The Alt Pibroch Club – Reflections

The editors of the suite of the Alt Pibroch Club thought it may be of interest to our Club Members to listen in on a conversation wherein we discuss the past, present and future of our project.

BB – Thus far, our suite of sites is the product of your ideas, my ideas and the synergy between us – the debates and discussions that have ensued.  But I think now, it would be fair to say, a consultation exercise is appropriate.  It would be great to get people reviewing what we’ve done so far, telling us what they’d like to see next.

JDH – Yes.  This comes at a moment when the first phases of our Musical Materials and Bibliography sites have been completed.  Those are big milestones for us, because we now have a definitive bibliography of all British and Irish pipe music on the one hand, and a definitive and complete collection of pre-1850 pibroch notations on the other – along with all of the other wealth of detail we provide, including Gaelic pronunciation by Allan MacDonald, Gaelic Titles and Notes by Roderick Cannon, links to Tobar an Dualchais recordings, and links to William Donaldson’s Set Tunes series.

This makes our suite of sites unique in the piping world.  And it forces us to ask the question, “What do we do now?”  We have a solid foundation upon which to build something.

So, a consultation with the community – that’s something I’m planning on doing in the months ahead – would be valuable.

Right now, however: what are YOUR thoughts?  Can we do some “blue sky” thinking together?

As you have mentioned to me in our discussions, a 100-year plan needs to be developed in order to keep this sustained and alive, and to bring the community together which has otherwise been so disparate, dispersed, isolated.

BB – I think that’s the most important thing for me: the longevity.  Because websites have a bad reputation for not being maintained or disappearing.  Something changes, what used to work no longer works (normally because of an upgrade) and the institution hosting it no longer has the resources or enthusiasm to fix the problem. Even highly reputable, large, national institutions hosting project websites don’t provide long-term guarantees. Sites fold. They become inaccessible.

It’s a nightmare story at the moment with (the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music Manuscripts). Lovely, high-resolution images and superb cataloguing – a project that has had hundreds of thousands of pounds invested in it over the years. The site is currently not working due to the restructuring of an institution to save costs. It is no good entrusting specialist sites to organisations for whom the subject matter might cease to be relevant in 5 years’ time.

So, aware of that, for me this is the number one priority. Securing our future. What happens to this suite of sites when our time is up?

Without a 100-year plan, we can’t go to the National Records of Scotland or the Edinburgh University Library, offering them a permanent electronic repository as an alternative to people handling and potentially damaging these irreplaceable physical documents, significant not just to Scotland but to the world.  My dream is for people to be able to see them online, not at 150 dpi, lossy, black and white, but in beautiful full colour resolution, where you feel as though you could almost touch it. For some people it just looks nice, but for others they can zoom in and really examine it closely, “Did he really put 5 tails here or 4?”

JDH – From my background (religious studies, biblical history), one of the most revolutionary changes in research occurred when the Dead Sea Scrolls, that had been locked away in a museum curated by only 7 researchers and their assistants, were digitized and made available to the world.  No longer were they contained in an inaccessible museum far away from everybody, but they were available to scholars throughout the world.

That’s what we want to be able to achieve here, not just for scholars, but more importantly for musicians.

What we want to do is make these manuscripts available in a way where there is no effective difference from the hardcopy originals, where you would get no more information by taking the trip to see them.

We want you to enjoy these beautiful, full-color manuscripts, stick with them. They are accessible to you and everyone else.  And that accessibility will create an environment for revolutionary research and understanding of these tunes.

And, hopefully, that feeds a vitality in performance and musicality. That is the important thing to sustain: the flow of nourishment to musicians.

BB – Yes! It has been lovely and effective for it to be just the two of us working together to reach this stage. However, I think it is important for us to emphasize that what we have done is already a Phase Two.  We have built directly on what William Donaldson, Steve Scaife, Jim McGillivray, Roderick Cannon, Ross Anderson, John Dow, Jack Taylor and Rab Wallace did – in the Musical Materials site – and the Bibliography is built on what Alan Speedy and Geoff Hore did. They got the ball rolling. They got the bulk of the source material scanned and online, without delay. And most of the PDFs we host come from their sites. We have renamed the PDFs, filled gaps, fixed mistakes, and created permanent links in order to make it all much more accessible and frustration-free – improving the flow. The Musical Materials and Bibliography sites now represent the cutting edge; you no longer need access to a scholar’s filing cabinet.

It is important to remember that this is to stimulate and encourage things that we don’t currently imagine – types of research that we cannot conceive. It is also an insurance policy against disaster, thinking of the current destruction of ancient monuments in Syria by Islamic State, and the losses of archaeological treasures from Berlin in the 1940s from British and US bombing.

I think we should be very explicit about what we do.  And if I can try to encapsulate that, it is: making the work that has already been done more widely available.

Roderick Cannon and his notes on the Gaelic titles: all those notes, they were already out there. It was available!  But it wasn’t having an impact. People couldn’t find it.  If they were looking at a tune, it wasn’t linked up. There was no way they would stumble across it.

So, what we’ve done is linked up these elements of research. Notes on the Gaelic Titles, PDFs of facsimiles, Frans Buisman’s concordance work, William Donaldson’s concordance, my own concordance, Roderick Cannon’s concordance – these were all on different platforms, different software. They disagreed with one another. And what we’ve done is go through and shake it up and come out with something that hopefully has fewer errors as a result of being thoroughly interlinked. Mistakes and inconstancies can be spotted and corrected more quickly and easily.

And now, having done that, the most exciting thing to do next, I believe, is to move into the stories of the tunes, so that people playing them can get excited by that connection with history and that connection with people’s imagination generations ago. You know, it is not just about “history” – there has always been vivid, creative imagination.

JDH – To my mind, more succinctly, I would say that what we’ve done is turn data into information.  We’ve taken the widely scattered, disparately available stuff that was out there and brought it together in a way that allows people to let themselves be informed by it.

The next stage becomes not just the history of it, the primary source material, but a broader interpretive context that includes imagination, so that this data becomes more and more information for a particular end.

And this is what is important to me: we are doing this history to re-invigorate our performance.

This isn’t just a suite of sites for historians and scholars and specialists, but a place where I hope a community can find a home, take this information and move into the music.

BB – I think it is very special to be in a niche field. In some ways, every musical tradition is a niche or is exotic.  It just depends where in global culture you were born and what you grew up with. What we are dealing with here is for most people an exotic tradition.

Now, a couple of nights ago I had the great pleasure of attending a seminar with Ben Bagby, who is the leading bard accompanying himself on lyre, singing in the original language (be it Anglo-Saxon epics or Icelandic epics of the 13th century).  And he was working on material with sorts of problems that were similar to ours.

I was fascinated by the approach he had developed in collaboration with Sam Barrett, and will give one little detail that is relevant here to the idea of invigorating pibroch. What they were doing was based on notational evidence from the 9th, 10th, 11th centuries, responding to all the variants. He had reached the conclusion and was embracing the idea that if you go in with too fixed a model, you hit problems.  So your model needs to be flexible when you approach music with a strong oral tradition.

Because notation is a problem.  Notation is what gives us the sense of fixity.

What they talked about was developing a set of competencies. One suggested competency was that round about the end of the 3rd line of a quatrain, beginning of the 4th, was an appropriate place to introduce a melodic variant – something different. This is based on studying variants of the same melody and the practical question that faces you when you perform an epic song – maybe an hour in duration – but only the first verse is set to music. Do you sing every verse to the same tune?

I found this fascinating because that is exactly where in the pibroch urlar you are most likely to get a departure from the standard pattern.  That is where typically a little change is made.

So, bringing things to life is what I believe in. And in pibroch, notations have transformed our conception of what the music is.

I think we’ve inherited something very beautiful and something precious.  What we are doing in the Alt Pibroch Club is broadening people’s conceptions, making the music attractive to a wider audience, a wider number of high capacity young musicians.

Because playing precisely what’s been played by someone else actually discourages the growth of the tradition. Finding a way in which pibroch can re-emphasize personal, individual creativity – celebrating a stronger connection with our ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (who often disagree!) – this to me is the crux of what we are doing. Fostering plurality.

JDH – I completely agree. 

One of the most transformative consequences of the publication of these manuscripts is the shift of responsibility it makes upon the performer.  

The multiple differences that we see from the various sources (that historically had been standardized and canonized into a particular notational style) open up possibilities to you as a performer.  By making this readily available you realize how broad the idiom was.  As a performer, you are now in the ethical position of standing up for your own interpretive choices and not just relying upon an inherited tradition.  Because you realize this tradition you’ve been given from your teacher was only a single interpretive choice available to you.  When you go back to the old manuscripts, you see there are a lot of choices that could have been and can be made, and it’s up to you to make and defend that choice.

That’s where the creativity comes.

And the next phase of creativity can come: if there were a lot of choices made back then, why can’t I be creative with it now?  Why can’t I choose, say, “MacDonald”-style double-beats and “redundant-A” taorluaths and crunluaths, or open fosgailte movements for a piece that does not have those written, including modern pieces?

All of this is an unavoidable consequence of our ability to look at these sources, read about what the Gaelic means, visit our learning site and see what the conversations are saying about them.  All of that is fostering an environment where that kind of creativity is simply going to happen.

It is unavoidable.

BB – Another beautiful aspect of this is getting out of the ghetto.

I think through the contextual awareness, whether it is with the harp tradition or Gaelic song or Breton ethnographic recordings, I think there are benefits in both directions, a reciprocal, positive flow of energy, breathing new life into pibroch and other musical traditions.

Not being in an echo chamber but getting out into the sunlight.

JDH – Yes.  I very much enjoy seeing people posting harp pibroch and fiddle pibroch.  I’m soon hoping to find and reach out to artists to post their works on our site.  

These cross-pollinations are not only part and parcel of the tradition (their inclusion is a natural part of its history), but their inclusion furthers our own creative journey and discovery today.

We are discovering there is a whole lot more to it than just what the competition environment has presented and allows.  And as a result of this, more people are coming and joining us.

BB – Looking outside pibroch is also vital from a technology perspective – we can learn a lot from sites presenting the musical materials of other traditions. Why should Scotland’s handful of pibroch sources be presented any less beautifully or less professionally than 100s of manuscripts of medieval music? The world leader in this game is Note how I can link to a precise page in this manuscript and how easy the interface is to use – how many thousands of pounds of investment would be needed to get our interface and images as gorgeous as theirs?

This is a moving game. For a sense of how it is moving (and a beautiful map), check out David, you have worked miracles on zero budget, putting in thousands of hours of your time on a voluntary basis. I can’t congratulate you enough. Thank you for taking my ideas and running with them, knocking them into much better shape.

Longevity is about staying on top of the game and sustaining the person who is doing the grunt work – currently you! How are we going to achieve that?

More to follow…


9 thoughts on “The Alt Pibroch Club – Reflections

  1. Congratulations on a masterly collage of pibroch-related information and an inspiring vision of its future.

    I see a parallel with Indian Raga here – a musical form of extraordinary complexity and depth, which has survived at least two thousand years entirely as an oral tradition. Its bearers are musicians of incredible skill and virtuosity, such as the late Ravi Shankar, who acquire almost god-like status – there must have been many like him over the ages, now forgotten in name, whose example lives on in their devotees.
    Pibroch needs similar luminaries to carry the sacred flame. And also technological wizards to conjure up the electronic platform, such as this site, where it can flourish. But, behind the digital wizardry must lie a physical reality, real people, real instruments, real gatherings where the music is created and enjoyed.
    I think that is the biggest challenge.

    A daunting reflection from Raga is that it has a religious dimension; tuning the instruments and achieving harmony is seen as linking up with The Divine. Can such a lofty goal be instilled in our music?

  2. Perhaps a notable sponsor is needed to create a better performing environment with a better method of reward to compete with the Piping ‘establishment’ (any economist with tell you that incentives are crucial). Preferably a sponsor with a lovely castle. Seriously!

  3. The problem with 100 year plans is that inevitably things change, no-one can guarantee that an institution will still be going in 10 years time let alone 100.

    How about the idea of “dewars”, that there is an informal passing on to younger generations, who are charged with stewarding the resource? I am thinking that the access logins to domain, admin, and other key info to keep the sites running might be best not kept by one person (what happens when they are hit by a bus?) but be shared amongst a select group on the understanding they hold them as a responsibility, that they are not to interfere, but to wait until their time may or may not be needed. There are issues of trust, of course, but I think cultural responsibility should overcome this. The hereditary keepers of the Quigrich could have sold it for scrap, or used it to latch the pigsty door shut, but they didn’t because they knew it was bigger and more important than them. Just floating this as another idea! This issue, of long term curation of digital resources, is a big one and many libraries and other institutions are already grappling with it.

    The comment on “competencies” sounds similar to my idea, that in this old oral tradition stuff, everything should be kind of “obvious”. How does the 4th line go? Well it’s obvious, given the expectations of those in the tradition, that you would take it in this direction and not that….

  4. Ultimately, I hope the world changes enough that the Piobiareachd Society would play a key role in the 100 year plan. That would require a fundamental change from the competition ethic to the ethic of personal responsibility and freedom of expression, and a casting off of what BB called “binary thinking.” A conference like the Pipers Gathering or St. Chartres might be possible. The Seattle Feis occurs every other year in the Pacific Northwest. Organizing an alt-pibroch conference in conjunction with an existing event like that might be a good idea. Concerts, like the one Ailean Domhnullach organized for the Fringe a few years ago, where different kinds of musicians performed ceol mor, aimed at the early music audience could generate interest and awareness in the general public. Thanks for all the work you’ve done. It is a dream come true to be able to see these manuscripts and read about what others are doing.

  5. One name is missing IMHO from your list: Mr Geoff Hore (1947-2015) of Auckland who continued the work of Roderick Cannon.

    I remember seeing Geoff’s copy of Cannon’s ‘Bibliography’. It was in tatters, not due to maltreatment, but due to the extraordinary usage of the text. It accompanied Geoff everywhere! (The book was originally purchased from Lewis Turrell’s shop.)

  6. How could I forget Geoff! I have updated the post, adding his name to the list above. Thank you Allan for pointing out that omission.

    I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that Allan Speedy’s pioneering and substantial work is still available. For example:

    Thank you, Allan, for paving the way! Did you transcribe all that material yourself? There is treasure galore here to fuel the building of the History & Imagination site and I am delighted that you are in our midst. A very warm welcome! Your work was trail-blazing and makes what we are now contemplating very much easier.

  7. Am I alone at taking great exception to the conflation of the destruction of historical artifacts in Syria by Islamic State with that of the Allied Bombing of Berlin? (BB’s comments).

    Ed, please review.

    1. Yes, you are alone. Primarily because he is presenting two examples of destruction of historical artifacts and is not conflating the two. To read a suggestion of some sort of moral equivalence between the events is a real stretch of the imagination and has no business here. They are both events that caused destruction, same as Krakatoa, Mt St Helens, and Hiroshima. And so it goes.

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