The APC Approach (I) to Pibroch

I’ve made a decision.

I would like, with the help of your feedback, to embark upon a project.  The goals of the project are two-fold:

  1. To record pibroch.  The first phase will be on the Hannay-MacAuslan collection, the proto-Macdonald scores that reflect a particular pibroch style no longer heard.
  2. To develop a concrete, memorable and replicable approach by which others may embark upon a similar journey. In fact, it would be great if members of this Club, while witnessing my sausage making in develop the approach and recording the scores, would take the same approach to other primary source songs* and submit their journeys as well in the future.

Looking back, I see that I most recently spent 11 posts “Interpreting Primary Source Manuscripts”.  This was a precursor to what follows.

I am concerned with legacy.  I am concerned with the fact that pibroch performance has been limited and distorted over the last 100 years by the capricious and audacious actions of two aristocrats running the Piobaireachd Society: capricious, insofar as the Campbells each decided to publish materials based upon their own research and editorial style, rather than making the original sources available; audacious, because they coordinated such activity with other groups and individuals at the time to create an interpretive orthodoxy.  This orthodoxy not only damaged personal reputations, but resulted in a significant and continued reduction in the interpretive and performative space of pibroch.

The primary source materials are our means of correcting this imbalance.  And yet, few people are exploring and performing them with the kind of success that would constitute traction for their re-introduction into the musico-cultural sphere.  I would like to see more: more students, more performances, more competitors, more choices.

How best to do this?  Well, perhaps this might not be the best way to do it, but it is a way I would like to explore here and see what happens.

This way is something I will call the Alt Pibroch Club Approach.

Yes, that’s kind of obnoxious, but follow along for a moment.

If we can present a concrete, memorable and replicable approach to interpreting the primary source materials, it will be easier to share this approach with others and let them explore.  The purpose is not to create another stylistic or interpretive orthodoxy, but to offer a toolkit that allows pipers to try their own hands at taking on these priceless treasures and feel confident with their ability to explain and defend their results.

So, what is the core of the APC Approach?  I suggest (for the moment – this is dependent upon your feedback) the following five rules for clearing out the cruft and getting a handle on the ancient materials.

  1. Primary sources are required.
  2. Genres are distinctive.
  3. Cadences are optional.
  4. Crahinin are flexible.
  5. Urlar refrains are transformative.

These are simple, yet profound rules that can help any piper grapple with a score, find the song behind the score, and turn in it into a opportunity for informed, but also potentially quite personal interpretive expression.

In the weeks ahead, I will develop these thoughts a bit more fully, and apply them during my effort to record the 10 scores in the assembled Hannay-MacAuslan collection.

More to follow…


6 thoughts on “The APC Approach (I) to Pibroch

  1. I’ve been running through the Ballindalloch manuscript of Donald MacKay’s arrangement from Ronald MacKenzie of His Father’s Lament for Donald MacKenzie.  Although this is mid-Victorian, it seems the closest we have of the original John Ban MacKenzie lament.  I am struggling with the memorization of how the different echo beats are written.  Playing them differently almost every time adds great intricacies in the interpretation, but holy smoke it’s a bear to learn!  Especially when the written styles seem not to match the variations.  It will be some time before I present a copy of the manuscript to a judge, but I am imagining it will require too much suspension of doctrine for many to believe an urlar with 5, count them 5, different ways to write an E echo is anything other than some grand error or practical joke.  It makes it challenging and lovely to play though, and that’s what I’m after!  Any suggestions on how to approach this wonderful piece is appreciated.

  2.  Since you intend to continue this as a series and no-one has yet made any critical comment on this first offering I would like to offer one while awaiting the rest of the parts. Therefore this is a response to your paragraph starting ‘I am concerned with legacy’.

    There has been a trend over the last few decades of blaming all ills on the Piobaireachd Society and more specifically on Archibald Campbell, ( you have ‘Campbells’ plural but in terms of editors of the PS’s published music , there was only one).  It is of course easy to criticise the dead as they cannot claim a right of response and it avoids dealing with the elephant both within and outside of the room, to which I will return. Campbell along with his friends and acquaintances were certainly among the gentry, though not at the elevated level the term ‘aristocrat’ normally implies.

    However it has to be appreciated that they were of their time, and society worked worked differently back then. From a modern perspective we may now not find it palatable but that was how it was and it is extremely unlikely that what they achieved could have been undertaken by anyone lower down that social scale. Furthermore as ‘legacy’ is one of the motives you mention, their ‘legacy’ albeit not how anyone would go about it today, is that we are actually having this conversation about piobaireachd now.

    I always find it amusing when people criticise Campbell and company without actually having at least examined what they were actually basing their editing on. I have I think previously referred to the ‘Kilberry Folders’ deposited in the National Library of Scotland. It is clear from those that as wide a database on each tune that it was possible to acquire was gathered together and that the interpretations were not purely some whim of Campbell alone. For example there are individual pages from Angus MacKay ‘corrected by Alexander Cameron‘ and frequent input from MacDougal-Gillies among others.

    It is certainly possible to quibble with the editing which apart from anything else is not of a standard that would be required today, but it was not today. They were also working under somewhat different circumstances in terms of compiling such work. Even where they had an original source it could not be simply reproduced but required hand copying, (with further potential for introducing errors). Original sources are central to your argument but a number of them were not in fact available, in fact the one that you intend to start with only turned up after Campbell had died.

    It is actually a good example that your rather blanket criticism is a little scatter gun in approach in that when the ‘Hannay – MacAusan’ manuscript first came to a wider notice in 1972 it was privately owned. With the approval of its owner it was then placed on deposit in the National Library of Scotland until finally gifted to the library by Dr MacAuslan in 1998. So exactly how the Piobaireachd Society or the earlier series editors can be blamed for not making what seems to be the earliest ‘dots and lines’ source available or taking it into account for their earlier published books is a mystery to me.

    However when you use such terms a ‘interpretive orthodoxy’, ‘more performances, more competitors more choices’ it brings us back to that elephant I referred to earlier. That animal in the background is known as competitions and to fairly quote Archibald Campbell himself ‘The writer already has hinted at his belief that the competition system, which seems to be the chief means of keeping piobaireachd playing alive at the present time, encourages the mechanical side of the art at the expense of the spiritual’.

    There is not today or has been in the past anything to stop anybody from playing the tunes in any way or from any source they like. It is only if someone enters the competition world that the ‘orthodoxy’ you mentioned comes into play, but competitions tend to do that. I referred earlier this year to a study on Sean Nos singing which showed changes brought on through competition and back around 1967 the late William Matheson was making a similar point about the singing at the Mod, ( and judging there until relatively recently had its own problems in that while there was a qualified music adjudicator their being a Gaelic speaker was not a necessary requirement).

    Competitions have always been problematic, there is in fact something of a stushie re-judging occurring just now. Though I have always had a somewhat jaundiced personal view that while it is possible to ‘judge’ up to a certain level for technique, music as an art form is subjective. That is it is a matter of personal taste and that is a very diverse field. I have often wondered what if all piping competitions were banned, for say a generation of about ten years, what the piping scene would look like if re-visited after that? 

    1. Keith –

      Thank you for your comments. They are most welcome and provide an important perspective, one not unfamiliar to me.

      It is quite clear that Archibald Campbell did Herculean work and research. I respect that. But I also recognize it for it is: the work of his time and place. I, too, was raised in the academic milieu that was the foundational paradigm for what he did: the textual, source, form and redactional criticisms of the early 20th century coming out of Germany in the field of biblical studies had a profound impact upon the humanities in Europe, and certainly exposed much of what went on at that time under “historical research” as wanting. Archibald did what others were doing, and the results are still with us today.

      But they are also now both unnecessary and thoroughly idiosyncratic, as well documented elsewhere by others. Let’s be clear: you can play music anywhere. Of course. But the competition environment and the orthodoxy the arose from it was not a just “natural” consequence that mystically arises from “competition”. It is was also the product of material and personal histories, and the results were not necessarily benign by any means: people were hurt, dismissed as crackpots, ignored, sidelined and overlooked. The pain was real, including economic, because others were around to ensure a particular style and approach was to be performed and awarded.

      To some extent, that is still true today. I might even argue, it may be even more intensively so, as a new generation of pipers mimics a soon-to-be-retiring generation in an effort to “sound like everyone else, only better.”

      The question becomes, therefore: is there, in fact, room for these original sources behind the PS Collection in such an environment? I don’t know. Some (darker) days, I feel doubtful.

      What I, personally, am certain of: as valuable as Archibald Campbell’s efforts may have been, their results are no longer necessary – we have the materials today that he sorted through and edited. We can encounter them directly, without the additional mediation of a later editorial hand cleaning things up, selecting things, combining other things and producing an “authoritative” result.

      Maybe it’s simpler for some people to read the PS Collection. Maybe it’s easier. Maybe it’s more familiar. That’s fine.

      But for me they are a testimony to a by-gone era, and a resource no longer necessary.

  3. I think you have fallen into several traps at once. Everyone is entitled to ideas and to expressing them, but to launch yours as an “APC Approach” without any warning or discussion puts me in a very uncomfortable position. My name is on this site as a co-editor. I can’t be co-editor and accept the title of this approach.

    Everything Keith points out I agree with, but there are further serious problems. You write:

    1. Primary sources are required.
    2. Genres are distinctive.
    3. Cadences are optional.
    4. Crahinin are flexible.
    5. Urlar refrains are transformative.

    These are simple, yet profound rules that can help any piper grapple with a score, find the song behind the score, and turn in it into a opportunity for informed, but also potentially quite personal interpretive expression.

    You have not debated this, testing it out with colleagues. Where did you get the idea that cadences are optional? Surely you mean something different – there are cadences in every pibroch source I know of and long held ones in the earliest notations. The “Hi” in Hiharin is a cadence. To my mind, this is FAR from ready to go public on a site that aspires to have credibility. Would you mind renaming it the ‘David Hester Approach – v1, December 2016’. Then I can relax and get on with family Christmas preparations!

    This is neither the time nor place to enter into a long discussion, but your post provokes me to write a series of posts which will appear in the New Year, explaining why my whole approach is so fundamentally different to this v1 of yours. One of the big issues I have with it could be called notational fundamentalism. Rooklidge comments above:

    I am struggling with the memorization of how the different echo beats are written.  Playing them differently almost every time adds great intricacies in the interpretation, but holy smoke it’s a bear to learn!

    Notational fundamentalism, in my experience, distances us from the music, concealing the song and the sense. If you are worrying about surface details, adhering to any busy type of notation, then there is too much load on the brain. The music needs to come off the page and pour from your soul. A less busy type of notation really helps, one where you can see more clearly the sense, the syntax, the framework on which surface details hang. This is separating rendition from composition – personal expression (spontaneous decorations and expressive nuances) from the piece itself.

    My own approach for the last 5 years or so has been to start and finish the memorisation process by singing, without touching the pipe. J.F. Campbell, whose nurse on Islay was “John Piper”, Colin Campbell’s son, wrote this:

    They first learned to chant words with tunes; then to finger tunes silently by memory; and at last to sound them, by blowing a musical instrument…

    J. F. Campbell, Canntaireachd: Articulate Music (Glasgow: Archibald Sinclair, 1880), p. 8.

    Is this a non-APC approach? Lets use our personal names and keep the Club as something more organic, as diverse as its members. I want to continue trying new approaches and believe in tailoring an approach to each individual – customising the approach not only to the student but to the project at hand. Does the APC aspire to only one project? Where is extemporaneous composition? There is no shortage of evidence for that in our primary sources.

    I want to belong to a Club that cultivates multiple voices and innovation, the idea of a single approach is anathema to me.

    There’s another big issue raised by this post. I strongly agree with Rab Wallace’s point in a meeting we had in 2013, that it is unhelpful when those in the ‘alternative’ camp are disparaging about what is perceived as ‘competition style’ pibroch. The reality is far more nuanced than this simplistic conception. Binary thinking, competition vs alternative, is divisive and potentially toxic. There are wonderful refreshing things being presented at Oban and Inverness; they are winning first prizes and have been for some time. Making the tune your own, standing out from the crowd, has always been part of competition success.

    From 2017 forwards, please lets be vigilant about avoiding any underlying implication that one style or approach is inferior or superior. Could I suggest two New Year resolutions for us both – and for everyone publishing APC posts?

    1. When dealing with music (rather than history), we will embed an audio file or video so that readers can hear what we are talking about.
    2. We are not disparaging about any other approach, particularly not one perceived as orthodox.

    What you are doing to ignite discussion and to build a healthy platform for developing pipers’ music making is wonderful and I thank you deeply. There is an enormous amount of tedious work you do behind the scenes that readers may not appreciate. Here’s a glass to the APC and to your sausage-making! I look forward to hearing the results of your project and will do my best to provide support by posting canntaireachd vocables – less busy scores corresponding to H – with recordings that make it easier to sing. A Barnaby Brown approach – one of them.

    Happy Christmas!

    1. Barnaby – good to hear from you.

      Let me try to address these concerns here.

      Firstly, I have changed the series titles to “The APC Approach I”, thereby indicating the potential for other approaches, and yet hopefully providing an umbrella and identity that may help protect anything we post as “pure idiosyncrasy”. By posting them here, for discussion and debate, we are de-mystifying the learning and interpretive process, and making available models that others may choose to use in their own efforts.

      Secondly, I have tested these rules. They are the result of years of my own exploration. I have tested them on my own, with students, and with teachers. They are the culmination of my explorations, and the results are the performances I have made in public and recorded here. They may not be rules YOU adhere to, but that doesn’t mean they have not been vetted elsewhere by others.

      Thirdly, these “rules” are meant to be provactive, concrete and memorable. As each comes out, I will elaborate on them and provide more of context, explanation and perhaps even nuanced. You, personally, can view them prior to publication, if you think that will help.

      Fourthly, setting out history may always come across as a challenge to those who have benefited from it. Rab Wallace complains about critiques of “competition pibroch”, because he is deeply vested in it, emotionally, artistically and economically. Saying is doing nothing other than stating facts.

      Fifthly, you and I may wish for multi-vocality. But, personally, I have neither time, energy nor interest in continuing to support “competition style” pibroch. It has plenty of personal, professional and institutional support and doesn’t need anything more from me. I want to create a space where other styles are allowed to breathe without worrying about it, free from its dominance.

      And let’s be clear: it is dominant.

      To my mind, it can go be dominant somewhere else. I want to explore and encourage other styles here. Hence the moniker Alt Pibroch Club.

  4. I’m afraid I am coming at this from a far less intellectual approach.  I am not only a newer player, but am just transitioning into some of the musical opportunities offered here.  I started this journey with a Victorian piece that may not interest some of the better trained and educated players out there, but it is accessible to me and something I picked for the simplicity and melody.  I have been steeped in the notation fundamentalism rampant in competitive piping for just a few years, and my transition outside that box will surely come in fits and starts.  My revelation above regarding the various ways to write and play double echoes on the same note within the urlar of one tune came as a shock and delightful surprise, only a mental challenge for my “adult learner” grey matter.

    I know that my careful attention to notation right now may set the bit to one side, but it is how I believe I can expand my repertoire while branching out to embrace the more holistic musical options suggested.  Baby steps for me, I suppose, compared to those with a lifetime of learning pipes, but as this site seems to support an individual’s need to explore at our own pace, I think I remain in a comfortable environment for that.

    My immediate focus is to present a well-rounded musical performance at a local highland games competition because it is one of the few options I have to play in public, where there will be nobody interested in understanding my approach except perhaps a bored judge who will finally hear something out of the ordinary (or orthodox).  Not a life-changing event by any means, but a slow, subversive manner of instilling a bit of me in the music.  I very much appreciate the learned voices here, and hope to hear much more in future.

    Cheers for all the APC members and friends in this new year.  It will be a challenge, but worth the effort.

    yours aye,


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