The rose-tinted glasses of time

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GREY’S NOTES
by Michael Grey
Piping Today #58, 2012.

There’s one sure thing about being involved in the piping game: there’s never a shortage of memory-making material. The bagpipe seems to have a way of finding the centre of the most percolating social action. Or maybe it’s the pipes that create the centre. Either way, bagpipe memory-making probably has more to do with pipers making music -— for people, including ourselves — than any special quality the instrument has for attracting memories.  Where there’s music there are people and where people gather memories collect.

Memory is surely part of what makes us human. Our long-term memories house compartments of past joys and sorrows and sometimes mundane, but hugely important, trivialities. All these things, I’d guess, inform who we are as people and guide, to some extent, how we live. I know the smell of an off can of Airtight seasoning. The fresh stuff, too. Knowing the difference prevents me from dousing the innards of my virginal sheepskin bag with a fetid dose of sealing sauce. I should add that, happily, I no longer play pipes tied to hides. My lessons learned on that front, the bag front (to put it a slightly odd way) have led me to my actions. In piping, as in life, it’s whatever works for you. And we find that out by doing -— and remembering.

But how reliable is our memory? Not very, it would seem. Psychologists at the University of St Andrews recently published a paper in the journal of Psychological Science (no, I don’t subscribe), that shows that the human memory can be amazingly fragile and even inventive when it comes to remembering past events. The ramifications for the court room and the reliability of witness testimony is one thing, but in this study the scientists offered the first evidence that false memory, based on false suggestions of past experience, can be powerful enough to change behaviour.

A few years ago the band made a trip to Brittany’s Lorient Festival.  Memorable? Yes. Absolutely. Unbridled fun, laughter and kilt-swinging joy?  Not so much.  Yeah, we had a good time but among all of that we had enough not-so-good time to have the band make a team decision at the end of the trip: “We’re not doing this again”. 

Fast forward to today. Almost three years have passed. The miles of marching, late-night marathon parading, the non-stop schlepping of drums and instruments through the town, and recollections of seriously star-free room and board have faded into the Breton mists. The passing of time seems to be memory’s natural crud-filter. Leave it to Einstein to make it clear: memory is deceptive because it is coloured by today’s events. Gone are images of the cafeteria custodian, in nine-inch heels, adorned in leather, studs and with whip, counting the pieces of cheese on our trays, “Trop de fromage!” she’d hiss and whoosh, she’d crack her whip -— or so we remember.

Three years of ongoing band ‘recollection’ finds us in a different place — and think recollection as truly the re-collecting of thoughts. With shared stories of the music, the street food, the good people, le cidre, le vin et la bière; well, let’s just say we’re now itching to get back to Cruella the Cheese Counter and nylon bed sheets. Strange, isn’t it?

Which, believe it or not, brings us to Robert Reid. The recent recovery of a pipe box jam-packed with recordings of his legendary playing got me to thinking. The great man didn’t do a lot of teaching but those he taught were fiercely loyal to the teacher and his teaching. Just how closely did his students adhere to his teaching? How reliable were their memories? The newly-uncovered recordings will give us real insight.

I remember — or so I imagine — having a lesson with Captain John MacLellan. He was going over The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute. He talked of a recording he’d just heard of Owen MacNiven, a pupil of Reid’s and a top-line player in the 1930s. MacNiven was talking about Seaforth’s and how Reid taught the tune to be played. The Captain was incredulous because he had a recording of Reid playing the tune; he’d compared the recordings and found poor old Owen a mile off the mark. The fallibility of musical memory was the biggest lesson I learned that day.

With so much — if not all — of today’s good playing recorded and, so, available for future generations, the question around the reliability of memory as it connects to the passing on of music and what is believed to be the tradition has become less of a question.

Still, I’d like to think this is a good reminder that when we listen to music, to pipe music, especially, and imagine what we hear is — or isn’t — how we were taught, we might stop and reflect. Maybe think of Cruella the Cheese Counter. Maybe she didn’t have a whip after all. •