Give (new) music a chance


by Michael Grey
Piping Today #54, 2011.

Give (new) music a chance

When a brand gets to be used as a verb you know the product is a popular, if not powerful, thing: “Facebook me when you’re done practicing your birls” and “Great idea about twice-through pipe band MSR contests, I’m gonna Twitter that”, just a couple that spring to mind.

I was on the subway in Toronto this morning, heading into work, and overheard a couple of teenage girls talking: “Swear to gawd, like, his old man looked freaking amazingly like Jim Carrey in that Christmas movie [A Christmas Carol], Google it and watch the trailer ­— it’s crazy, you know.”

So as I reached in my pocket for an aspirin I’d carefully wrapped in Kleenex, I thought about googling and Google. Now there’s a powerful brand. You’ll know one small part of Google’s awesome capability is the provision of instant information related to trends. Take the popularity or pervasiveness of certain words and ideas, like, say, ‘music opinion’. Today, ‘music opinion’ turned up nearly a billion times; 754,000,000 to be precise. A real bright, shiny, insightful sort of person might surmise that ‘music opinion’ is everywhere; or, everyone has an opinion about music. Well, there’s a newsflash (at your service).

Take the piping and pipe band worlds. For those of you involved in any way — player or enthusiast — forget sports for a minute and ask yourself if there’s any other part of your life where you are so sure of how you feel, your opinion. In piping, we don’t often think, for example, “yes, well, you may be right about that tune, it might be a cracker, but I’m not so sure”, or “oh, yes, I can take the phrasing of the urlar of Cill Chriosd with the long or short Es — I’m easy-oasy when it comes to how I play my cadences”.

In music, we’re always so sure of the rightness of our opinion — and the wrongness of others. Because we’re passionate about pipes, our opinions tend to be stronger, harder, and surer.

As we know — or, I suggest, we do in our heart of hearts — we’re often wrong. Can a musical opinion be wrong? I’d say so.

Consider the Decca Records executive who passed up The Beatles. “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out,” he wrote. Or Philip Hale, the Boston music critic who wrote in 1837, “If Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse.” “Sure-fire rubbish,” Lawrence Gilman wrote in the New York Herald Tribune in a 1935 review of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The list could go on.

I recall sitting in a mid-winter 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band practice while Don Thompson, the composer of Journey to Skye, went through the score. I hated it; so did most of the band, truth be told: all sing-songy compound time melody and bippidy-boop percussion. Like Major Jock Sinclair in Tunes of Glory I thought, “yon’s a cheesy tune”.

After grudgingly giving it a chance with five months of study and rehearsal, I grew to love the piece for the masterwork it was — and is. The composition became the centrepiece of the band’s well-kent Live in Ireland concert. My personal experience hating-loving Journey to Skye was one of the best music lessons I’ve ever had. With apologies to you-know-who, you just have to give music a chance — a chance before judgement.

In May 1913, Igor Stravinsky famously debuted his ballet The Rite of Spring in Paris. Stravinsky’s music was new and out-of-the ordinary, especially from what was standard and expected for the time. Anyway, the audience, full of people who made instant music opinion, went crazy and rioted. Rioted! Brawls and punches and police on the Champs-Élysées — with poor old Igor hightailing it out of the theatre before the end of the show. Still, he had the last laugh as The Rite of Spring is today considered a musical milestone and a universal standard in ballet repertoire.

While Stravinsky’s experience may stand as a sort of grand reminder of the folly of not well cellaring one’s music opinion, there’s no shortage of good examples closer to piping.

I came across a really telling, if not slightly odd, quote in the book, Some Letters of Archibald Campbell of Kilberry: 1935-1949 [ed. John Shone, Edinburgh: The International Piper Ltd, 1980]. The book is full of correspondence between Campbell and the ‘enthusiastic amateur’ piper, Dr William MacPhail.

Wrote Campbell in October of 1944: “I have seen lately quite a lot of composition of marches by Army pipers. The Scottish Command accumulated a huge bundle of stuff sent in by various regiments for inclusion in a further number of the Army Manual. They sent it on to Ross [Willie] to vet and he sent it to me. The whole lot could be called dreadful nonsense. A typical example of “El Alamein”, the prize tune which no doubt you have heard. The taste of Army pipers nowadays seems deplorable. They twitter away continuously on upper hand, making practically no use of the very much more effective lower hand, and hardly ever touching the low G at all.”

Now, granted, this is an extract from a private letter, but I’m not sure where to begin in assessing Campbell’s harsh musical judgement (and slightly weird upper/lower hand comments). Odd, too, he was a trained lawyer and jurist. Anyway, I’ll leave that to you. I will say that over 70 years later, William Denholm’s “El Alamein” is a pretty fair tune.

There’s no doubt we’re often bang on the money when we hear a new tune and say, “yes, a cracker!” Just as there’s no doubt we’re often dead wrong when we hear a tune or musical piece and say, “absolute rubbish”.

The trick to getting it right is to hoover up the music, let it wash over you, sink in and percolate. Just give it a chance.