSPBA machine

I compared the band competition times in my program with the actual times the bands came on. There was never more than a minute either way. There may have been one or two lapses on the day, but the RSPBA is unbelievably good at executing events of this size. And it’s not just 230-odd bands; it’s more than 350 (by my count) actual band performances. The RSPBA is mind-bogglingly good at running the World’s like a Swiss watch.

Elderly humming Highlanders

I was reminded about the peculiar habit that old Scottish men have when a solo piper plays a Gaelic air or piobaireachd: they hum along, usually off-pitch, in this sort of murmuring style. You’ll be sitting there enjoying a recital by Angus MacColl or Willie McCallum or some other great, and when the player starts an air or urlar there emerges this weird sound from the audience. And usually, you can’t tell who it is who’s humming, but rest assured it’s one of the elderly Highland-looking dudes. Shut it!

Inert judges

Some ensemble judges feel it’s acceptable to assess each band as a whole from one spot. I’ve heard Bob Shepherd’s thoughts on being “static.” Fair enough. But I noticed in several circles at the World’s piping judges pretty much staying in one place. One judge in an event I listened to never ventured past the half-way mark at the top of the band on one side of the circle – for the entire contest. Another time I noticed all three – two piping and ensemble – listening for a good minute in a clump. With the size of today’s bands, this makes no sense. The piping judges should make an effort to stay away from one another to ensure variances on each side of the circle are heard. Mobility may be a factor with a few judges being relative stagnant, but I would think that the competitors deserve a more comprehensive listen. If judges are having a hard time getting around, perhaps they should retire – or at least use one of those electric carts.

Drinks vouchers

“Beer tickets” are standard at North American piping and drumming events. It’s a way to balance the revenues against sold product and safeguard against theft. The World’s was the first Scottish event that I’d seen the use of the system, and the “drinks vouchers” setup made getting served a breeze. The bed-sheet-size paper vouchers were a bit much, though. Could this be the first time ever that the RSPBA has adopted an idea from another country?

All told, it was a great week, and, as always, your observations are welcome.

Dump the Qualifier

Is there any band, judge or listener who actually likes the World’s Grade 1 Qualifying system? If there is, I haven’t met him or her. In Glasgow this week it seems like every other person involved with a Grade 1 band has nothing good to say about the round of playing that allows five bands to join those that managed to bypass the process.

Five years ago I wrote about how dreary and interminable all those MSRs are. Last year the first four or five bands played in cold, driving rain, and the other 10 played in relative warmth. This year 16 bands will do the same, so 11 of them, and most of those from places other than Scotland, will head to the beer tent having gone out after four minutes of playing.

The Qualifier has got to go.

There is a definite sense, too, that the Qualifier – as it is now – will indeed go. Band members seem to be optimistic that some sort of new approach will replace the current system, trusting that the RSPBA’s recent survey concluded that no one really likes the unfair scheme currently in place.

And why an MSR? The old saw contending that an MSR “separates the men from the boys” is so unbelievably dated it hardly merits discussion. Today’s bands commit probably at least twice as much creative thought and energy to their medleys, perhaps knowing that they could go out there with phrasing like Angus MacColl only to have it fly right over the heads of most judges, who seem to listen for only tone and mistakes when it comes to the sets.

So eleven bands with sophisticated and often elaborately musical medleys will go home without the opportunity to play them for the judges or the crowd, the majority of whom clearly prefer to listen to selections (just compare YouTube views of MSRs against medleys).

It’s not really clear to anyone I’ve spoken to exactly why the system is the way it is. Whatever reasoning 10 years ago for creating the MSR Qualifier is now forgotten, leaving people to wonder why there’s time to break those 60 Grade 4B bands into three sections for a final competition, and there’s not enough time to have 26 Grade 1 bands each play twice. What’s up with that?

The discussion can’t really be drawn by national boundaries. I’ve heard as much dissension about the Qualifier system from Northern Irish and Scottish bands as I have from pipers and drummers in “overseas” bands. If there’s a good reason for the MSR Qualifier I don’t remember hearing it. If you have one, please comment.

Saying “If you don’t like it, don’t play,” doesn’t wash. The World’s is the World’s. Bands hold out hope that some way somehow they will get through the Qualifier, and then go on to some rather unlikely glory. Meanwhile every year they hope for some better solution, like a two-day World’s, or returning to a system whereby all bands have to qualify for a final, as was the case in the late-1970s and early-1980s, or perhaps even a pre-qualifying system in other countries that allows non-UK bands to have an equitable chance.

Whatever the alternative, the Qualifier as it currently exists has got to go.

In art, only hate itself should be hated

The only thing I really hate is hatred. When people say that they “hate” piobaireachd, a new pipe band medley, or, for that matter, any form of music or art, it bothers me. You can prefer one style more than another, or love a certain sound or sight, but why would anyone hate something as truly harmless as art?

You hear people in piping and drumming use the hate word frequently. “I hate that tune.” “I really hate what bass-sections are doing these days.” “I hate that band’s music.” It’s a word that, unfortunately, seems to be part of the piping and drumming tradition, perhaps borne of spite and envy and the ever-present need people seem to feel to compete on any level.

Some like to try to get a competitive edge by tearing down or belittling things they’re threatened by. Rather than minding only what they do themselves, they take a negative tack and discredit different approaches by using hateful language.

The other day I thought about different types of music. Like anyone else, I prefer some music more than others. But I can’t think of any music – whether classical, jazz, hip-hop or whatever – that I wouldn’t listen to and try to appreciate, if not enjoy.

My musical preferences run from hard rock to country to punk to bubblegum pop, even, and when it comes to music, I have many guilty pleasures. I was ridiculed mercilessly in the 1980s for admitting that I liked Debbie Gibson’s “Only In My Dreams” (which I maintain to this day is an intoxicating melody).

There is a sordid custom in piping to tear down that which threatens us. Dr. William Donaldson’s The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society is a seminal study of just such an example, in which piobaireachd was standardized by a group that set out to control the music in part by denigrating its history. The irony of ironies was that, when Donaldson’s book emerged, there was a strong and vocal attempt to – what else? – discredit his research, not to mention his training as a piper, each of which are impeccable.

There are those who are completely stuck in a hateful rut and, sadly, these folks all too often end up in positions of power. They try to eliminate things that threaten them by spreading hateful ideas, discrediting and belittling anything that is a challenge to their past and their status. They fancy themselves the protectors of some faith that really cannot exist in any art that wants to live in the present and future.

When it comes to art, the only thing to hate is hate itself.