Vintage years

Happy New Year to all. Here’s to a prosperous and healthy 2017.

A two-week holiday break provided time to go through stuff in storage in the basement, closets and cupboards. This always leads to finding nostalgic items that tear at the heart as to whether to keep, donate to charity, recycle or simply chuck out.

I came across a few bottles of wine that somehow never got drunk, and perhaps just as well. Among them were a red and a white that were part of a fundraising project for the now-vintage 78th Fraser Highlanders. They would have been from about 1990. They weren’t good to begin with and, 26 years later, they’re probably paint-remover. I ain’t opening them for fear of the evil spirits that might escape.

It got me thinking about pipe bands and raising money. Despite winning the World Championship a few years before, several popular concerts, albums, and a solid flow of prize-money, that edition of the band was perpetually rag-tag and chronically skint. There was never any monetary sponsorship, and trips to Scotland were generally paid out of your pocket, unless you were skint yourself and an important piece of the puzzle, then you could get some assistance.

Goodness knows how someone like me who was at the time living in a basement apartment, waiting tables or, perhaps by then, making $17,000/year as an assistant editor at a small publishing company was able to afford it, but I never asked for a subsidy.

It’s probably much the same today with most bands, but today it’s possible to sell merchandise and raise money online. Back then bands had to come up with creative ways to make ends meet.

So, 78th Fraser Highlanders “wine” was contrived. I didn’t come up with the concept, but I liked it, since that era of the band was known locally for a piobaireachd-playing faction of the group having little picnics at the Ontario games, eating roasted Cornish hen, aged cheeses and cellared wines. The band wine was a bit of a joke that probably only we got.

As is the case with most fundraisers like this, it’s mostly band members and their families who ever buy the stuff. (That was true, I know, of a later effort to sell – get this – frozen chicken.) I dutifully plunked down money I didn’t have for the plonk that I obviously never drank. Maybe I’ll sell the antique bottles in the Classifieds – with a warning never, ever to ingest, much less dribble over your hands before competing . . . but that’s another story.

A concept that I came up with a little later was “Friends of the Frasers.” The band at the time was loved by many and just as many thought it was a snobby club (see picnics and band-member Iain Symington’s excellent hornpipe “The Piobaireachd Club”), so, for both groups we wanted to try to get them on board, warm things up. Anyone could support and feel part of the band by becoming a Friend of the Frasers for, I think, $20. You’d get a certificate and an enamel pin and the (as far as I know) unfulfilled promise that their name would be listed on a forthcoming album. In essence, a fan club.

We were of course ridiculed by the usual haters, but shortly after I was gratified to see bands around the world starting their own “Friends” program. It’s equivalent today to begging for money on Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platform. I remember the pipe-major being not too pleased when a jealous naysayer – who’s unfortunately still around doing his chronic naysaying and bellyaching – made a sarky comment about the Friends program in print.

(Obviously, the 2017 vintage 78th Fraser Highlanders has absolutely nothing to do with all that, and I have nothing to do with them, apart from admiring the current band and looking forward to hearing their music when I have the opportunity. I am sure that their fundraising is far more sophisticated.)

Just like back then, there are scant few pipe bands with decent financial sponsorship. There are many more of the upper-grade bands today that receive discounted or free gear from bagpipe, reed and drum makers in exchange for the endorsement value. In 1990, discounts or rebates were rare, no matter who you were, mainly because the band instrument markets were near-cornered by makers like Sinclair, McAllister and Premier. I believe the 78th Frasers got free drums from the Australian start-up Legato, and that might have been one of the first of its kind. The group got by like most bands: with grit, passion, and the occasional desperate and maybe cockamamie money-maker.

Wine? Frozen chicken? I’d love to hear about other inventive, if not pathetic, fundraising programs and gimmicks your band has deployed to help make ends meet. Every band has them, so feel free to share with the comment system below.

Until then, cheers!

 

Counter-attack

What in the name of Tom McAllister Sr. has happened to the pipe band attack?

Goodness, at any top-grade competition of any size you’re almost guaranteed to hear at least two bands completely eff up what was once a benchmark of pipe band quality.

Early E’s. Early drones. Mushy intonation. Epic squeals. Roaring basses. False starts. Double- and even triple-dunts. Scrabbling hands searching for holes. And that’s just the piping. I’m no drumming expert, but I can hear the sloppy rolls and wandering tempos between bass and snare lines and pipers.

Why is this happening? In an age when pipe bands are playing more technically challenging material on more reliable instruments than ever, one would think that an excellent attack in Grade 1 and Grade 2 is a given. So what’s changed?

I’ve thought more about it over the four years since writing this Blogpipe post, which took a rather lenient view of the attack. Perhaps it contributed to the laissez-faire attitude towards attacks, but I’m prepared to make other guesses as to the reasons for sloppy openings.

  • Judges don’t care that much. Today’s typical pipe band judge is far more enlightened than he or she was 15 or 20 years ago. Judges now see the big picture. This is good. After all, the attack is a relative microcosm of the performance, and hitting a band hard for one piper’s mistake is probably unduly harsh. However . . . shouldn’t excellent bands be expected to execute an excellent attack? Seems to me that blowing one should be seen as a major error — certainly not a showstopper, but enough to determine an otherwise fairly close decision. A cause is also . . .
  • Easy instant reeds. Top-grade bands with 20-plus pipers no longer need every piper to have a high-impact chanter sound. Instead of that 1985 McAllister composed of two short planks strapped together that take weeks to blow in by large fellows, pipe sections today play reeds that go right away, which can be blown by any player of any age and size. With the easy reeds, just add a bit of adrenaline and early E disaster is sure to strike, especially for . . .
  • Inexperienced players. There is such pressure for bands to have large sections that playing standards and experience are inevitably compromised by all but a very few groups. In at least three-quarters of the world’s Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands there are players who never would have got a game 20 years ago. They’re ushered in to fill the ranks and essentially “core” with the rest. They have less control of their instrument and less experience, and . . . see adrenaline comment above and, importantly . . .
  • Attacks aren’t practiced. Every piper and drummer older than 40 can remember going up and down at the band hall or in the parking lot practicing attacks over and over and over. You knew exactly how to punch an E at full pitch. The pipe-major would stand in front of the pipers and listen like a judge, with the ranks taking turns at the front. If you blew an attack, the whole band would have to do 10 more flawlessly or you couldn’t go home.

A top-tier Grade 1 band at the 2016 UK Championships had no fewer than three pipers clearly, blatantly, visibly, audibly screw-up the attack. The band finished second. In the big picture, they might well have deserved their placing, and might have been first without the blown start, what with their otherwise sublime performance.

Then again, shouldn’t a band of such high calibre be expected to get the attack right? Is such a meltdown really excusable? Doesn’t such a multiplicity of basic mistakes warrant a hard penalty? It’s one thing having a blip in the fifth part of “John Morrison, Assynt House,” but quite another having at least three pipers wreck an attack that should be expectedly good in a Grade 3 contest.

Poor attacks are everywhere, though. In 1985 10-out-of-10 attacks in Grade 1 and Grade 2 were generally the case. An early E could essentially torpedo a band’s hopes of winning. I am glad that we’ve moved past that sort of judging, but it would be great to return general excellence in this impressive technical aspect of a pipe band.

Tom McAllister Sr. is credited with developing the two-threes-and-an-E pipe band attack from what military brass bands would do. Before his time in the 1930s and ’40s, pipe bands sort of eventually kinda-sorta got the tune going. With each passing year now pipe bands seem to be going back to those haphazard roots.

Are judges turning a deaf ear to crappy attacks?

 

The vaulting

The late, great Prince we know kept a “vault” of thousands of his unreleased songs that he recorded over the last 35 years. Music industry vultures are already circling overhead, eager to get their talons into this musical meat while it’s still warm.

There’s a reason why they’re in a vault: Prince didn’t think they were worth releasing to the public. He had the good sense to put out only what he thought was his best work, since that’s what he would be known for, even after death.

I would think the songs in the vault were preserved like a personal scrapbook, or to revisit and glean ideas or improve to make them ready for public consumption. Prince was a man who cared more about his integrity and reputation, and would never sacrifice his definition of scruples for an extra buck. He even changed his name to a symbol, foregoing tens of millions of dollars in sales at the height of his career, just to make a principled statement to the record label and publisher that he believed cheated him.

Our best pipe music composers I think are just as discerning. When it comes to our music creators, we sometimes mistake “prolific” with “successful.” While Donald MacLeod published a boat-load of great compositions and arrangements, my sense is that he either chucked out or put into his own “vault” many times more tunes that he personally thought were inferior. I think the same would be true of G.S. McLennan, Roderick Campbell, Willie Lawrie, John MacColl and Gordon Duncan, to name a few long-gone writers.

It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.

I’m sure that most of our best living composers adhere to this. In many ways, they are better editors than composers, at least when it comes to the ratio of tunes they think are worthy of public hearing to those that aren’t. No one needs to know just how many crappy tunes they write to get a few gems. If Donald MacLeod and G.S. are renowned today for consistent brilliance, and the truth was that they wrote 10 duds for every good one, let’s not spoil things. That’s the way they wanted it. Rifling their “vaults” for unpublished manuscripts would be a disservice to their reputation and legacy. I like the perception that these guys never wrote a bad tune.

That said, I know of at least one living composer who has maybe five tunes that almost everyone in the world plays, and he claims that he has composed and finished only about 10 tunes total in his life. His “vault” numbers five tunes and his ratio of good-to-bad is one-to-one. That’s incredible discipline and a case study in meticulous judiciousness.

I would think the late Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald might have been of a similar ilk. He published few of his compositions but he had some serious hits: “Kalabakan,” “Lt.-Col. D.J.S. Murray,” “Turf Lodge,” “Alan MacPherson, Moss Park” . . . his ratio of good-to-bad must have been superb.

On the other hand, we all have seen since the advent of self-publishing the penchant by some composers to put out seemingly anything and everything – the proverbial throwing against the wall to see what sticks. They might be “prolific,” but no one really plays their music except perhaps the band they happen to play with, so how good are they as composers or editors?

I salute Prince for keeping things in reserve. Discretion and valour, as they say. He was as good an editor as he was a writer, and the two qualities need to go hand-in-hand if you want to leave your name and reputation etched in stone – even if it’s just a symbol.