Genres and Tempos

by J David Hester, PhD

As one reads through the manuscripts at the Musical Materials site, one begins to sense the origins of current contours of pibroch performance.

What is the one complaint often voiced by audience members regarding pibroch performance?

It all sounds the same.

There is a reason for that, and the reason is pretty obvious when one considers it.  But rather than stating the reason, it would be more effective to lay it out.

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Under the taxonomy of bagpipe music, pibroch is viewed as a musical genre, equivalent to being a march or slow air or reel, etc.  Understanding pibroch in this way, the songs of the genre are approached in a consistent fashion: Much as strathspeys are to be played in a certain way appropriate for the genre (lively speed, pulsing expression, pointed dot-cuts, uneven triplets), so too are pibroch to be played in a certain way consistent with the expectations of its “genre”: slowly, like a lament.

But pibroch is not a genre.  Pibroch is class of music comprised of multiple genres.

How do we know this?

  1. Take a look at the list of titles.  In English we see frequent use of terms such as: march, gathering, salute, lament and others.  In Gaelic we see failte, cumha, cruinneachadh and others.  While titles are notorious in variability, even on the same tune, the point cannot be denied that they reflect an awareness of distinct styles of performance  (regardless of whether there is controversy over the title of a specific tune).  Phenomenologically, the traditions informing the names reflect an awareness of different musical expectations
  2. Musical history and ethnology report specific occasions at which pibroch was played, including gathering of the clans, laments for times of mourning, salutes for celebration, rowing tunes for sailing.   Joseph MacDonald mentions marches (including gatherings) and rural pieces (including laments) as broad classifications in 1760.  “Marches” is a broad martial category of tunes (which are quite distinct from quick-step marches from a much later centuries in the development of the music).
  3. Empirical musicology: What is necessary is a useful, objective determination of specific elements of the urlar that can be identified, characterized, collated and sorted according their frequency of appearance. This would provide insight into the make up of genre classifications (much as is done in literary genre studies) and would help identify those tunes whose classification may be difficult, or tunes that cross generic lines (the human mind and creativity is far more fertile than most classification systems can capture, but knowing the “norm” helps identify the “creative”.)  We may see, for example, far more frequent appearance of echo phrases in laments than in salutes.

Clearly, then, pibroch is not a single genre, but a collection of genres. As with any other form of communication, pibroch was developed into specific kinds of identifiable genres as a result of the expectations of the audience regarding the exigence for the performance: are we gathered here to celebrate? to commemorate? to row? to rally to the chieftain?  In this way, pibroch is no different than any form of oratory art, and history clearly shows us this fact.

If this is true, then modern pibroch is, in essence, a singularity, a black hole of pibroch performance: all generic distinctions have been reduced to a single performance style.  All genres have been reduced to one.

It would be like performing every piece of classical music in the same way, with the same pacing and style.

Or imagine every ceol  beag played in exactly the same style: e.g., all marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs and hornpipes played and competed as slow airs.

We know how this happened: After the loss at Culloden and the collapse of the chieftain system, without the traditional social occasions to support it, pibroch lost its defining generic constraints.

Thereafter, an inevitable standardization began in the late-18th, early-19th century with the Highland Society competitions and the introduction of the notational system.  The ground had shifted fundamentally, and much of what was retained of pibroch had lost its original context. What took place was an effort at conservation, but eventually at the price of genre reductionism.

It is not impossible to reverse this situation.  With the availability of Donald MacDonald (book) and Peter Reid, we can consider the tempo indications they make. Take a look:

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These markings  are not particularly specific (there is no metronomic indicator), but certainly “lively” is different from “slow” and “moderate”.  Angus MacKay’s book refers to traditional, Italiante tempo indicators as well: from Andante to Adagio.

Therefore, the first thing to consider is that based upon simple tempo indicators, pibroch tunes clearly were performed at different speeds.  Whether we can extrapolate from there and correlate specific speed to specific genres may be difficult do, but at Learning Living Pibroch we have spent (and will continue to spend) a lot of time and energy exploring the exciting new realm of genre criticism of pibroch tunes and what it may have to say with respect to interpretation of pibroch tunes, including the question of tempos.

So far we have touched upon, for example:

And there are plenty more to consider (salutes, for example; but also sub-genres of each of the major genres).

This is an on-going and brand new area of research with far-reaching consequences for performance: each genre represents a demand upon the performer by the audience to meet certain expectations regarding the appropriate style of performance for a given occasion.  While it is true that some of these social contexts are no longer around (after all, there are not many galleys used to row across the high seas, nor many safe occasions for pipers to lead men into battle), that does not mean we should ignore the interpretive possibilities.  After all, playing a lament is different than rallying troops.

So, if you run across a “gathering tune”, consider performing it in a way that suggests an effort to communicate urgency and inspiration, rather than sorrow.

But until genre criticism matures, we do have collections here and here where tempo indications are clearly marked.  That’s a start. And insofar as these markings do, indeed, vary significantly, when we begin to take them seriously and play them differently, we begin to reconstruct a foundation upon which the multiplicity of pibroch genres can begin to take shape.

Also, keep checking the Genre lists we compile at the Musical Materials site.

All of this will certainly contribute to the day where audiences can no longer accuse pibroch of “all sounding the same”.

Return to Modern Traditional Piper.

2 thoughts on “Genres and Tempos

  1. The complaint that all pibroch ‘sounds the same’ reminds me of the observation that all Chinese look alike, and similar ones about language – to someone familiar with oriental physiognomies, each face is different, and anyone familiar with pibroch can usually identify a tune as soon as the first notes have been played. This is not intended to undermine the excellent point about tempos, however.

  2. “So, if you run across a “gathering tune”, consider performing it in a way that suggests an effort to communicate urgency and inspiration, rather than sorrow.”

    See Roddy Cannon anent Gatherings, from his edited version of Joseph MacDonald’s Treatise: It would seem the original tune was a gathering, but it is now something else.

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