Solitary confinement

I’ve said before that Highland piping is often a solitary pursuit that attracts introverts. The lone piper. Solo competition. Hours of isolated practice at home. Maybe nowhere in our art is independence more evident than in our music creation.

An estimate based on a lifetime of observation is that 99% of pipe music is written by a lone composer. Music creation in our world is thriving, driven by an ever-present thirst for the new by competition pipe bands. A band with a strong composer in its ranks has a great advantage.

I work in the songwriting, composing and music publishing side of the music industry. Our piping and drumming world is a model of creativity. But it’s also a relative outlier in that our composers don’t truly collaborate with each other to make tunes together.

Songwriters (also usually introverts), on the other hand, actively seek out new ideas from their peers. They attend song camps with other writers. They trade notes, as it were, and concepts for new music. Their publishers will put together writers from disparate genres and styles to see what happens. They chip away at their stuff, adding a word here, a key change there. They experiment with different idioms. They are almost always totally open to working together to create a better or more widely appealing work.

The exceptions to pipe music composers writing in solitude are generally the instances of a composer tacking on a few parts to an existing tune. Donald MacLeod did it a lot with traditional pieces, to the point where we attribute “The Wee Man from Skye,” for example, to him as the sole composer, when in fact it’s his arrangement. Piping schools will sometimes have an entire class compose a tune, coming up with phrases and changes together. Mainly because these pieces are written by relatively inexperienced pipers, they’re generally not great (read: terrible) compositions, but well intentioned and educational though they might be.

I was once in a band where, like most bands, we’d sit around the table with practice chanters in the winter and trade ideas on music possibilities for the next season. There were several composers in the band. They’d pitch new compositions, and the rest of the pipe corps would suggest a note change here, a timing improvement there, or even a collective Ugh! on first-listen of some or other hopeless piece. The group as a whole was a good editing machine. It was collaborative and, in many instances, it was a co-writing process. The tune got better when rattled around the ears of others.

Tunes that go through an editing process are almost invariably better. I don’t know what G.S. McLennan’s writing process was, but I would guess that he would, as I understand Donald MacLeod did, bounce tunes off of carefully chosen trusted pipers for their opinions and suggestions and then make many amendments and revisions before declaring a piece “final.” And no piece of music is ever final, anyway.

Composers who collaborate will often realize that they’re better off trashing a tune altogether. On their own, they might not twig that it’s too close to another piece designed around our nine notes, or that the new tune is unplayable or, um, unappealing.

Most composers do seek advice and suggestions about their draft work, but rarely if ever would they give credit to another piper as a co-writer, whereas in songwriting and composing in other genres it wouldn’t only be expected, it would be legally prudent. There’s a saying in the songwriting industry: “Change a word, get a third.”

How many pipe music composers sit down with one or more other composers to create a tune from scratch? Are there bands out there where the pipers sit around that winter table and collectively create a tune needed for the new medley? Or do all bands expect “the composer” in the band to come up with something great on his or her own?

I know that most of us are introverts who, perhaps paradoxically, like being in a spotlight, letting our music speak for us. But when it comes to new compositions, taking the cue from successful songwriters and seeking real collaboration could well pay better dividends for the art.

 

Quelle reprise

The now double-homage to the anniversary of the 78th Fraser Highlanders “Live In Ireland” concert in Ballymena in 1987 is much deserved and, evidently, attractive to many people who wanted to live or relive the event.

That music was made famous 30 years ago. Three decades have passed. In normal life, that’s a long time. In pipe band music life, apparently, that was yesterday.

Since then, what has changed musically? The popularity of the pipe band “suite” as a concept appears to have waned, since “Journey To Skye” seemed to initiate interest in such a concept. Today’s bands are of course tonally and technically better than ever. But musically? There’s not a whole lot truly new going on in terms of structures and time signatures or taking our music in a different direction.

Considering that mainstream music since 1987 has seen the rise and fall of Post-Punk, Grunge, Alt-Country, K-Pop, Hip-Hop, Acid Jazz and whatever else, our musical genre is relatively stagnant. To be sure, this is not necessarily a bad thing for those who like tradition and repetition.

Certainly pipe bands have done some neat things in bits and pieces. But when I try to think of a similar one-time musical event to the 1987 concert that might be as deservedly replicated on stage 10, 20 or 30 years later, I’m at a loss.

Again, I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. I’m just saying.

The closest thing might be the Victoria Police’s “Masterblasters” concert. Or maybe Vale of Atholl’s “Live ‘n Well” show. But these, as good as they were, made nowhere near the mark of the 78th Frasers’ event, and probably would not attract the kinds of interest and paying customers we’ve seen in the last year with the Frasers Redux. (Maybe kids go around loving FMM’s “RE:CHARGED” or Inveraray & District’s “Ascension” concert recordings; I’m not sure.)

And consider, too, that much of the material that was considered so groundbreaking in 1987 was actually taken from non-pipe band sources. Alan Stivell, Horselips, Don Thompson. There were adaptations and derivations galore. So, a case can be made that, even in 1987, pipe bands weren’t innovating on their own, but innovating by adapting successful ideas from other musical domains – not quite on the poppy level of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, but still derived and adapted. It’s still innovation, but, like just about all new art, it’s not totally original.

In those pre-Internet analog days, pipe bands doing such things were a novelty, certainly in the UK. The 78th Frasers had by 1987 been playing most of that stuff for years, some carrying over from the City of Toronto Pipe Band in the 1970s. But listeners further afield than Ontario hadn’t heard it in any big way, and certainly not in a pipe band concert.

(Let’s not speak of the of the odd Scottish pipe-major who came to Ontario to judge, cassette recorder attached to his belt, returned to Scotland and introduced new musical ideas to his band, allegedly not giving them due credit. But I digress . . .)

Even the same 78th Fraser Highlanders couldn’t quite tune in to a similar zeitgeist with their own following concerts, these built from material they had actually invented almost entirely from scratch. Items like “The Megantic Outlaw” and “The Immigrants’ Suite” were received well, but I doubt many people still have those recordings on repeat, at least to the degree of “Live In Ireland.” Then again, I have never heard any other pipe band play “Journey To Skye.”

The Toronto Police’s adventurous avant-garde medleys of the aughts were interesting and courageous, but not terribly well received by judges or the pipe band world at large. No one that I know of has played them since or even tried anything as adventurous, mainly because they were proven to be generally and admittedly detrimental to winning. The relatively outrageous music distinguished the band for being, well, courageous, and attracted personnel to a band that wanted to do musical things differently. In that sense, the music met an important objective, especially considering the group at the time was on the brink of collapse due to small numbers.

Is something as impactful as “Live In Ireland” even possible today? The groundbreaking, fearless attitude of it seems to have vanished, as bands and businesses have so much money wrapped up in competition that they dare not try to over-accelerate glacial musical change. Every time they do, some dickhead judge puts them in their place, which, come to think of it, I think was one the big reasons that the 78th Fraser Highlanders lost its musical fearlessness by the 1990s.

Three decades later, is there only one concert and one recording that can be held up as musically door-opening, that actually took hold of people in a major way?

In truth, that musical door is still open only a crack.

 

Browbeating retreat

Why are you out to get us? You seem to have it in for me. Why are you so unfair? You’re biased!

Watching the new US President going at the American intelligence agencies, the media and pretty much anyone or anything that he doesn’t agree with reminded me of how a few rare pipers, drummers and bands, almost always in the upper grades, can sometimes treat judges.

At least one of the President’s objectives in accusing people and things of being “unfair” or “biased” is clear: he wants them to doubt themselves and, he hopes, overcompensate the next time by giving him a more favourable decision or story.

Accusing journalists of under-reporting terrorism is designed to stoke fear by having media go out, research what they’ve reported, and publish a long list of terrorism coverage, thus achieving the objective of highlighting a long list of big and small terrorist acts, scaring the bejeezuz out of people. Mission accomplished.

As a piping and pipe band judge I have been accused a few times over the last 15-odd years of judging by paranoid bands (and the rare soloist) of being somehow biased against them. I can remember a few frustrated competitors – almost always competing in the top grades – casually or even confrontationally accusing me of not treating his/her band fairly. “Why are you out to get us?” “Why are you so unfair?” “You’re biased!” “Why don’t you like us?” “What do we have to do to get a prize off of you?”

After the initial, WTF moment passes, I ask them to provide examples. Generally, they won’t or can’t. When they do point to a performance in which they think they were hard done, I ask them to refer to the scoresheet as an account of my decisions. It might also be a simple response: “Next time, play better than the others.” When I ask if they listened to the whole contest, invariably the answer is no.

To be sure, there are a few genuinely corrupt judges in the piping and drumming world, but, as I’ve said many times, I don’t care who wins or gets a prize as long as it’s fair and deserved. I’ve never asked to judge anything and never will.

But a few veteran pipers and drummers will take this passive-aggressive or confrontational strategy with an objective to have you doubt yourself or want to make amends, so that next time you might bum them up a bit to get them off your back and prove that you’re not against them. It’s a psychological game. Some perhaps sociopathic competitors have even made a career out of it. Why? It tends to get results with weak judges who, in actuality, doubt their ability to get the result right and account for it convincingly with credibility.

And then there are judges whose top priority is maintaining friendships through judging. Getting the result correct is secondary. They’ll throw an undeserving player or band a prize just to keep up appearances, keep friendships, get judging gigs. I guarantee that this happens. It drove me crazy as a competitor and it drives me crazy as a judge. The judge overcompensates and next time out put that whinging competitor up a few places so that they remain friends while at the same time shutting their yap for a season.

The browbeating competitor tries to suss out the less-confident or more pliable judges, and will be relentless in their accusatory lobbying. Why? Because it apparently works in our little world where some judges are less afraid of losing respect than “friends.”

Obviously there is little comparison between the level of bullying and intimidation that goes on in federal politics and our little piping and drumming world. The point is that, sadly, browbeating can get results. It’s up to the objective and confident judges among us to respond to these sorts of tactics with confidence and integrity, continuing to do the right thing going forward.