Take me to church

There are few competing pipers and drummers who would list “Highland Cathedral” as their favourite tune. In fact, many of us dislike it, perhaps because so  many non-pipers/drummers love it. But we will play it exactly for that reason.

The piece was written in 1982 by German piper Michael Korb in collaboration with music producer and arranger Ulrich Roever. Unlike almost every piece of bagpipe music, “Highland Cathedral” was created with the key objective of commercial success. They looked past the parochial pipe music audience, apparently recognizing a way to go beyond the “Amazing Grace” Highland games cliché. Crucially, they composed not for a pipe band competition medley or a competition pipe band concert, but for the paying public.

I’d say that Korb and Roever have been extremely successful. For 35 years now “Highland Cathedral” has been played at weddings, on best-selling albums and, most importantly, at big tattoos around the world. A recent example was the 2016 Virginia Tattoo in Norfolk, where a full orchestration of “Highland Cathedral” was performed at each show, twice a day, to a sold-out arena of about 15,000 people who paid about $50 for a ticket.

In case you’re still thinking that there is “nae money” in bagpipe music, consider that “Highland Cathedral” is registered with various royalties collections organizations around the world, and is looked after and promoted by a major music publishing company. From the performances of their work at Norfolk alone, the composers of “Highland Cathedral” should have earned well-deserved royalties of five-figures. (If you happened to have a tune played at the same tattoo, be sure to register with a performing rights organization so that they can go get the money that you have rightfully earned.)

I say that they earned the royalties because they recognized in 1982 an opportunity to create a piece of music for a market that was under-served. The composers deserve to receive their fair share in return for making people happy with their music. To pipers, “Highland Cathedral” is no “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran,” but, to the public, “Mrs. MacPherson” is just another bagpipe song that to their ear sounds the same as that other zippy jiggy reel thingmee.

It’s amazing and a little bit sad that for 35 years we pipers and drummers haven’t been able to improve on “Highland Cathedral.” We might snobbily groan at the piece, but what have we done to reach out and connect with a non-piping audience? Are we still naïvely expecting the world to wake up and realize the greatness of “Mrs. MacPherson”?

Korb (Roever died a few years ago) might be quietly wondering why the treacle-pop-pipe-tune hasn’t been bettered, or at least met with some other original musical competition at tattoos and weddings.

So, here’s my idea: let’s improve on “Highland Cathedral.” Someone with serious piping chops, with a gift for recognizing a simple, easy melody, and who still has the creativity gene that generally declines after age 30, should collaborate with a current music producer and arranger to create a piece that everyone – pipers, drummers and non-playing public – can enjoy repeatedly playing and hearing.

It can’t be an esoteric jazzy work like “Journey to Skye,” or a hand-mangling blur like “Hellbound Train,” or derivative arrangement of Pachelbel’s “Canon.” No, what’s needed is a simple, original air, with a beat, that lasts no more than four minutes, respectful to the great music of the Highland pipe, with a name that conjures up a nice, Highland image, like “My Scottish Hearth and Home,” or “Tartan Mist,” or “Song for Auld Scotia” – something warm and evocative anyway. Make it in a happy, major key, and orchestrate the poignant piece with someone who knows what he/she is doing in multiple ways for various ensembles to accompany the pipes and drums: brass band, orchestra, rock band, Celtic folk, and so forth.

And after that, find and sign with a serious music publisher (one expert in the non-piping world) that will work to get the music out there at shows, tattoos, commercials, movies, TV shows . . . A good music publisher knows how to do this, and will work hard because they stand to make at least 30% of the royalties from the shared success.

If you do it right, you will have created a piece better for piping and drumming than “Highland Cathedral,” which the non-playing public will grow to love, and which, as a bonus, will earn you a lot of money.

In return for this great idea, I’d be happy with a 5% split of the royalties. Let me know how you get on.


One sick beat

Start with the beat. Well, at least that’s pretty much the way pop music-making goes these days. Skrillex or Max Martin or 40 or other producers work with a “beatmaker” to come up with a – ahem – sick groove. From that beat they layer in chords and instruments and, if there are any, vocals. Lyrics are generally the last ingredient and are often based on consonant mono-syllabic words that don’t make a statement so much as complement – you might have guessed – the beat.

That Drake song that hit #1 probably started with a beat by Noah “40” Shebib.

“Topliners” are the folks who take the beat and add in the melody. The good ones can make lots of money, too, since there’s no “song” without them. But they are generally less important than the beat-makers. Topliners are often aspiring writers of fully-formed songs who are looking to break into the music industry.

Great beatmakers are highly sought-out and they can command major money and receive significant royalties for their work. You might hate the idea of reverse-engineered music, but consider this: some pipe music composers have been doing largely the same thing at least since the 1990s.

I never thought I’d say these words, but 25 years ago Robert Mathieson was our Skrillex. The grooves that Mathieson derived from some of his music started with a beat created with Jim Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick and Mathieson would apparently come up with a rhythmical feel first, and Mathieson would then wrap a melody around it, often syncopating a shuck-and-jive opener or finisher.

Going back a little further, Tom Anderson apparently got the inspiration for his now-classic hornpipe “The Train Journey North” while riding the rails back to Belfast from a practice with the Grade 1 St. Patrick’s Donaghmore Pipe Band of Dublin. Go back another 50 years and you get G.S. McLennan getting inspiration for “The Little Cascade” – perhaps the greatest pipe tune ever composed – from the rhythm of a dripping faucet.

These anecdotes might well be apocryphal, but there’s something to the idea of reverse engineering a tune.

Pop songs don’t mess around: they are intended to be loved immediately, not after a dozen listens, which is often a major failing of tunes that a judge hears for the first time and they just don’t resonate. I don’t care if pipe band protectionists are aghast at the thought. If you want a great groove to draw people into that opener in your medley instantly with no messing about, you might want to start with a sick beat.

McLennan, Anderson and Mathieson: the Max Martin, 40 and Skrillex of their day.


Facebook: made for us

The long-time popularity of social media among pipers and drummers is no coincidence. Social networking has been labeled antisocial for many years, as the world bemoans the fact that no one actually talks to each other anymore, choosing instead to accept as many “friends” as possible on Facebook.

I wish there were stats for this, but my hunch is that the piping and drumming community outpaced other groups in Facebook uptake in the early days of the social platform. And is it any wonder? We pipers and drummers are, by and large, a bunch of introverts attracted to the solo spotlight, so the narcissistic nature of Facebook is a perfect stage for our “look at me, me, me, me” mentality.

Sitting on my amateur psychologist’s couch, I think that most of us are attracted to the whole kilt-wearing, noise-making, parade-walking, centre-of-attention instrument as a convenient means to step into the spotlight without having to say a word. We let the spectacle do the talking. When we’re at piping and drumming social events, we generally thirst for a bit of Dutch Courage to allow us to intermingle, taking the edge off of actual encounters with – yikes! – other humans.

As with everything, there are exceptions. There are the odd extroverts in piping and drumming. They stand well apart from the near-silent majority. They do their strange thing and are generally celebrated freaks in our little self-centred community. The rest of us would much rather be in the basement, hammering away at the practice chanter or drum pad, standing before a mirror gazing longingly at our own image without the bother of others. Our best performances invariably are shared only with an audience of one, and perhaps the family pet.

I’ve said before that solo piping and drumming is a selfish conceit. We might kid ourselves that others actually care, but in truth we compete solo for strictly personal reasons, each of which we resolve on our own terms. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. My diagnosis: it is what it is. If it makes you happy; do it.

And Facebook provides the same release. Look at me! Listen to my doublings! What a wonderfully colourful kilt I’m wearing! Here I am guzzling a pint! I won! I’m in a parade! I have a thousand “friends”!

Facebook is the world’s biggest massed band. We’re friends with everyone and almost no one. Our common bond is our music. Our keyboard becomes a surrogate practice chanter or pad.