Salute to the old-school time shifters

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GREY’S NOTES
by Michael Grey
Piping Today #55, 2011.

I’ve always thought John D. Burgess came as close as anyone to the title of ‘maestro’. Burgess was surely a true artist of consummate skill and not without a hint of charm and eccentric personal colour thrown in for good measure. He was a man of great presence — with or without pipes under his arm.

I used to play the grooves off his records; his famous set of hornpipes, for instance, stand up today alongside anyone’s. I think now of that legendary set: starting with the slick tempo build from The Swallow-tailed Coat and on to a rollicking string of tunes including a wild Ballachullish Walkabout ­— his playing really inspired and excited. And thanks to his recordings, still does.

But Burgess was not a time-keeping junkie. Yes, he played in time, for the most part, but, based on recordings alone, it’s clear he did not slavishly follow the relentless and merciless dictates of a metronome. John Burgess was a master of time-shifting. He’d bend time in pushing accents to their breaking point. His treatment of the Cs and Es in part one of Willie Lawrie’s John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage stand as a definitive example of agogic stress, this where he’d delay the onset of a proceeding note and magically make time hang in the air. For my money, this is magnetic stuff; scintillating musicianship.

You don’t hear this kind of playing much anymore — especially in competitions. We know the standard of bagpipe sound is higher across the whole spectrum of experience. Technical proficiency is commonplace, too. What is less common, it seems to me, is the non-standard, the player with a tendency for capricious turns of phrasing, a piper who intentionally revels in creating great music outside ‘the grid’.

The grid has always been around music. Music and mathematics are inextricably connected. Pythagoras’ theory of harmonic proportion set out music as an exact science. While we know it’s not science, we do know music-making relies on a degree of mathematical exactness. The holy trinity of music: rhythm, melody and harmony all rely on a significant degree of constant time to come to be. At the same time, we have music theory not music science.

The grid, by the way, is that graph of intersecting lines that when layered over a musical score sub-divides time to minute and exacting levels. It’s the backbone of all digital recording software and pretty much all music production today. It’s the grid approach to studio music-making that allows for digital sound editing.

I stumbled across an interesting study the other day; nothing academic but an effort by a guy with some time on his hands (Paul Lamere). Knowing that most of today’s recorded music is built with a ‘click track’ he carefully compared the tempo of a selection of old and new pop songs. The click track, by the way, is a baseline backing track of sound where a steady metronomic click, or set of rhythms — provides the musician with precise direction regarding tempo. Tempo of samples was compared across the duration of the song.

So no big surprise what he found: new song samples were almost without deviation (Green Day, Nickelback) and older samples (Led Zeppelin, The Beatles) clearly demonstrated music made without a click. In fact, Ringo’s efforts on Dizzy Miss Lizzy showed real up and down tempo ­— like the proverbial toilet seat at a mixed party.

It seems to me a natural thing to think that the world around us influences us — and informs the music we make. Might it be said that our world of digitally-produced mainstream music has helped homogenise solo bagpipe music-making? I don’t know. I think it’s a big question.

I’ve made records with click tracks (playing along to clicks is not an easy or fun thing, by the way). The exercise certainly opened up the production possibilities: the flexible scheduling potential for booking supporting musicians is alone a great benefit.

Playing in time is important. There’s no doubt. I just wonder if we might look a little more to great players of the past for fresh and inspired ways to make great music happen. Our old-school players were on to something — they knew the truth: nine notes, no rests, no sharps, no flats, no dynamics — time-bending: a great musical tool.

It sure never did Ringo any harm. •