Playing it by the book


by Michael Grey
Piping Today #49, 2010.

Bagpipe music publishers will never experience the mass market appeal of a Stieg Larsson (can you imagine?).  But when it comes to supporting the health and vibrancy of the music, they are every bit as important as the mainstream print houses.  

Beyond the anecdotal — and those connected with my own books — I don’t have solid statistics around the bagpipe book market. I do think, though, that these books are a tough sell and, for a lot of retailers, real dust collectors. While today there appears to be a greater variety of bagpipe music books available, and from a broad swath of composers, my sense is that, relatively speaking, fewer people are buying pipe music books. 

In part, we can thank the inventor of the photocopier; a guy from New York named Chester Carlson.  He patented xerography in 1937.  Xerox invested and since the 1950s or so, most of us have learned our band tunes on mottled, copyright-shattered copies of the masterworks of McLennan, Macleod, Ross, et al. 

Where Chester’s brainwave may have given bagpipe publishing a kick in the sporran, it’s probably the internet builders and those responsible for cheap technology that have really kicked the stuffing out of the business. Such as it was.  

Take the internet. There are rogue sites aplenty where copyright pipe music can be found and downloaded free and without compensation for copyright owners.  Who needs a tatty old book when the one tune you’re looking to learn is but a click away?  There are also legitimate places to download one-off tunes where composers and publishers receive compensation. The same questions stands. Who needs a book?

You do.  We do.  

There’s a lot of debate around the value of an open, Creative Commons -— a sort of copyright-free world. Google a few of those words if you’re keen to dial in what people are saying. My contention, though, is simple: books are important. If publishers lose money, they don’t publish books. That’s not so good. 

I’ve always been an avid consumer of pipe music books. (NB, a collector collects the music and a consumer plays the music.) For me, one of life’s simple pleasures is sitting down with a music book and practice chanter and playing through the book from start to finish, from first to last page.  

Where I might get a one-off look at what was in the mind of a composer in a single, photocopied page, a person’s full book tells a far more interesting and insightful story.  Who doesn’t want more of that?

The other day I was ploughing through my collection looking for a book to, um, consume.  Two thin volumes jumped out at me:  Archie Kenneth’s Ceol Beag and New Bagpipe Collection of Old and Traditional Settings by Neil Angus MacDonald.  It had been a while since I’d last visited both.  I knew both books to be of serious merit and both books would offer interesting — and entertaining — chanter time.  

The book cover of Archie Kenneth's, Ceol Beag, Compositions and Arrangements
The book cover of Archie Kenneth’s, Ceol Beag, Compositions and Arrangements

I met Archie Kenneth once and saw him around the games. So I didn’t really know him. His Ceol Beag, though, is an example of a music book that is brimming over with personality — his.  

Wit, intelligence, humour and a love of the outdoors jump off the pages.  From the unusual tune titles — Alistair Campsie! Alistair Campsie!, The Price of a Bottle of Beer and Waiting on the Tide — to his clever turns of melody and technique,  all with a West Highland feel, his book gives us insight into the man, his music and his life.  While tunes for mostly good doctors abound, I have to say I’ve never seen a tune written to commemorate a hospital, West Highland Hospital, Oban. Undoubtedly a place that earned Kenneth’s gratitude. Long after he has left us, his book of bagpipe music provides real biographical insight — and some really good tunes. 

A hand-corrected page for The Kilt I Prefer

Neil Angus MacDonald’s bright orange volume has long been a favourite. My copy is autographed complete with his hand-corrections of typos in scores and titles. I dropped by his home in Inverness after one Northern Meeting and Neil Angus and his wife, Nan, graciously provided a cup of tea and, of course, a book.

Can a book have a vibe?  I don’t know but I can say that Neil Angus’s comes close.  There’s sentimental warmth to it that’s almost comforting. There’s not a bad tune in his book — a rare thing for any collection (I speak from personal experience). His tunes and settings, too, give us a good idea of what pipe music sounded like in Barra between the wars.  His 6/8 march, Mary Kiely, sticks out a mile.  Just, by the way.

Neil Angus MacDonald’s autograph

So you can cosy up to your cold iPads and laptop views of PDF copies of music. I’m going to stick to warming my fingers to tunes bound in paper pages.  Books tell the story and give that little extra bit of inspiration that just can’t be beaten. Isn’t it always that rare and precious little bit of inspiration that always makes the difference?