Repetition, repetition

RepeatSignPipe bands and solo pipers are generally reluctant to introduce unfamiliar tunes into their competition repertoire. It’s usually regarded as an unnecessary risk to unveil a medley of all, or even half, newly minted, previously unheard content. When it comes to MSRs, those of us who have been around a few years have heard “The Clan MacRae Society,” “Blair Drummond” and “Mrs. MacPherson” ten-thousand times.

But why is this? I repeat: Why is this?

I read an interesting article last spring on the National Public Radio Shots blog about repetition and familiarity in music. “Not only does every known human culture make music, but also, every known human culture makes music [in which] repetition is a defining element,” the piece said.

Essentially, the premise is that repetition in music works because of what’s known as the mere exposure effect. People are generally tense when it comes to the unfamiliar. Humans through millions of years of self-preservation are naturally suspicious and wary of change. Only after a while, when we get to know someone or something through repetition and familiarity, we tend to warm up to them.

It’s a fascinating little piece that produced a eureka moment for me and pipe music. Pipe music is similar to other music. The rock song that we didn’t much like the first time gets better and better with repeated listens. More frequently the instant likeability of a new song is due to that song being a lot like a familiar song – derivative, even. (I was happy to remember that I alluded to that in a review of a St. Thomas Episcopal School Pipe Band CD almost 15 years ago.) Record labels often encourage their artists to go after a familiar and popular sound. Why? It’s more likely to be liked.

We know, too, that pipe music derived from Gaelic song, which some feel is in part derived from birdsong. It’s music that repeats itself, through a communal chant while waulking cloth, or a curlew repeating its song to attract a mate, or “Cameronian Rant” riffing on the same theme for eight or 20 parts, or the hypnotic effect of a piobaireachd like “The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy.”

Bands that have competed with a wholly new set of tunes can only hope that the judges will do the unnatural thing and react positively. Like it or not, it’s instinctive to reject altogether unfamiliar music, no matter how well it’s performed. We can admire the artistic effort, but, if we don’t like the music, pretty much no amount of tuning, unison and tone will overcome that natural rejection.

And that is why pipe bands and solo pipers stay with the familiar. They want to succeed, and to succeed, the music – on the whole – must be liked. And to be liked, it bears repeating.

And that is why substantial change in styles of pipe music takes generations to take hold. At best, a band that values winning (and what’s the point of competing if you don’t want to win?) might throw in a few original, but certainly derivative, tunes in a medley, or make a jig out of a well-kent strathspey’s melody-line.

Certainly and, perhaps, sadly, ScottishPower intertwining “A Flame of Wrath” in a medley tempted some fate. It’s a familiar piece to any solo piper, but, the trouble is, there are very few serious competitive solo pipers who are RSPBA adjudicators. Judging from the results, I think many adjudicators must have been dumb-struck because, to them, it was for all purposes unfamiliar and they reacted naturally. If the band stays with it in 2015, the overall reaction to the now familiar music will likely be friendlier. They should warm up to it.

The rare instances of pipe bands that competed with non-derivative, completely original, “avant-garde” selections (78th Fraser Highlanders “Megantic Outlaw” 1991; Toronto Police medleys 2008-2013) might have been noble and ingenious efforts to push the art ahead quickly and dramatically on the competition field, but accepted that the art was more important than the winning. There are exceedingly few competitors who will voluntarily reduce their chances of competition success to make a musical point.

And so our art, because it is so wrapped up in competition, progresses at a snail’s pace. Each new generation of pipers discovers “Blair Drummond” or “Itchy Fingers” and enjoys the first few thousands plays at least. The few who stay with competition for three of four decades find that, at an advanced age, it’s very unlikely that musical change can be effected when new generations of wide-eared young pipers and drummers keep coming in, marveling at every last over-played note of “Cameronian Rant.”

We relish the familiar. Repetition gains familiarity, which in turn gains warmth and acceptance, and if familiarity breeds contempt, by that time, it’s too late to effect serious change.

Sadly, sadly, it is forever, forever so-so.

Outlandish

OutlandishTo the general public, the sound of “the pipes” is increasingly becoming the sound of the uilleann pipes.

Thanks to the film and TV industry’s ever-rising preference on original scores for Ireland’s bagpipe as the sound of anything Scottish, the “great” Highland bagpipe is second-fiddle, as it were.

I’ve been watching the series Outlander recently, with all its costume changes, high cheekbones, and heaving bosoms. At first I was pleased to hear the Highland pipe in the spine-tingling opening stinger, deftly integrated with the Burn’s lyric to the “Skye Boat Song” melody. “Finally!” I thought. “The Highland pipes will be used throughout this series that celebrates Highland stuff.”

What a disappointment.

The uilleann pipes, lovely as they might be, are used throughout the series. There is hardly a Highland pipe to be heard or seen in the actual episodes. When they chase across the Scottish hills, it’s to the thrumming register of the bellows-blown Irish pipes. When the evil redcoat is dispatched, it’s to the soft tones of Ireland’s national bagpipe.

This has been going on for decades. Braveheart and Titanic were classic examples of uilleann pipes used as “Scottish” music. TV commercials for golf clubs depict Scottish folk and Irish pipes. The accurate use of the Highland pipe in Scotland themes is increasingly rare.

The traditional reason that the fickle Highland pipe chanter-scale can’t be integrated with other instruments no longer holds water. Today there are a multitude of solutions, from specially-pitched chanters, to synthesizer accompaniment, to post-production tweaking. If Miley Cyrus’s voice can be auto-tuned, surely the Highland pipe can be twerked . . . I mean, tweaked to accommodate any instrument, and vice versa.

Film and TV productions go to great lengths to be historically accurate. They painstakingly research the clothes and the speech of the period depicted. Yet, when it comes to the music, they conveniently go for the completely unauthentic sound.

Using uilleann pipes in a movie about Scotland is like a Gestapo officer in a World War II drama talking Ebonics.

It’s to the point where I am often asked by non-pipers about that “other Scottish bagpipe . . . the one that sits on the piper’s lap.” They mean the uilleann pipes, because they have seen and heard it so often in Scottish-themed shows.

There are exceptions, and I’m sure you will point out that Lorne MacDougall did the work on the Highland pipe in Brave. The exceptions are getting rarer.

But in the big scheme of things what can be done? Should Highland pipers be like Scotland itself, and resign ourselves to domination by another country’s persuasive charms? Perhaps the use of uilleann pipes in Outlander is subtle irony for the show itself: resistance is admirable, but, ultimately, futile.

I don’t know. How can we get the Scottish Highland bagpipe back into soundtracks and theme-songs for Scottish-themed programs and films?

Keeping score

Scoresheets or crit-sheets have never been a regular thing at UK solo piping competitions. I remember arriving at Montrose Games in 1983, an awestruck 19-year-old from St. Louis playing at the “senior” solo competition on a brilliant, sunny day at the links.

My bass drone stopped while tuning for the Strathspey & Reel (cane, sheep, wet, overplayed), so I slunk off, too frightened to take it out and flick it in front of Old Jimmy MacGregor, who might have been too, um, under the weather to notice. Never mind. I thought that I played pretty well in the March, and keenly waited around for the result.

Nothing for naïve me. But I remember being surprised that, not only was there no ranking order of finish past third, there weren’t even scoresheets. I was told that such things weren’t done in Scotland. I eventually got used to it, but always had a sense of miff as to what I did right or wrong, or why I was in or, more often than not, not in the prizes.

Thirty-one years later and, but for a few experiments with CPA B- and C-Grade events, there is no system of feedback for solo competitors in the UK.

That is truly ridiculous.

As with pipe bands, every solo competitor deserves to know how an adjudicator accounted for his or her decision. They don’t need or even want a “lesson,” or to be given helpful hints for the next time, as I have heard scoresheets reasoned away by many UK judges. Instead, competitors should at least come away from an event knowing that each judge’s decision was more than arbitrary.

The lack of feedback and accountability in the UK has at times propped up truly shallow, and even nonexistent, piping pedigrees from not a few adjudicators over the last century who, if they had to account for their decisions by providing constructive and informed criticism, would have been exposed as the frauds they were. The aristocratic “society” types who didn’t or wouldn’t know a phrase from a pheasant could simply draw up a prize list and go home.

Today, even, the best a competing solo piper in the UK can do is ask and hope for feedback from the judges. I once did that after I got nothing for what I fancied was a really good tune at the Northern Meeting. Days after the event I emailed one of the judges (who was someone who had never competed himself), and he responded with comments about how my taorluaths from D weren’t good. That might well have been the case – with another piper. The tune I actually played had no taorluaths from D.

In every other piping jurisdiction, not only are scoresheets mandatory, but judges only become judges after amassing a long history of competition success, learning feedback techniques, and proving that they can produce accurate and constructive scoresheets. It works. And if a judge were to write on a scoresheet criticisms about technique that didn’t even exist in the performance, he or she would be held to account.

Over the next few weeks many of the world’s greatest solo pipers will converge on Oban and Inverness. Some will come away with a prize or two. Most will get nothing. But the majority of those competing will receive no accounting for the result from the adjudicators.

The old world of piping should join the new world order, where formal feedback and accountability aren’t just nice to have, they’re essential aspects of a well-run and fair competition.

And not only do they account for judge’s decisions, scoresheets weed out the judging imposters.