Interview with Donald Lindsay (Part 2)

Continuation of our previous interview with Donald Lindsay (for previous post, see here).


JDH –  Let’s take a historical perspective from you. What great arcs and characteristics of pibroch performance have you seen come and go? What do you anticipate? Do you have sense of something happening now that is unique? From a stylistic and interpretive perspective, what have you seen?

DL – When I took an interest, I was not physically near some of the people who were having an impact upon pibroch.  It was shortly after I got interested in this that I ended up in Glasgow.   I was staying with the MacFadyen family.  I was 18. As soon as I got my suitcase unpacked, John said, “We must get you down to the Scottish Pipers Club and become a member.”  I never questioned it. (I still have my membership book.  It’s a little folded book with John MacDougall Gilles in it.)  

His reasoning for that was that many people felt at the time (the early 1960s) ithat Glasgow was the Mecca for piping.  So many highlanders would go to Glasgow to seek employment, because things were getting pretty rugged out there in the Hebrides in terms of making a livelihood.  

The reason John wanted me to become a member of the Scottish Pipers Club  was that on a given Saturday night you would hear absolute beginners who had just gotten their pipes and would struggle to get through Scots Wa Hey, and then Hector MacFadyen would show up and  would play The Kings Taxes (PS 282) and Patrick Og (PS 137) on a bagpipe that came from another galaxy.  And then Peter MacLeod Jr. would get up (he’d be there visiting from South Africa) and would start playing his father’s compositions.  Occasionally Donald MacLeod would come and play. Sometimes Donald Macpherson came and played. John MacLellan would play. Ian MacFadyen. James McGregor.  All the great players would get up to play in that place in succession. 

So i’d get to hear players and instruments that I’d never heard in my life.  I never heard a bagpipe sound so good. It was an education.

And you’d begin to hear various pibroch styles. There were a lot of good pibroch players.

P/M Donald Maclean from Lewis, the guy they wrote the 6/8 for, was a tremendous pibroch player. Tremendous.  I remember hearing him play at Cowal on the day he died. It was held outside and it was brutal weather there.  And he, unlike all the professionals, played a pretty solid reed.  He was a pretty solid guy. Pretty strong.  And I remember being across the field listening to a competitor playing his strasthpey and reel.  I was about 10 feet away from the boards. Donald Maclean was all the way across the field on a raised platform playing My King Has Landed at Moidart (PS 115), and every time he turned toward us, I couldn’t hear the piper in front of me!  (Later that night on the train, Donald Maclean passed away).

I got to hear these guys.  I used to hang around the back of Grainger and Campbell.  Donald MacLeod was like an uncle to me.  He was very kind to me.  I was a very awkward gawky 18 year old american teenager. I would get tongue-tied, I wouldn’t know what to say.  But he treated me kindly.  I got to hear him practicing.  He was an amazing musician.  Amazing.  One of the gifts he had, was that when he was playing his light music he could flow from one tune to another like I have never heard anyone since. I’ve never heard anyone do that: one tune just flowed into another.

When Jimmy MacIntosh was in the Camerons when he was a kid (there were times when the Camerons and the Seaforths were together for ceremonies and things, and that all total was the 51st Highland Division), he said (this is a paraphrase), “Here’s how the band practice went: We had to be there at 8 o’clock in the morning. And we’d get there and Donald would be there and he’d take his pipes out of the case and he would play until noon, and we’d get lunch.”  He would never repeat a tune, day after day after day after day.  And I heard some of that right up front and personal.

So, it would be an understatement to say that some of these players were magical musicians.  Literally: magical! They had that aura about them.  And, boy, that would inspire a young kid to want to be able to play.

And, of course, the most important thing to these people was pibroch.  Light music was important, but pibroch was what is was all about.

So I went from being blessed with some pretty nice tuition here in the States, and then I went into that environment. And that’s when things started to make sense to me.  That’s when I began to realize that pibroch was more than a bunch of notes that had to be memorized.

Appreciate also that when these fellows got up to play pibroch, people were frozen.  They just sat in those chairs.  They were transported by the music.  Some of these people couldn’t play as well as that, but it meant so much to them it was like going to church.  They were very deeply moved by that.  And that was infectious.

And then you’d go out and about, to the games: I used to go to the games in south Uist and you’d quickly realize that the whole population got it. Everybody got it. Men, women and children – they all got it.

That’s my worry: How can we create that with our current media?  Because there is an element in the current media that invites isolation.  You can be isolated and look inside from isolation. As opposed to feeling like you are embracing the soul of a community, and you are a vehicle that’s being used to convey the soul of it.

That’s my concern and I don’t know the answer to it. But I’ll tell you this: I haven’t given up.  I’m trying to do it in my own little way. When I work with pipers, I’m trying to give a sense of that.

I’ll tell you another wee anecdote. I had a wonderful number of years teaching with Norman Gillies, and several years with Alasdair Gillies.  Norman (who was, of course a wonderful player; light music was his forte) was a very good friend of Rhona MacDonald Lightfoot.  Rhona would go to sea with her husband, Tony, and would come home and call Norman and say, “Norman, I’ve got to do a broadcast tomorrow night, would you please get my pipes squared away so they’d be good for the broadcast?”  Norman would say okay, and Rhona would bring her pipes over to Norman and he’d go over them and make sure they were going well. She’d do her broadcast and she’d go back to sea again. 

She came from south Uist.  And Brown and Nicol heard her play when she was a kid and they said, “Well, if she was allowed to play at Oban and Inverness, she’d win those metals.”  But women were not allowed to play at Oban and Inverness at that time.

So I said to Norman one day, “Norman, I think I’d like to try to make arrangements to bring Rhona over to the piping school so that people would get to know her a bit and get a better understanding for where all this stuff came from.”  And Norman said, “Absolutely not! You must not bring Rhona over, because she’ll have all the kids and take them all for ice cream and never get any piping done!”

So Norman talked me out of it, and I regret it. Because that woman is a cultural treasure.  

I’m not sure, but I think her father is Roddy MacDonald, who was John MacDonald’s brother.  But I’m not sure of that, but I know he was a relative, that’s for certain.  And Donald MacLeod used to go Roddy to get confirmation on some the material that he had from John MacDonald, because Donald MacLeod went to John MacDonald when he was a very young fellow, and Roddy was a more senior student.  

Roddy is also the guy who taught Duncan Johnstone, and they both played off the right shoulder.  Frequently Duncan would borrow Roddy’s pipes when he had to do a recital.

And Duncan taught Roddy MacLeod, who’s an excellent pibroch player.

So you see the link here; you see how this all ties in:  There are lines of this tradition that flow through these people, and they criss-cross, and they pass it on to new generations.

And that’s the close personal thing that we’re talking about.  I am putting my mind to it and I’m trying to think, what can we do to foster that kind of transmissions?

JDH – Where are the Mecca’s of piping today? Where do you see this kind of sharing and transmission happening now?

DL – I think I have gotten wind and had first hand experience with three Meccas:  There’s a lot of good energy in Scotland right now, and it manifests itself on Pipeline.  I haven’t been listening a lot, but when I’ve had a moment I’ve listened to Gary West’s program.  I heard a performance by a young man called Craig Sutherland, an engineering student at Glasgow University, and he did a whole gamut of music: light music, innovative pieces, a Mozart piece (which was beautiful). And then he played Lament for Donald Laggan (PS 26), and I was delighted to hear it – it was so musical, it was so good. I encouraged all my pupils to listen to that program.

His name is well known in Scotland, because he’s playing in the Seniors in light music and won the MSR at Oban, but still hasn’t won the Silver.  Hearing that guy play, that’s an indication of how high that standard must be right now for the Silver Medal. He’s a lovely player, musical.

There’s a lot of these players coming up in Scotland right now. And I think they are benefitting from the very thing we were talking about in the beginning of our visit here: they are benefitting from the fact that  there are a lot of good recorded examples of music that are easily obtained, giving a person some sense of how to handle some of these tunes.  

I also believe there’s good tuition going on, as well.  The National Piping Center is one place that’s having quite an impact: Roddy MacLeod is there, Chris Armstrong, Margaret Dunn, Allan MacDonald, and the other excellent teachers are there.

So, I think Glasgow, in it’s own way, has different layers of excellence in piping, ranging from pretty good, to quite good, to outstanding.  I think that is one of the Meccas.

Second: I’m out here in British Columbia, and I think surrounding Simon Fraser University Pipe Band with the Lee Brothers, Alan Bevan, Andrew Bonar, all the young generation of the Lee kids. Jack has quite a few good pupils out here.  Jamie Troy also has quite a few good players.  You can go a bit south, and Jori Chisholm is there.

There’s a lot of good piping in Western Canada and northwestern US.

The thing I see more of here in a broader sense, among the top players I see some serious students of the music. I get the feeling sometimes on the East Coast, they learn material and play at the games, because they are required to do it. But it’s not that often that I meet a lot of people that are prepared to look further and learn more, and that’s a bit frustrating.

 Another source I look at carefully is in Brittany around Patrick Molard.  There’s some tremendous pibroch players in Brittany: Jackie Kinsey and Patrick Molard have a lot to do with that.  I heard a bunch of these fellows from there playing in Prince Edward Islands, and boy, these guys can play.  Xavier Boderiou, the guy who’s making pipes – very good pibroch player; very good.

JDH – You did a cycle of interviews for The Voice, the purpose of which was to ask  professional pipers what it was that facilitated their music, in order to bring home those insights to the EUSPBA and the East Coast.  Were the interviews successful, insofar as they got a ball rolling? What came out of those interviews?

DL – I’m happy to say that the interviews did generate some action. That was my unspoken motivation. I was hoping to see some progressive developments in more piping centers. And when I say that, I mean more enthusiasm for pibroch playing.  Some things are happening: a series of indoor events in the Albany area, and other indoor events elsewhere in the off season in order to keep things percolating throughout the year.  

In addition to that, of course there have been on-going efforts for some time now with Eric Stein and the Metro Cup to bring really top players into the area.  That’s been a huge effort and that has generated good outcomes in terms of growing people’s views and  inspiring people.

And there was the late Maclean Macleod’s efforts with the US Piping Foundation. He was quoted as saying, “We are not putting this on for the audience, we are doing this for the players.”  Of course, he was saying that to deal with the fact that a lot of the time the only people at these events were the players and a few of the family members. But the fact of the matter is, some of the top players in North America were giving it their best, and when that happens, there is still good spin off.

JDH – I would argue that the Metro Cup should do what Winter Storm has been doing (simulcasting the competition; building weekend-long workshops and seminars and events), but that both the Metro Cup and Winter Storm represent events where people come into the area only to leave it.  Winter Storm has found ways to use the competition to continue the momentum in the area, evidenced by the surprising number of amateur lower grade-level competitors who entered the event when these competitions were opened to them (a big part of them being local pipers).  If something similar were to happen in the Metro area, where a bigger scope might lead to a lasting impression on the area, the repercussions would be to facilitate something on-going for the benefit of piping and pibroch.

I don’t how typical that is elsewhere.

DL – One of the things that excited me about getting to know a bit better about what’s going on in British Columbia: the enthusiasm that’s stimulated by local events (somewhat local – there can be a lot of travel involved) comes from a 360-degree perspective of the whole thing.  People prepare, they come, they compete, but they also listen to each other. They listen to one another. To me, if that doesn’t occur, then we are really missing the boat.  In words of the young competitors: they’re excited to compete in their event, and they are excited when one of their friends does well.  And then they would frequently have a workshop later that day or the next day.  There would be enough time left over to have time for someone to be brought in, like Roddy MacLeod, who would present on the Set Tunes, for example, or maybe discuss alternative settings.

In other words, we’re now almost beginning to describe almost a family of musicians. And I love that, I love that whole setting. And of course, the real force behind this is Robby MacNeil. Robby is a real visionary and understands the implication of trying to make it inspiring, educational and building a community.

Andrew Bonar is another one: he’s gone on to put on events for developing players.  He puts on events for the men and women who have worked hard to get to a high level of playing, because it’s not easy getting to that level and going and competing against Alan Bevan, you know? So, for these up and coming players, there has to be something to encourage their development, and I have found it very inspirational.

I think there may also be something of an element of Canadian social culture, where people have spent generations of working together to achieve things.  You know, god bless Frank Sinatra, but he sang that he was going to do it “My way.” And a lot of people in the eastern United States want to do it their way and don’t want to do it with anyone else.

JDH – We are circling around a point: music and community foster one another.

DL – Yes. That’s the thing that is going on in Cape Breton.  That’s the thing that was going on in south Uist.  That’s the thing that was and is going on in Glasgow.  And I do believe that is the kind of thing going on in Vancouver. 

Somehow we need to look at that, think about it, and build on it if we are going to have a great continued develop and evolution of pipe music and pibroch.

And so the thing that was coming to the surface when you mentioned the EUSPBA is that, I think, the hope of the future (and this is a tough one) will be to try to foster small piping communities in different parts of the globe.

The tough part about that is, on the East Coast we enthusiastically embrace a frenetic lifestyle.  We would say, “Let’s meet the first Sunday of every month,” and inevitably someone’s got a conflict, someone else needs to find a baby sitter, someone else is out of town: you start out with 15 people, and the next time there’s 6, and the next one we’re down to 2.  It’s because of the vulnerability of people’s free time.

JDH – I don’t think there’s anything more valuable than live communion and communication: face to face, body with body in the same room.  The experience I had at Invermark was transformative for both my daughter and myself, because we were living in the music: hour after hour, day after day, being surrounded by the people and the performers and the performances happening all around us.  It was the life being a musician.

And despite the massive context of communication that may fragment our attention and yet bring us into communication with people all the time everywhere, the value of immersion into a community of musicians should not be undervalued or dismissed as an anachronism.  Every time you, yourself, provide that (master classes, weekend workshops, summer camps): that’s the moment when you recapture the ancient experience of music becoming alive and people living music.

DL – That’s my hope to be promoting.

JDH – It clearly works. and I wish there were a way to provide all the time.  But that’s not realistic. There’s not even much chance for something occasional, much less regular or frequent.

The thing I suffer from: the lack of community is a hindrance to the enthusiasm for this style of music which is so expansive and so remarkable. We’ve got to find a community, we’ve got to build a community.  I think it should be face-to-face, but if that may not be possible, perhaps on-line. But is it even possible on-line?

But the connection between community and music is vital, and we need to rekindle that connection.

DL – In an earlier part of our visit today, when I was trying to think about who is it that might be interested in listening to pibroch: there are a lot of people who have an appreciation for and curiosity about music.  That’s an audience for pibroch.  There are a lot of those people in the United States and Canada.  

I sometimes get envious of a great concert audience who can perform for an audience.  I get envious  in the sense that, why can’t we do this more with pibroch?  Because it’s worthy of it.  It’s just that, more often than not we can’t quite figure out the best way to present it to make it click.  I don’t think it involves tampering with what it is.  Maybe it involves letting people know far enough ahead  and keeping them clued into what’s going on.

JDH – I disagree. I’ll tell you why.  I’ll tell you what the clue is: good musicianship.

I don’t sit and tell someone, “Okay, we’re going to listen to a symphony.  A symphony is made up of several movements, traditionally four of them – a sonata, adagio movement, minuet and a final allegro.  And throughout history this is how it was developed, this is how it changed, these are the great composers, blah blah blah…”  No.

If it’s good music, they’ll listen.

DL – That’s true.  You’re right.

JDH – Maybe we’re not confident that it’s good music.  Maybe we as players are not confident in our musicianship.  But I don’t think we should short sell the intelligence and concentration of our audience to hear and appreciate this subtle, beautiful, moving form of expression.  Theme and variation has been around as long as human beings have been playing music.  It fulfills something fundamental for us, and I don’t think we need to worry about that.

I think what we need to do is get out good music, get out good musicians.  We need to develop the sense that we fit into the great history of music.  We are not the weird outsiders.  We belong in the larger musical world.

I think historically we were either put on the outskirts, or put ourselves on the outskirts.  But I think now we need to embrace our place in the musical world, embrace our musicianship and encourage our musicianship.

DL – Yes. That makes a lot of sense.  That would a wonderful gesture on the part of the EUSPBA to line up some recitals in different parts of the eastern United States, in association with local symphonies or musical societies.  I think EUSPBA has become more interested in becoming an education resource.  Lately, the leadership is becoming very much in favor of that: June Hanley has been going out of her way. Past president Eric McNeill has been very open to it.  And the current president, Dan Cole, is also very interested in that.  The climate is good now for this kind of outreach.

For example, It would be great to bring Callum Beaumont over to play a recital with one of our North American champion.  He’s a wonderful pibroch player.

JDH – It would be great for the EUSPBA to reach out, tap top performers and create opportunities for them to play in public, play with others, integrate our music into the rest of the world.  And not just focus on competitions.

DL – Yes.  There’s too much of the latter.  There’s not enough of the former.  That’s extremely positive.  

All we need to do is to do it musically, do it well.  And become a part of the community.

Well, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this interview.

JDH – Me, too.


1 thought on “Interview with Donald Lindsay (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Free Piano

Leave a Reply