Everyone knows Jack Lee: One of the founders of the six-time world champion Simon Frasure University Pipe Band, winner of every major competition several times over.
But there is perhaps one characteristic that helps you understand him more than anything else he has done: He is a student of music, an avid learner and explorer, and he suffuses that enthusiasm for learning in every meeting you have with him. It is contagious.
JDH – Thank you so much for chatting with us. I know you are a very busy piper, and your schedule takes you all over the world.
By way of introduction, I was hoping you would give us a brief outline of your history with pibroch and piping in general. I’m sure lots of interviewers have asked you already, and many interviews and bio-pages have this information, but for the sake of the website audience, perhaps a brief story of your experience would help set the stage for our discussions.
JL – I had the very good fortune of being born into a piping family. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t at least interested in the bagpipes, if not playing. At the age of four I remember having a practice chanter; I always had a practice chanter.
My great-grandfather was a piper who came over from Scotland: John Ironside. He was a good piper in his day; died before I was born. He had the good fortune of taking lessons from the Camerons: Sandy Cameron and John MacDougall Gillies. So he was surrounded by pretty cool piping people.
He came out here and had two children: One was my uncle Jack Ironside. Jack Ironside was a prominent band leader and Scottish Shopper.
JDH – My first Lawries came from him! I may still have the case, with his logo on the inside.
JL – That’s funny!
Yes, he was quite influential around here, and was he was very influential for me.
The other person who was influential his sister and my grandmother. She was very influential, in that she was the one who was very enthusiastic and always took us to lessons and the highland games.
So, I was lucky to have been born into it.
Then there was this instant love I had for bagpiping. My grandmother told me at least 50 times that when I was two years old, I said I wanted to be a piper.
So, lucky to have been born into it, and also had the interest to do it.
I started the pipes, my brother Terry was a highland dancer. He was quite accomplished at it when he was younger. As he got older, when he was around 9 or so, I sort of taught him the basics of the bagpipe (I was 8 at the time). We both got going with local teachers, and had some success. But then we both got a lucky break when Uncle Jack picked up the telephone and called one of his best friends, Jimmy MacMillan (who was THE person to take bagpipe lessons from if you were a serious piper).
Jimmy MacMillan was a pibroch nut, just like you and I are. He was really, really interested. I always remember: Jimmy was really, really enthusiastic and a really good teacher for me. He knew what made me tick, was a very, very natural teacher. He kept it fun. And it took off from there.
My brother Terry and I would play at all the local highland games, took lessons, got better and more involved in piping in general. Then in the 70s I became the Pipe Major of a Grade 2 pipe band called The CPR Pipe Band, which continued to be fun, and brought with it a good pipe band experience for me.
Then in 1981 Terry and I formed the SFU Pipe Band, which has been a very large component of our lives for the last 35 years or so.
Along the way, about 2 Terry and I also formed a junior band, the Robert Malcolm Memorial Pipe Band, which has been a blessing for us: we’ve had the pleasure of teaching about 2000 children in the Vancouver area.
I can honestly say, I love to teach. I am a person who loves to teach. No one has to talk me into it.
JDH – And that is how I met you: at Invermark, Don Lindsay’s summer piping school in the Catskills of New York and where I began sharing my (quirky) ideas with you about pibroch.
JL – Yes.
My love for pibroch specifically started with Jimmy MacMillan. He was the man. He was so excited about it. This was pre-Internet, pre-cassette tape recorder. This way back. But we would always be listening to tunes, to top pibroch performers. There was a network back then (around the world, I think) of people sharing reel-to-reel tapes of all the top players of the day. So we had heaps of these. It was really, really fun. He was very excited about it.
JDH – Alan Bevan and I were talking about the fact that the only exposure we had to bagpiping back then was on albums. We would have to buy an album of Don McPherson, for example, and play the one or two pibroch he recorded over and over again.
Reel-to-reels are a different matter, then, aren’t they? These were not curated recording. They were not available to the general public. For the rest of us, piping was pretty isolated, and recordings were very difficult to come by.
JL – Jimmy had some great friends in Scotland, a network of people. One of his best friends was Capt. John MacLellan, who was a very famous piper, won 4 clasps, and was a director of the Army School of Piping in Edinburgh after Willie Ross. He was also close friends with Seamus McNiell and other people. So Jimmy never seemed to have a shortage of reel-to-reel tapes. People would send them these things, and I had the good fortune to listen to them. It was like gold when he just got a new tape from John MacLellan and you would go to a lesson and he would play them for us.
JDH – What happened to those tapes?
JL – That is a very good question. Some may be in my house. Some were thrown away after he died. Some were gifted to his son, who then asked whether I wanted them.
I have no real mechanism to manage these tapes. Do you want them?
JDH – Yeah. I can find a way to convert them.
JL – If I have them, and if they are in good shape at all, you can have them. It’s all recordings of old pipers playing pibroch.
JDH – That’s kind of the interesting thing about a certain period of modern piping, isn’t it? Say, before 1970, 1980, how little of it we have. These recording are precious things, like the pre-modern era of pibroch manuscripts: think of where we would be if they hadn’t been copied down, and later typeset.
These recordings would be a boon for people, to help understand and experience the development of pibroch performance during the 1900s.
What do you remember about the recordings that were exciting to you?
JL – One very, very important teaching technique that Jimmy employed with me (and it worked, and I do it myself all the time): he was naturally enthusiastic about pibroch. He would say, “Wait ’till you hear this!” “You’re not going to believe how good this is!” Talking about this in terms of anticipation, enthusiastically about what was coming. I couldn’t wait!
And then, the music itself was very powerful. I remember hearing “Lament for Mary MacLeod” and thinking, “Whoa!” I had never heard piping like that and I had never heard pipers like that, and then you get to crunluaths and you are an 11-year old kid and they sound so good, so awesome!
And then, I remember the drones: I’d never heard pipes like that. I was never anywhere close to piping like that (I was eleven or twelve years old).
So, musically, tonally and technically, every aspect of was really cool.
JDH – Fast forward to today and your love of pibroch: I want to talk about a couple of things we have been sharing from the old manuscripts on the site.
Here’s something I wanted to show you. It is related to the work we’ve been doing at Invermark on the Red Hand in the MacDonalds’ Arms and variations 5 and 6. Take a look at this: it is the Donald MacDonald version of Old Men of the Shells (Bodach Na Sligachin – PS 225). Notice how the taorluath movement begins, but how the rest of the variation goes. What don’t you see?
JL – There are no dots and cuts there. It is written either on purpose or they forgot.
JDH – What you don’t see is the triplet indicator. You can play play it as we do today, with the rapid fire triplets. But it doesn’t show that. It is reasonable to assume it, but consider it internally – why couldn’t you play it in the same pattern as it begins? Dot-cut-cut-dot? And if you do, then you have a direct comparison with var 5 and 6 of Red Hand.
JL – Are you of the opinion that, just take that for example, that there are no dots and cuts written, that there might have been a very subtle dot and cut implied by the music?
JDH – I do.
JL – Sometimes I feel like, in a reel (this is a totally different type of music, but…) in the reels that we play, they are written all dot-cut. Or written dead round. But in fact what we need is something half-cut and half-round, something in between. They don’t need to be as harshly cut as a march or strasthpey and other forms of music, it’s a much more of a flowing form of music. But as pipers we haven’t figured out how to do that.
It seems to me some of the old guys, like G S MacLennan and the Little Cascade – there’s not a dot-cut in that thing it’s all round, YOU pick the holds. But some pipers turn around and say, “NO, we want to SHOW them which ones to hold!” – It’s too extreme. Maybe there’s a little bit of that here, a little bit of flavor that a good piper can bring to it, but it’s difficult to write that.
So you’re suggesting dot-cut-cut-dot, and of course we’ve evolved to triplet-hold. I think maybe that evolution of that is to go to the high note, the happy note.
JDH – These are the questions Jori and I go through all the time when we go back to these manuscripts. But what it’s let us do is to go back to something that allows us to be musicians. We look at this and compare it to Piobaireachd Society, and depending on context maybe what the PS shows makes sense, but maybe not. In this case, internally the fosgailte crunluath in Old Men makes better internal sense to pick up the dot-cut-cut-dot pattern.
Doing these comparisons and seeing the differences in the manuscripts has really forced us to experiment and try things out, and take on the responsibility for our choices we make as musicians.
Now, this let’s me pivot to the matter at hand: your choice to perform Red Hand. What has been your experience, as a musician, in learning this piece?
JL – I guess I am at this stage in my career where I just love looking at things like The Red Hand. Because, I’ve never heard The Red Hand played by anyone, with the exception of Donald MacLeod on his tapes. So I feel like it’s a blank page and I love that! I’m at this stage where I enjoy that! As a younger person learning how to play the fundamentals of the bagpipe, a tune like The Red Hand would be out of reach for a young piper. You require a certain level of experience to take on a tune like that.
I actually try to think a bit about what were they trying to do when they come up with a tune like that. There are some nifty little passages in the Red Hand, like the time of the 3 low As and the 6 low As, the timing of the redundant low A: it always disturbs me when I think about this, that the Piobaireachd Society seems to have unilaterally gashed the use of the redundant low A from 1901 onward. And all there books are without that low A.
I spend more and more time in my life, now that I’m in my 50s, looking at the MacArthur Manuscript and looking at MacKay, and I just really enjoy it. And of course, you are hard pressed to find a taorluath and a crunluath without a low A.
So, I take a tune like that, it seems like an ancient piece of music. It’s sort of basic, and like you (and Barnaby) described a kind of a rowing tune effect, something repetitive and basic and guttural and I’ve never heard before.
So i feel like I’m flashing back in time a little bit. And then, for me, the challenge is how to make music out of these “new” (to me) movements, and the redundant low A just seems to fit! It fits the way that tune would have been played. I been fortunate enough to be able to play it, physically, and sometimes I just get in the mood and I play it.
The two tunes I play a redundant low A in are War or Peace (which I love, I absolutely love that tune; it is on my top 10 favorite list) and The Red Hand of the MacDonald’s Arms. These are old, ancient tunes.
I’ll probably explore more of that in the years ahead. Much of my piping career has been focused around the competition setting. I’m a big believer that without competition, piping would not be as broadly based around the world, and nowhere nears as high a caliber of play without the motivation of competition. And so, I’m a very big believe in that.
At the same time, I’m a subscriber to the “it can limit you” perspective, and I know that. So, in my case, going to university, raising a family, running a pipe band – I just didn’t really have the time to explore some of these things. But now I’m at a point where I can enjoy some of these tune, more than I have been able to.
JDH – Have you had a chance to play this in competition?
JL – I played for the Seniors at Oban this year (2014). I didn’t place, but when I asked the judges, they didn’t have any problems with the performance. It was just that other pipers played better that day.
But a week later I was in Clasp at Inverness and I was competing about 7th or 8th from the beginning. But I noticed there was a guy first on – Duncan McGillivray. Very interesting player from northern Scotland. He doesn’t compete that much, but he came out and was first on. And I actually thought, he’s a player who might actually put on a tune like the Red Hand, because he’s just an interesting guy.
So I went specifically to hear him. He played this tune I didn’t recognize; it was so interesting. So, caught him later for a beverage (as they say), and I said, “Where in the heck did you get that tune?” He said, “I’ve only ever heard one other person in my life play that tune. I heard a recording of William J MacDonald of Inverness (who was a Gold medalist; also known as “Watchery Willie”, a nickname he had because he worked for the waterworks in northern Scotland – I tell you that because there were two Willie MacDonalds from northern Scotland).”
I just like it because Duncan played it differently than anything I did. I’m the type of person who likes to hear things that are kind of different and interesting, I guess.
I have been timing the hiharin of the Red Arms like this:
He went up there and did this:
JDH – Oh wow!
JL – I know. It was so cool! I just thought it was brilliant. I haven’t really played it since then: I teach it to a student in Pennsylvania, who loves this tune so much. I haven’t really played it that way myself, so I don’t know what we’ll do with it.
JDH – So, effectively, Duncan is playing the hiharin not as a birl, nor as it’s written in some the early manuscripts, but as was we would call today an “echo-beat”.
JL – That’s exactly what he did. And if you think about it in those terms, it makes some sense. I’m not a “right” or “wrong” person with these things.
And the source of these things, as you know better than I, a written source with words. It’s the canntaireachd. There’s no timing to it. The people who wrote these things down, like Angus MacKay, had to interpret the written canntaireachd and the oral canntaireachd and what they were hearing people play.
Angus MacKay may or may not have heard this tune played. It’s not the most commonly played tune now or maybe even then.
JDH – Angus MacKay’s Red Hand, for example, is the only one from pre-1840. There is no other extant version to compare it. Whereas he has something, like, up to three different times when he sat time and wrote out some other song – as though it was familiar to him, or popular, or just that over time he forgot it, but clearly other songs were around enough where he wrote them down several times. Not The Red Hand. Interesting.
In that way, it is a very respectful choice Duncan made, because hiharins were not birls. They were echo beats. And he chose the one version (short-long) over the others (long-short, or even).
JL – That’s a valid point.
I’m the sort of type of person that when I hear these different things think they are kind of cool. Not saying they are right or wrong; they are just cool. Even if I do or don’t do it, I think they are kind of cool.
JDH – It’s interesting that we often hear that the reason we don’t hear these different interpretations is do to the “industrial competition complex” I think it’s a cliche to bash competition, and I don’t want to do that. In fact, one of the interesting things I’ve learned from Ian MacInnes’ Masters thesis (on the website) was that when the producers of the original Edinburgh competition wanted to change from annual to triennial, the competitors themselves were upset. They were worried that too much time between competitions would not keep the momentum and motivation going for them to practice and get better.
Competition saved the music.
JL – I am pro competition, with a little asterisk behind it, because of what it’s done to piping. I see piping all around the world, strong pipers throughout the world. It’s amazing. Good tone, sound is just light years ahead of what it had been.
I also think this is a changing world. And for bagpiping, or any art form, to survive, you must appeal to the modern mindset, you must appeal to young people of this generation. It’s an instantaneous generation; it’s a fifteen-second, texting, Facebook generation. Bagpiping has got be exciting. It must be interesting. It must be fast and easy to learn and accessible to everybody. And the modern books that we have and the competition system and the pipe bands parading down the road: all those things touch the right buttons. And I think THAT is really important. Without those things, we don’t have a strong piping community around the world.
But, for a small segment of the piping community, of which you and I would be a part, we’re interested in just a little bit more than that – getting into the heart and soul of the music. It’s very very important that the music is being explored and being made available to people.
I wouldn’t not want to do the mainstream thing: that has been a big, big success. I want to see the instrument flourish.
JDH – Absolutely. Donald Lindsay was mentioning that a revolution in pibroch is about to take place (and this is the other side of the new generational thinking), because a young student may or may not get a Piobaireachd Society BOOK, but will also certainly get these easily accessible PDFs online.
JL – It’s trending in that direction. It’s very very exciting. And I must give a little bit of credit to the Piobaireachd Society.
JDH – Jack Taylor!
JL – I’ve been competing in the Clasp group for 30 years. And about 15 years ago the Piobaireachd Society was involved with other groups in the effort to publish the McArthur-McGregor manuscripts. And then they did the brilliant thing of requiring the senior players to submit tunes from that manuscript. And I was very excited about that! I’ve read that manuscript cover to cover several times, played most of the tunes in there, submitted them myself. It motivated me to get into that manuscript, and I thought it was amazing.
And that was a very helpful manuscript, because it shows the three stages: the original facsimile of the document itself (love it; can’t read it, but I love the fact that it is there); then an interpretation section in the middle (thought that was helpful); then a modern score that we can read. I thought that was brilliant because it was otherwise difficult to read.
Previous to that I was probably reading Angus MacKay more than other manuscripts. It’s full of errors. As brilliant as he was, the attention detail wasn’t there. So I just found the McArthur McGregor manuscript brilliant. I found the publishing of that manuscript was a big thing for piping and a lot of the pipers throughout the world
And it was set again two years ago. And that just makes us play those tunes. And I love it. I wrote my graduate certificate from the Institute of Piping on that manuscript.
JDH – Yes. And Jack allowed me to get PDFs of that manuscript and publish them on my site. Jack has been brilliant…
What, in particular, excites you about the McArthur-McGregor material?
JL – It boils down to this. I feel like when you read that book, it is like a flashback in time to how music might have been played in the early 1800s without being filtered and translated for you by other people since then. All the echo notes, the hiharins, the D-throws, the crunluaths and taorluaths were all written very differently. So when I was playing tunes out of that book, I attempted to be respectful and true to the music.
I have played three of them heavily: I got second in the Clasp on year with Pride of Barra (PS 84). I played that tune respectfully, as written.
I played Lady Margaret MacDonald’s Salute (189) a lot. I think that is a phenomenal, impactful tune.
The one I really love is the nameless lament (PS 192) in the MacArthur book and actually won the Clasp with it. It’s one of my favorite, favorite tunes. I literally think that is the most difficult piece I have ever played in my life. It is so good, so challenging, so rich. It was a great experience for me. With that particular tune it took me over a year to learn that tune, to get that tune to a place where I wanted to be with it.
JDH – That Urlar is really beautiful, isn’t it? it is wide open, lots of left hand.
JL – Epic. It is so musically and technically demanding. So amazing. I love that tune. Love. That. Tune.
JDH – That should have been very exciting for a judge to hear that.
JL – Of course, I’ve never heard anybody else ever play that tune. There’s no point on some of these tunes going to your Donald MacLeod library. He would never have played that tune.
JDH – There are only three parts to the tune.
JL – Very, very difficult three-section tune. No crunluath or taorluath.
So, those are three tunes I’ve really gotten into.
I tell a lie. I think I did MacKay’s Lament from McArthur as well this year. (PS 39) I learned it – it was on the Set Tune list, but I don’t think it got picked for me that year.
JDH – That’s a very interesting statement you just made. I’m not going to harp on it too much, but Jori (Chisholm) and I go around and around on it a bit, because I want to encourage him to take a risk.
This tune was on the Set List and you chose the MacArthur manuscript version, right?
JL – Yup.
JDH – Now, I’ve asked a few people this: 2015 is an open set list, correct?
JL – Only for the Gold medal and Silver medal. For the Senior group, there is a set list, not open for us.
JDH – Okay, so I’ve been suggesting to him: if he gets to pick his own tunes, why doesn’t he pick something from, say, Donald MacDonald or McArthur-McGregor? Maybe even Hannay-MacAuslan (although that manuscript hasn’t been officially published by the Society).
He’s worried about the consequences of choosing that version of that tune because he’s uncertain of the consequences of judge being unfamiliar with it and therefore “penalize” (not accept, really – nothing necessarily malicious and intentionally retributive) him because the judge doesn’t know the setting.
My argument with him is, if you give the judge a list that includes a non-standard setting, and it is selected, that means the judges want to hear that setting.
JL – I take a different view. I think that of you go up to a judge and you say that you are playing a certain tune out of the McArthur manuscripts (for example), or the Donald MacDonald manuscripts or other manuscripts, I think that there is an instant reaction of respect from the judge. They realize you are a student of the art, if you go up there with one of these tunes. You aren’t a person who just threw it together at the last minute, because for you to play McArthur setting or a Donald MacDonald setting or even an Angus MacKay setting, it’s a big study. You can make the case that to learn one of these tunes well enough to play at a major event is a major study. I think there is a degree of respect that.
Now, at the same time, you better do it well, or else it’s a negative.
JDH – How does a judge know how to judge something that they are unfamiliar with if you give them a version that they don’t know? If you, personally, were to judge something like that, how would you negotiate that tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar?
JL – Those are hard questions and good questions. There are a couple of other things, though. I think there’s a kind of a hierarchy in piping, so to speak. For example, the tone of the bagpipe: the first thing the judge notices is the tone of the bagpipe. The second thing the judge notices is the quality of your fingering. And the third thing the judges notice is the expressiveness and appropriative-ness of your playing. The hard reality of it is, most pibroch competitions are to some extent decided before you get overly interpretive.
That could be both positive and negative: someone else can blow you away with a beautiful bagpipe, for example.
So, for these manuscript settings to become an issue, you have to be the same level as others with everything else before expression is a big thing. So, when expression does become the pre-eminent item, you have to use good judgement: what makes musical sense, do it consistently, don’t shock the listener with radical playing, but play appropriately.
But I think it’s also very, very important to be respectful to the music. This is true for any music.
And in the case of a colonial like myself going over there (and Jori, who is an American): respect is a very important thing, respect for the great music of Scotland.
I think it can be done, it has been done.
JDH – Out of curiosity, when you play these older settings, do you perform the redundant-A crunluaths and taorluaths?
JL – Absolutely.
There are some very funky cadences, rather cool cadences and added-in grace notes and specific technical things in the Nameless Lament that I thought were phenomenal. And I did my best to play them as they were meant to be played by McArthur.
JDH – You will find a lot of little movements like that throughout the early manuscripts. Post-MacKay, they are gone. They are not there anymore. MacKay wanted to standardize movements and eliminated a lot of them in his publications and manuscripts. We are left having to reconstruct some of these things. But musically, it opens up a lot more options for the player.
JL – Now, you and I are in the minority here. I understand and respect that a lot of pipers aren’t particularly interested in these old manuscripts and particular settings. And I know it’s a function of time as well: there is never enough time for these things: people are working, raising families, playing bagpipes. It’s hard to do it all. And I don’t have a lot of time either, but I get such a kick out of these old time settings. The music is great music and I also feel that a great piece of music is always going to be a great piece of musicIno matter how it is presented, really, within certain boundaries. When somebody plays a beautiful pibroch from the Piobaireachd Society collection, still, I get very excited about it. It is a great piece of music, and not because it comes out of the Piobaireachd Society setting.
JDH – Going forward for this next year, what are your pibroch goals?
JL – In regards to spreading my wings, this will be a “paying” year for me, only because the lists tend to dictate a big chunk of my life. You get the list from the Piobaireachd Society and then you think, “What am I going to do with it?” The list I have, I think I have figured out what four tunes I’ll submit. These tunes I’ll have done many times. I don’t have to learn these tunes from scratch, I’ve played these tunes, each of them, many times and will try to play them better.
JDH – You know there are just under 300 tunes from pre-1840 in existence? How many would estimate you’ve performed?
JL – Okay, again, I am minority. I have a website Leeandsons.com. On it I have library. It’s the largest of its kind the world. It’s not bragging; it just is. I am in the process of playing a lot of music for my website. Whenever I get the pipes out the recorder is going. So, I’ve already recorded 219 pibrochs. There is another 195 on the site, I’ve recorded another 24 I haven’t put them up yet. More than likely I will record them all. I will probably be in the position to say I will play every tune in the Piobaireachd Society collection. As it is, I probably already have, or probably very close to that.
JDH – Even the small tunes?
JL – Oh yeah. This fall I had such a ball I went through a lot of nameless tunes. What a hoot! These things are so good.
JDH – Did you check out the canntaireachd for them?
JL – No, I never really had time. I just picked up the bagpipe and played them. So, I’ve been through a lot of the little tunes this year. I just get a kick out of it. Some of those tunes are terribly under-rated. I guess I love hearing good music I’ve never heard before. It lets me play them any way I want. It’s my little molecule of contribution to the tradition.
JDH – One little suggestion: when you encounter a short tune, have you tried improvising the rest of the movements, fill out the tune by adding more music?
JL – I’ve never actually done that. That’s a cool deal. Maybe that’s something I should do, because, you know, I get to the end and think, “What? It’s over already?”
JDH – It’s kind of interesting: you could add, say, a fosgailte taorluath and crunluath and extend the tune.
JL – Maybe we should make that an Invermark project: take one of these nameless tunes and say, “Hey, guys: let’s finish the tune.” That would be fun, everyone would come back to the class with a variation. It would depend on the class: an advanced class, with people open to that kind of idea.
JDH – Well, I don’t want to keep you any longer. I appreciate your time, wish you the best of luck with your performances and pibroch “studies”, and look forward to seeing you again at Invermark!
JL – My pleasure.