APC Guide to Pibroch: Book Review – Bruce Gandy

I was recently given a copy of the APC Guide to Pibroch by its main compiler to look through to help give me a better understanding of how they believe Pibroch was performed a few hundred years ago based on their very in-depth research through all of the original manuscripts.

Let’s start at the end. If you have any interest at all in Pibroch, or have some knowledge of this beautiful music, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of this book right now, and read through it all before you make any harsh opinionated decisions on what is being played.

The Alt Pibroch Club is dedicated to continually revisiting the original scores of this music and through much study and research, present to you a “sketch” of how these tunes might have been played.
One point that is made right from the start, is that they believe you must have a basic familiar understanding of Pibroch first, and be able to play the movements, as would be described as the modern way to make use of this guide.

The book is laid out in 10 parts in a very easy to read format and is chock full of audio links, some video and a massive assortment of cut and paste examples for original sources. I found those to be of the utmost value in understanding the different parts of this book.

From my eye, there are 6 major sections to work. The book starts with an introduction first. With Part 2, we get “The Rules” (this is the Alt term for how to go about learning the music). Part 3 is all about the Primary sources which gives great detail and visuals of all of the earlier writings. Parts 4-8 are all on different finger work patterns within the manuscripts. Part 9 is “putting it all together” and part 10 an appendix. This set up makes referrals back and forth easy to navigate.

The opening chapter- Introduction paints a very strong picture of what they are trying to put forward here. Some may think it’s highly opinionated, but after reading a couple of time, I have come to believe that this is just a passionate way of introducing the music. Bear in mind, the author is not presenting something “new” here, he is presenting what a lot of detailed research has told him is correct, and, is used to having a battle with so called traditionalists each time he plays in this fashion, just because it is not the “norm” now. I do not always agree

with every single piece they present, but I have a great respect for the work they have done to justify it.

As we move through the next part of the book, we discover all of the old primary sources and how they reflect on each other. 16 different sources are listed here, many of which I had not heard of.

Part 4-8 breaks down the different finger work patterns. These sections give tremendous value as the author has given us all of the highlighted pieces of the primary sources, and then they have broken down the finger work to show both how it evolved, or how the musicians “choice” was very evident on how they played any particular movement. Once again, for me, I could read about a certain movement, and then read the 4, 5 or even 6 different examples of how that particular movement was played. Having all of these examples here is simply a huge blessing as they have done so much research and now simplified it, into a much easier to read book.

As for playing these tunes in what is told to be the original style, I do find myself with one big question. The relationship with gaelic song is very obvious in much of this, and also obvious is how some of the academic minds decided that this was too varied and so they “standardized” much of this to our loss I believe.

I can fully agree that perhaps, much of what we play in todays “modern style” of Pibroch is often too slow, but I still have the argument with the author, that his “songs” are often played too fast. Yes, many of them can be songs, but I feel there is still room for tension and release. Did we suddenly just decide one day to sing the canntaireachd slower?

Page 94 Starts the final finger work section and is dedicated to cadences alone. This is a very important and valuable section. Over the decades/centuries, cadences have become a very big part of the modern day pibroch performance, to the extent that unbalanced or inconsistent cadences will throw one right out of the prize list. One must read this several times, and then try to transfer some of the ideas into playing of a tune they may be familiar with. The research and actual scores really make one think here and are of huge value to anyone to read and discover.

They finish with putting everything together and how to translate the canntaireachd into a tune form in their eyes.

If this was truly how the tunes/songs were performed in 1700 for instance, how did today’s commonplace style become totally accepted and why were there no people that hung on to the tradition. For a time, Pibroch was almost wiped out completely, and can be argued that it was saved by the competitive style coming in. But todays tune, vs that same tune played 2-3 centuries ago is much, much slower now. Yet, with tracing some of our teaching lineage, we have access to the full line of pipers coming down from the MacCrimmon line, right up to today’s

direct lines of pipers who learned their tunes from the canntaireachd taught to them by their teacher. How did this change so radically, or is it just a form of evolution? You have to decide that yourself.

One thing is for sure. To play this music you need to be able to move your hands to do this music justice and you must be accurate enough, and consistent enough with your gracings to have the control to portray the movements and phrases the way the song should be.

This book, the APC Guide to Pibroch, gives you plenty of visual cues, lots of audio and all of the history you need to really try to understand this music. While you have a lot of free reign to do many things here, it is not free form jazz. Follow the book and examples many times and then use your new found knowledge to try to play through them on your pipe.

To quote the book on page 3- “In the end, the book will open up whole new vistas of interpretive possibilities, re-extending the idiom beyond what you have been taught.

And you will become a better piper, performer and interpreter of the tradition, helping it to grow and not just ‘sustaining’ it. You will become part of a living and vital musical tradition.”




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