On Pibroch Genres – Part I

JDH – Can you define for us genre and genre criticism?

BB – Well, I think the first thing to understand is the difference between music that is still played in a particular socio-cultural context, and music that in some way recalls an earlier context but is now performed in another. Let’s take the Sarabande. If you’ve actually got dancers dancing a Sarabande, this imposes more constraints on the music than when, say, generations later, JS Bach composes a Sarabande. His music is less constrained because there are no dancers dancing.

This is very common: all musical traditions have memories of earlier social contexts. A genre is a type of music shaped by something that used to be done, the function it had at an earlier period. I think getting our head around that in pibroch is something that must be done.

So, when we come to rowing tunes, we have to understand that the date at which they may have served on galleys for setting the stroke was a long time ago, and they may or may not have been played as solo pibrochs outside that environment in the 1600s. We’re in the realm of the unknown: when did people actually stop rowing in galleys?  I haven’t done the research to establish that, yet.

34-oar galley. Tomb of Alasdair Crotach MacLeod, Rodel, Harris, 1528. https://flic.kr/p/9Z1TZT
34-oar galley. Tomb of Alasdair Crotach MacLeod, Rodel, Harris, 1528. 

Looking at Colin Cambpell’s repertoire, I’m struck by the higher proportion of highly repetitive pieces. For those of us who see pibroch as a form of high art – abstract music for listening to – compositions that served a mundane functional purpose, like keeping the morale of a crew up, are overlooked. 

These tunes served to relieve the voice of a caller, the rowing master: if you’re rowing all the way to Iceland, or all the way down to Spain to get more wine, it’s really tiring!  To be able to alternate between vocal calling, or rowing songs, and piping is just essential to relieve the tedium and refresh everyone’s energy levels.

So, recognizing that pipers did these various, more functional things at an earlier period is step one. Step two is to be more nuanced in our thinking about how each genre had different functional periods, and different transitions or periods of overlap between being shaped by the genre-defining context, and being shaped by the context of a solo performance or competition. Who first played a rowing tune on dry land as art music? When was the last time a piper piped for galley oarsmen? It’s all very complex, nothing happens suddenly. How many generations did it take for the rowing tune genre to lose connection with its original context?

Let us consider laments. When did its role as pure music take over from its role in a funeral procession with mourners, with the whole keening going on, with women screaming, with the professional lead mourner doing her bit, with the long procession (if it was anyone important) carrying the coffin from the church to the burial ground.  You see, that journey was often substantial – heavens, the traditional burial ground may have been on an island somewhere 50 miles from the church. It would depend on who they were, but the journeys were sometimes very long. How did each phase of the traditional Gaelic funeral shape what the piper played? Is there only one lament genre, or might we have two?

Both of these contexts were fundamentally different from those we have had since 1781, playing to adjudicators who had to determine a prize list.

Let’s take another one: inciting people to deeds of valor in battle. Now, you could say that that particular context has lived on. In the First World War, we certainly had pipers awarded medals for playing in the midst of battle and encouraging people to extraordinary feats of valor.  However, the music in the early 20th century was not pibroch. The tunes those pipers were playing, although they served the same function, were not pibroch repertoire. Now, just working that through, why didn’t pibroch serve as good battle music in 1915-1916?  

Lets turn back the clock and wind ourselves back, centuries earlier, to the late 1500s. Vincentio Galilei, writing in 1581, describes the piping of what he calls the Irish, though they may well have been Scottish Gaels. Before saying that pipers played “sounds so sorrowful as to invite, nay force the bystanders to weep,” he talks about how they incite people in the battlefield.  So, we’ve got evidence in the 16th century that Gaelic-speaking pipers performed a military function, and this is mentioned again in 1760 by Joseph MacDonald, in glowing terms.

We have to get our heads around that, take the evidence seriously, and consider from the evidence what sorts of musical materials lend themselves best to getting people to charge as warriors in the face of an enemy.  It’s something that’s a little outside our imagination.

JDH – And experience.

It occurs to me, however, that some of the finer or more virtuosic series of variations may have arisen in contexts outside of these origins.  As I was conceiving of performing a gathering piece, while I could play the Urlar in a way that perhaps would entice someone to battle or rally, going through some of the other variations seemed luxurious, irrelevant.  I couldn’t quite see how I, as a piper in battle, would say to myself, “Ah, here comes the taorluath, and now the crunluath.”

It seems to me that this is analogous to the example of Bach’s Sarabande – that some of these more virtuosic elements may have arisen in contexts far abstracted from the mundane uses of the pipes.  They are too nimble, too delicate.

BB – On the contrary!  I think that they are probably not virtuosic, but just how the piper affected the nervous system in the right way and made himself heard.

JDH – By playing 9 notes in a single beat?!

BB – Of course, it is virtuosic. It is skilful. But the idea that people weren’t skilled then is appalling!

JDH – I didn’t mean that.  No, no.  What I meant was, if you’re going to be skillful, and you’re standing trying to get the troops to rally to the chieftain under threat, why would you say to yourself, “Okay, wasn’t that a lovely siubhal! What’s next?  Oh yes, how about a lovely taorluath…And now on to the crunluath…”

What you’d be doing is playing a damn song and getting people to hear you.  Sure, you may be capable of doing that sort of complex and finer stuff, but a battlefield doesn’t strike me as being a context that seems acoustically relevant to the finer movements.  You’d be playing the damn notes trying to get people to recognize the song they are supposed to know as a signal to do something.

BB – Wait a minute!  You don’t need to play the material we have with that frame of mind.  What I’m suggesting is that you play the same material with a fundamentally different frame of mind.  I think you find a new way of playing it by putting yourself into that position: vividly imagining a historical context that has faded.

So, I disagree with you.  I think the music is supremely crafted to  have an emotional, physiological impact upon those within earshot.  I think that is how the tripling and crunnludh movements evolved and I believe that the music we have inherited is fit for purpose, I really do.

I think it’s time to start getting more nuanced about the different genres of pibroch and to try to distinguish the particular emotional effect that each genre had in the distant past. Look, pibroch today is more homogenized, the genre distinctions are muddied because the different contexts that shaped them are long dead. As a result, pibroch is now one genre among other genres of piping. That’s the obstacle we have, intellectually.

If we can see the whole of pibroch as a spectrum and start looking within that spectrum for the contrasts, rather than discarding anything that doesn’t fit the modern environment as inferior, then it is my hypothesis that we’ll find each genre actually evolved to serve those individual functions of the remote past very well.

JDH – I’m skeptical of this: there is an acoustical luxuriousness of some of the movements and variations that would have made them irrelevant in specific contexts.  I’m not talking about performance ability, nor creativity, but it seems to be that the subtlety of the movements would have been lost in the winds and over the battlecries of the warriors on the field

We see this, we know this, from World War I.  The pipers went up and over the trenches and marched out into the fields and nobody could hear a damn thing.  Not one damn thing.  The pipes were drowned out by the gunpowder and explosions and cries of terror and slaughter, completely drowned out.  The tunes were immediately made irrelevant. People just saw the piper march, and followed behind.  Now, that’s quite an act of bravery, but I can’t see how that leant itself to developing the art?

I’m not suggesting that performing these pieces with a particular genre setting in mind wouldn’t bring a new interpretive idea to it.  I’m just skeptical that the fullness of pibroch that we see today may have had a relevance to the particular mundane tasks that we are speaking of.

BB –  I think the only way to move forward here is by taking an experimental archaeological approach.  It is only through actual full-scale, serious experimentation and reconstruction that you can draw any conclusions. A wonderful example is the Greek trireme, the Olympias project.  I was overjoyed to find in the library the final report, and it’s full of data relevant to galley piping. 

Here we are, Trireme Olympias: The Final Report, edited by Boris Rankov.  I’m looking at page 49 of a report of the 1994 sea trials of the trireme Olympias. Now, I’m not saying the a Greek trireme from the 5th century BC has the same oar lengths or the same properties as a 16th-century Highland galley, but what we have in this table is a series of stroke rates.  This is what I was looking for: what speed did they play on the boat?

The stroke rates for cruising vary from 30 to 38 strokes per minute.  That gives us a tempo range that has a far more scientific basis than “Adagio” or “Andante” or “Very Slow”.  Now, crucial here is oar length.  In this particular publication, they make recommendations for a future reconstruction based on the knowledge generated by the first attempt.

In an earlier report by Morrison, Coates and Rankov (The Athenian Trireme, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2000) they made some fascinating observations relevant to pibroch. The relevant bits are around page 250, where they talk about the experience of calling and how essential it was at lower stroke rates for every stroke to be called, because otherwise it fell apart. I find it interesting that you didn’t need calling when racing, when you were about to ram an enemy ship: in these bursts, once you got up into the high 30s or 40s, you no longer needed a human voice or piper to call the stroke.  The rhythm of the crew takes over, infects, is self-sustaining.  It’s the long-distance rowing, when people were falling asleep with fatigue or boredom, that’s when the piper was required.

The greatest dangers are boredom, sleep and distraction. Heavens, if you are on the open sea and there’s no wind, and you want to get home to Isla after trading in France or Spain, you’ve got to row!  

Sadly, they didn’t have pipers for the trireme project that were capable of piping for rowing.  They tried some musicians, but concluded that musical ability wasn’t desirable! They preferred a player who was a good rower, because the trained musicians just didn’t get it.  They would end up with weight of the boat being taken at one end, rather than all oarsmen equally pulling their weight: the helm rowers would complain that they were doing all the work.  

It’s a two-way process: the piper needs to capture the rhythm of the oarsmen, and this Greek trireme had 170 oars!  It’s a terrific din down there on three levels.  It’s impossible to call it with the voice alone, because the voice disappears, is absorbed by all the bodies and the woodwork and the sound of 170 oars – it only reaches about 2/3 way down the boat, which is no good.  They had to install six loudspeakers in order to be able to call the rowing!  Now, they knew that that wasn’t historical, but they didn’t have an aulos player.  (The historical records are quite clear: the Greeks and the Romans employed an aulos player for long voyages.)  They tried a drummer, but the low frequencies of the drum were inaudible.

You need a loud, high-pitched pipe. The Great Highland bagpipe is perfect for galley rowing. It’s just designed for the job.

I have to be honest: I think those tediously-repetitive, dull tunes in the Colin Campbell manuscript – this is their salvation! Understanding the context restores the spirit and soul of the music.  But to be able to play them with that understanding, you need to be a rower, or to discover through practical experimentation what rowers on the open sea need on a long-haul pull.

JDH – At which point, I was going to suggest that I could see very easily where a theme and variation structure would have to arise.  You weren’t putting in the equivalent to a CD of top ten ceol beag hits of the highland bagpipe.  You had your tune, you were going to play it for 20 minutes or longer, so: boy, you better be able to change it up enough to enliven the listener, to perk up the ear and interest.  The variations, not just with respect to tempo, but with respect to rhythm, had to create a sense of, “Oh, this is something new!”

BB – I had great fun when I was making one of the “Adventures in Canntaireachd” recordings last June: PS 165, “The End of Inchberry Bridge”. I had a go singing it in time from start to finish.  What I loved about that, which I discovered only through the exercise of singing it in time (and while I was recording it, I was pretending to row), is the syncopation you get when singing an asymmetric metre against the regular slow 2 of rowing. The frisson is beautiful! It is directly comparable to the moment in Indian classical music when the expert audience bursts into applause: that happens when two different musicians who have been at odds, obstinately playing two different meters simultaneously, arrive together again at the start of the cycle. Sometimes they miss, in which case they might pretend they weren’t trying and have another go – that generates an even bigger frisson and the emotion is released in the vocal cries of delight that are part of traditional performer-audience interaction!

I think that pipers might introduce rhythmic games because of the tedium of terribly long boring rows. So that, instead of it being 8-8-8-8 ad infinitum, they think, “Oh, yes, I’ll put this into 2-2-3-2, 3-3-2-3.”  But because you are doing it in a symmetrical cycle with equal and opposite halves, it will always come back together again at the end of the cycle. It’s an intellectual game, just keeping people interested.

I’m on page 255 now of the The Athenian Trireme: “On long pulls, the greatest enemy was boredom.  It was important to provide constant encouragement and reassurance about the rowing.  And after a sustained period of rowing, when the crew had tired of listening to the pipe, reading almost anything to the crew produced an immediate increase in speed of up to a knot.”

Now, they didn’t have a piper skilled in music for rowing.  Their favorite tunes were “The Skye Boat Song” and “Pachabel’s Canon”.  That is what they used. I think pibroch is rather better designed for rowing.

JDH – I could very well see that.  So, then the question becomes: when you talk about the different social context from which the tunes arose and later were abstracted, historically removed…

BB – You know, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to lose the grounding. Music is a living thing and adapts to the new environment.  We need to accept this relationship between the environment around the performance and the music itself.

JDH – But also, through genre criticism, help us use these new insights to inform a new performance of the music.

BB – Yes, but it depends on what your agenda is.  If you want to satisfy judges in a competition where what had once-upon-a-time been a rowing tune is being judged against what had once-upon-a-time been a lament, then you’re no longer in two different contexts. It is very natural and perfectly understandable to make the two more similar.

JDH – I disagree. I understand what you are saying.  I can see why what happens happens, yes, but…

BB – What we now have to ask is, what are our motivations?  Do we want to be playing in a competition with only one tune?  I would say that our job in bringing competitions to life is to understand that the one tune offering is counterproductive to the healthy future of pibroch. That’s my contention.  Unless we change what is done in mainstream competition, the homogenizing processes of the last 200 years will continue.

I think we need to accept that the social context shapes the music.

If you were to change the rules – “This competition asks the pipers to play for 22 minutes. You may not go over 22 minutes”  – that immediately opens up the opportunity to play a series of tuning preludes, followed by a shorter tune, re-tune, then go into a longer tune.  And then, you’re actually giving the performer, judges and audience a full meal that contains several courses.  

Now, I think that kind of scenario would have an effect on the richness with which we are able, as a modern community of pipers (and non-pipers), to appreciate the inherited wealth of Scottish piping.

JDH – Yes. I wonder, though: if we stuck with the single-tune format, why is it particularly difficult to perform and judge different genres?

BB – There’s no doubt about it: laments have more depth and weight to them. And it’s very difficult to weigh up and judge dissimilar things.  It’s completely understandable that everything has been pulled into the lament genre, because the lament embodies the greatest, deepest, heaviest, most expressively rich vein within this musical tradition.  I think it’s completely natural and understandable.

What’s fun about having two tunes in your offering is that contrast becomes valuable.  And you’d always have the option of which way round to shape it: you could do a short rowing or battle tune followed by lament, or you could start with one of the wonderful  shorter laments excluded from our cultural life because they don’t have a crunnludh movement. One that stands out immediately is “One of the Irish piobarich”, called “Lament for the Cleric” in the McGregor-McArthur manuscript: an amazing, keening, sobbing lament, after which you could do a more substantial tune that was in that exciting, war-like zone.

JDH – That would make for a much more interesting and exciting experience for everyone.

More to come…

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5 thoughts on “On Pibroch Genres – Part I

  1. Very interesting analysis. Look forward to reading more. I think understanding the context in which some of these tunes were played is not only important for criticism and analysis, but for the straight out-and-out playing! The tune’s true character is better revealed when the player is trying to capture that past context, and thus the performance is enhanced. This is why this kind of study is important. “The Boat Tune” is a perfect example of a straight rowing tune that has now moved away from its original purpose. I’ve heard and been part of discussion of that tune in the past where folks don’t seem to understand that capturing that original rowing rhythm is important to the presentation. When folks make comments like “it sounds like waves on the beach” they are in range but still missing the mark. The rhythms of that tune are the wake of the boat slapping the hull. This would have created a distinct, physical pattern when the galley hit certain speeds. A good boat piper would certainly leverage that musically. What would be an interesting study would be the differences in this rhythm on different boats of different designs and sizes and how that might play a part on the individual tunes themselves.

  2. Absolutely fantastic discussion. I am having a go at Scarce of Fishing right now and am torn between perceiving the tune as a mournful loss of sustenance or a determined push to advance beyond normal fishing grounds. Tempos and expression is different for both and I can’t reconcile the two approaches. Lamentation or rowing, or a combination of both? The deeper I get, the more complexities become apparent.

  3. I’m grateful to Sarah Ferguson for sending me a link to a blog post about music for rowing. It contains two vital points. Mark Pinches writes:

    At first sight it would appear that music and rowing could go well together. Well, actually they do! The problem is that rowing is like no other physical activity – when done properly it comprises an action in which the work or drive phase is not equal in time to the recovery phase. In fact the ratio of work to recovery is about 1:2 giving a potential problem to writing music for the activity.

    George Andreadis comments:

    The right type of music for motivation and enhancement of performance can help an athlete perform beyond his/her expectations.

    Read the full post at https://rowing2music.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/music-while-you-workout/

  4. The rowing music rhythm mentioned on the website Barnaby posted is interesting. There is the danger that modern gymnasium and/or skull rowing is anachronistic, but it is a suggestive insight regarding the subtleties of the rhythmic requirements for someone playing for oarsmen.

    That said, I’ve never actually been all that interested in reconstruction per se. Fully accepting the new and different social context of pibroch performance for today’s player, I’m more interested in what such insight might bring to an interpreter imagining or per formatively alluding to these ancient contexts for today’s audience. For rowing tunes: faster, more steadying pacing during the performance, for example; varying tempos between sections in an effort to keep both imaginary oarsman but also today’s audience engaged; transition points between sections (rather than abrupt changes in tempo between doubling and the next variation or urlar return)?

    Of course, there is the much more difficult question of bringing such insight to a performance if the audience is comprise of adjudicators. Competitors appear to be very wary of the idea of bringing new interpretive insights to the boards, as they are concerned judges would reject the performance outright as non-standard. Judges, on their part, may not feel comfortable being presented with something new, unexpected and categorically different. Should a competitor tell them, “I’m performing this as a rowing tune”?

    But I expect that a combination of education, growing familiarity and perhaps (as Barnaby argues) different competitive structures might help expand the genre repertoire in competitive environments.

    1. Hope you don’t mind, but I will quote you at my next stand on the boards:
      “I’m performing this as a rowing tune.”
      1…2.3.1…2.3.1…2.3

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