We’re playing it wrong…(No. 5)

[The admittedly provocative, but also tongue-in-cheek title, ‘we’re playing it wrong’, is meant to awaken our readership to these facts. After all the times other people have told me, ‘you are playing it wrong’, I thought it would be fun to turn the tables a bit. ]

Fosgailte – open

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A proposal to the Piobaireachd Society: Perhaps we consider returning to this form of the the movement when publishing future editions and volumes?  It is clearly evident from history that this form of the movement was older than Angus MacKay’s style we play today.

The evidence simply starts to add up to one compelling argument: As performers and musicians, we should rethink our current stylistic limitations and take another look at the materials we have available to us.

Of course, there are many folks who are deeply interested in continuing with the current status quo.

From judges who honestly hold to the conviction that they are carrying forward a tradition history accurately and respectfully, that they are the caretakers of interpretive history bequeathed them by their teachers;

To competitors who have experienced the esteem of their peers, who know that their names have literally been etched into the history books with their victories, and who therefore have little incentive to deviate at all from the way in which they perform and compete.

To students whose tuition by both judges and competitors alike is imbued with the hope of following in the footsteps of their tutor’s success.

But are we competitors, or are we musicians?  The terms need not be mutually exclusive.

As musicians and respectful students of the art of pibroch, the lessons we can learn from exploring ancient differences in style, expression and interpretation include a broadening and deepening of our abilities as performers of this music. The toolset for musical expression and interpretation was, and could become, much larger than we now imagine.

As competitors, we may choose to take a more conservative approach, but let’s be clear: we are conserving a modern interpretive shift, not an ancient one.  Nevertheless, even a modern interpretive approach to these tunes is better informed when exploring the plethora of options that we, as students, encounter in these older traditions.  We become better musicians, and can bring that musicality to bear in our modern approaches.

But make no mistake – the idiom was much larger than it is today. And its musicality was much more vivacious and alive than it is today.

Joseph MacDonald proves it.


6 thoughts on “We’re playing it wrong…(No. 5)

  1. To expand on the remark ‘the idiom was much larger than it is today’, we might consider exploring the roots of pibroch and leaving, temporarily, the parochial limitations of Mss and the Competition cult.

    In 1963 or 64, the famous musician Ravi Shankar came to The Edinburgh Festival, and a meeting was arranged between him and Capt. John MacLellan, Head of The Army School of Piping, to explore the idea that pibroch had something in common with Indian Raga.

    Performances of each were heard, and it was agreed that a similarity exists. But nothing further happened. To me, this was an astounding revelation, since it implied that the culture of which pibroch was part had its roots in Northern India – not a surprising idea, when you consider that Gaelic is an Indo-European language, and that the Celtic-speaking tribes of western Europe migrated from that area in ancient times.
    But what was most astonishing were the deep parallels between these two musical traditions. Like pibroch, Raga starts off very slowly, and goes through cycles in which the rhythm increases, and complex riffs very like the tuludh and Creanludh and later cuttings described by Joseph MacDonald are played. Like pibroch, Raga is not written down but handed on vocally and by example (it has survived for a very long time through oral tradition alone). Like pibroch, it relies on a system of vocables, similar to canntaireachd. Like pibroch, it has modes and expresses moods. And, it exists in a variety of forms – unlike pibroch.

    Another implication of this revelation is that the music we have has not changed fundamentally, and retains a remarkable degree of similarity, despite the tweaking of modern ‘experts’.

    Those who would like to explore Raga and meet this distant relative can do so, as the Internet abounds with examples. A word of warning, however: Raga is very long (also like pibroch); a typical performance will take 15 – 20 minutes. And, because we are not used to it, Raga may sound all the same (again like pibroch, to the newbie).

    A Raga played in Edinburgh was Raag Bhairavi, and a recording of Ravi Shankar can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcX9zYShHxs

    The above is played on the Sitar, a stringed instrument with a link to the harp, from which it is speculated pibroch may have derived its distinctive techniques and forms.

    Here is another version of the same Raga, but sung, in a manner reminiscent of Flamenco singing (another parallel, which will not be explored here): https://web.archive.org/web/20170921094933/https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5EVIEaIhFU

    And, lastly, here is a discussion of Indian Music, which should strike a few familiar notes with pibroch students http://chandrakantha.com/articles/indian_music/

    Extract from article: “The present system of Indian music is based upon two important pillars: rag and tal. Rag is the melodic form while tal is the rhythmic.
    Rag may be roughly equated with the Western term mode or scale. There is a system of seven notes which are arranged in a means not unlike Western scales. However when we look closely we see that it is quite different what we are familiar with.
    The tal (rhythmic forms) are also very complex. Many common rhythmic patterns exist. They revolve around repeating patterns of beats.
    The interpretation of the rag and the tal is not the same all over India. Today there are two major traditions of classical music. There is the north Indian and the south Indian tradition. The North Indian tradition is known as Hindustani sangeet and the south Indian is called Carnatic sangeet. Both systems are fundamentally similar but differ in nomenclature and performance practice.
    Many musical instruments are peculiar to India. The most famous are the sitar and tabla. However there are many more that the average person may not be familiar with.
    All of this makes up the complex and exciting field of Indian classical music. Its understanding easily consumes an entire lifetime.”

    It is both ironic and tragic that Joseph MacDonald, who hoped to win the heart of an Indian Princess with his highland clothes, died in India before he had the chance to discover this fascinating connection. What would he have made of it?

  2. Excellent idea. I love the sound of the old fosgailte. Perhaps if Willie McCallum or someone of that stature were to play the open fosgailte (redundant, I know) others would be encouraged to do the same.

  3. Very good summary of the difficulties in performance style change. There are too many vested interests involved and the tyranny of the tape recorder means that it is much more difficult to advocate for change when there are extant recordings of John MacDonald (God) available.

    I personally play at home in the Joseph and Donald MacDonald style.

    Who to believe? The books? The recordings?

    These issues are now nearly impossible to untangle!

  4. Not impossible. They simply require:
    1) a bit of work – in the form of experimentation, comparison, growing familiarity
    2) a bit of responsibility – making one’s own decisions as a musician, performing, listening, adjusting, performing, listening again and ultimately embracing one’s own (respectful) choices

    Not easy, but not “impossible” :^)

    Buck up! Make choices! Experiment! Learn! Take a chance! Play!
    Have fun!

    This is the realm of musicianship, at a level where we do not have authorities to protect us. Scary, but that’s okay.

    We can do it!

    1. I agree with thevoidboy.

      However you will need to hold a claymore to the neck of the competitors AND judges before any change is possible. Where’s Rob Roy MacGregor when you need him!

      I awaited with great eagerness for the arrival of PS16. What a disappointment!

      I am already having to check back to the quoted sources to correct the scores upon which the PS16 settings *claim* to be based.

      The fact is that todays top performing pipers are crap at reading and interpreting old scores. Absolutely clueless! What is that saying about every problem looking like a nail when all one has is a hammer?

      Same here. To a competition-trained piper, every old setting of a piobaireachd looks like a failed Kilberry score!

  5. Allan, thanks for the tip about PS 16. You might be a bit too hard on “today’s top performing pipers” and might want distinguish them from the top competing pipers, which is what I think you meant. The top competitor has to make sure the instrument is immaculate and stunning, that the technique is immaculate and stunning, and that there are no note mistakes. After that they can think about expression and interpretation. The judges are there to enforce their authority and to confirm their prestige. Doubtless, some will read that as a criticism and take offense, but what else are they there for? To save the music? It is well preserved, mummified in fact. To further the tradition? Well, yes, their tradition. To bestow prestige, glory, product endorsement and other earthly delights? Absolutely. So, what’s in it for us, except that it gives us an opportunity to vent our spleen? This is why I believe looking to the competition pipers and judges for change is a waste of time. If things change, it will be because they change outside the competition system first.

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