Creative break

Massive challenges ahead.North American pipe band associations have to change. For the last 60 years they have coordinated familiar solo and band competitions that are modeled after Scotland’s traditional Highland games. These events resonate mostly with first-generation post-war immigrant Scots. But in 2011, many North American Highland games – at least as we know them – are on the wane as they struggle to compete for attention from a less-Scottish and more demanding public.

Associations are going to have to reinvent themselves – and quick.

There always will be opportunity to supply the usual turnkey piping and drumming events. Reactively sanctioning competitions under association rules at the request of Highland games put on by other organizations won’t be abandoned, but they are abandoning us. Consequently, associations increasingly will need to proactively create their own platforms for their members to perform. Waiting around for the phone to ring with a Highland games on the line, ready to contract the piping and drumming won’t cut it any longer.

More creativity and more entrepreneurialism are needed if associations are to continue to serve their membership. Risks will have to be taken, and some mistakes will inevitably be made along the way. But the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward can be.

North American associations have faced a quandary for a long time: how to push the boundaries of the art while maintaining the competition desires of members and still respect the ethnic musical “idiom” of the Highland pipe. The fallback has almost always been a cookie-cutter approach to events, with conventional competition formats and requirements. The unchanging competitions are very often almost completely ignored by the general public, who really only want the pipes as background music for their day, culminating in a massed bands spectacle.

The irony is that, in general, the public is indifferent to the competitions but love the massed bands, while pipers and drummers love the competition but dislike the massed bands.

Which begs the question: why don’t associations simply create their own events and stop relying so heavily on Highland games? Perhaps associations should give up on the fantasy that piping and drumming events alone will one day attract the respect and interest of the public, and embrace the challenge of staging their own competitions mainly for their membership. In essence, expand the concept applied to existing indoor events to outdoor venues.

Associations and their branches already are expected to be entrepreneurial and creative. See the Metro Cup. See the Livingstone Invitational. See the BC Indoor Gathering. See the Toronto Indoor Games. See the success of unsanctioned events like Winter Storm, the Dan Reid and Mastery of Scottish Arts. All of these events put piping and drumming first and operate on their own. They’re not a Highland games afterthought; the centerpiece is piping and drumming itself.

Scotland will never have this problem because Highland games and pipe band competitions are not an ethnic oddity, they’re a cultural occurrence. The decline in interest in ethnic Highland games is perhaps more pronounced in Canada than it is in the United States. But the two countries, which once had massive first-generation Scottish immigrant populations, are now dramatically more ethnically diverse. I’m not sure if Australia, New Zealand or other countries are facing the same thing.

North American associations need to adapt to a changed population, halt the erosion of the familiar and alter their traditional approach to meeting the needs of their membership with creativity and entrepreneurialism – before it’s too late.

Being arsed

Remote possibility.For as long as I can remember I’ve read reports on things piping and drumming that moan about the lack of young pipers and drummers attending this or that competition or performance. They usually say something like, “It’s too bad that more kids don’t bother to listen to these great players. They could have learned something.” It has always been thus.

But attending a screening of On The Day, the documentary about the one-off (so far, anyway) Spirit of Scotland project of 2008 this week got me thinking. It’s not just most of the kids and beginners who don’t bother to attend performances – it’s most pipers and drummers of any ability, age or level of experience.

The one-time screening last Wednesday at a really nice, easily accessed theatre with a state-of-the-art sound system drew a decent crowd, but only maybe 20 were pipers and drummers. Remember, this was in a city of four-million people that may be third only to Glasgow and Edinburgh for number of players. Tickets were $12.

Whether it’s a concert by the World Champions, or a recital by a Gold Medallist, or an invitational professional competition, or a unique movie about a unique pipe band project, the vast majority of pipers and drummers who could easily attend something pretty darned excellent just can’t be bothered. Why is this?

It couldn’t possibly be that so many of us don’t actually like the music – or could it? Over the years of asking prominent pipers and drummers to list their top-five CDs of all time, I’m always struck when they don’t list any piping or pipe band recordings. It’s rare when they do. They prefer to listen to “real life” music.

Is it because we’re so competitive that we can’t stop listening with a hyper-critical ear? Perhaps it’s just too hard for pipe band folk to divorce themselves from competition, and just enjoy the music. Given that we spend so much time zealously pursuing this music-sport-hobby, it’s intriguing that we can be so often passive about it.

But I realized, sitting there watching this truly historic event – the first time in piping and drumming history that a Hollywood-produced full-length movie was being shown in a real live cinema to real life people – that so many pipers and drummers couldn’t be arsed to be a part of it, much less enjoy it. I’m pretty sure that if it were a documentary about Simon Fraser University, or St. Laurence O’Toole, or Field Marshal Montgomery the interest, or lack of it, would be the same.

So, the next time I read (not in these pages, to be sure) that well-worn cliché bemoaning today’s apathetic youth ignoring great opportunities to enjoy leading exponents of the art, I will be reminded that it’s not just the kids who can’t be bothered, it’s just about all of us.

Sticks and Stones

Sympathy for the devil's instrument.Lately I’ve noticed a few music podcasts talking about a nice “drone” effect in some new songs. It seemed strange, since I couldn’t recall anyone outside of piping or beekeeping mentioning drones before.

I was reading the excellent autobiography Life by rock legend Keith Richards (thanks, Briana!) recently, and came upon a passage in a part of the book where he discusses the distinctive sound he created with the Rolling Stones. It’s a result of “open” tuning he took from southern blues guitar technique in which only five strings are used and they’re tuned very differently. Examples of the sound can be heard on “Street Fighting Man,” “Brown Sugar,” “Gimme Shelter” and many other Stones’ songs. Keef writes:

The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes – the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It’s tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time. And because it’s electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work. And if you’re working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it. While actually you’re not playing. It’s there. It defies logic. And it’s just lying there saying, “$%&# me.” And it’s a matter of the same old cliché in that respect. It’s what you leave out that counts. Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other. And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position that note is still ringing. And you can even let it hang there. It’s called the drone note. Or at least that’s what I call it. The sitar works on similar lines – sympathetic ringing or what they call sympathetic strings. Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of what you are trying to do. It’s the drone.

So, essentially, the secret to the Rolling Stones’ distinctive sound is what Highland pipers have known forever. The allure of a well-tuned drone sound was borrowed, it seems by blues guitarists and then co-opted by Richards who, judging by what he writes above, pretty much kept it a secret.

There’s little wonder then why hardly any other band sounds like the Rolling Stones and no instrument on earth sounds like the Highland pipe.