From bands to ceòl mòr: bad music is the same turn-off

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An interesting commentary on musicality by Duncan Watson appeared in the Piping Times 20 years ago. Duncan was essentially responding to an article penned by Robert Mathieson on dull pibroch playing. Duncan’s comments are in some ways still relevant and worth repeating.

By Duncan Watson

On browsing through my back numbers of the Piper Press* I came across an article by Robert Mathieson of Shotts and Dykehead fame in which he stated that, “piobaireachd is not entertainment” and is played by the performer for his own indulgence.

It provoked a reaction and I feel that such a sweeping statement requires some sort of response. It is common to hear ceòl mòr on well set up instruments. In a lot of cases the sound of the instrument and the finger technique are the best aspects of what we hear — this includes pipers in the top flight. Incidentally, I don’t think this is new, so the old fogies among us needn’t say, “It was better 30+ years ago”. It wasn’t!

Robert Mathieson would probably argue that a lot of ceòl mòr playing is musically dead and in that it must be admitted he is correct. The reaction that this should provoke is not one of righteous indignation but instead those interested enough should be spurred to do something about it.

“There were pundits around me who obviously knew what was going on as they spoke knowledgeably about things such as ‘ensemble’ and the lack of it, apparently referring to the rattle of drums.”

We often hear tunes played with variations, where, apart from cadences, there is nothing resembling phrasing. In the doublings there is no effort to phrase the tunes or even show the ends of the lines. Hence we hear a stream of well-executed notes, that although deadly accurate are often accurately dead.

With the competition system, ceòl mòr has become more and more stereotyped. With this lack of variety both the listeners and the music itself are the losers.

In a previous article, I took a gentle swipe at judging and, at the expense of being boring, I suggest that our piping ‘justiciary’ have to answer for some of this dead playing. Our judges frequently reward accurate but dull playing instead of positively punishing it. They will punish dropped gracenotes and minor mistakes as they are easier to detect.

Returning to the top bands for a moment, I should have something better to do than sit and listen to their radio broadcasts. I am, however, an ardent listener. Some pieces played by the bands are very unmusical and a complete turn-off in terms of entertainment. Seldom do I hear new ‘inventions’ which make me stretch for the practice chanter. Using Robert Mathieson’s parlance: are these bands playing for themselves?

“… we hear a stream of well-executed notes, that although deadly accurate are often accurately dead.”

The cliché about stones and glasshouses has some relevance at this point. At a mini-band contest in Aberdeen last year [1999] I saw Pipe Majors conducting their troops through pieces that were incomprehensible to me. There were pundits around me who obviously knew what was going on as they spoke knowledgeably about things such as ‘ensemble’ and the lack of it, apparently referring to the rattle of drums. I was offered a piece of chewing gum and enquired if it was for my ears.

The results were announced. I disagreed with the prize list, amply demonstrating my knowledge on such matters. The basis of my disagreement was that one of the pipers in the winning band (a Grade 1 outfit) had ‘goosed’ through part of the performance, something he graciously admitted later in the pub. There were other aspects that I would have thought, from a judging standpoint, wrong or very difficult to overlook. One of the pipers sitting near me commented, ‘That doesn’t matter in a pipe band”.

Pipe bands to my mind, from both a musical and spectacle perspective, should be entertaining. This does not equate with second rate playing. Good pipe band music undoubtedly requires real expertise, and we do hear good stuff — just as we occasionally hear musical, entertaining, ceòl mòr.

Some pipe band music is becoming about as introverted as poorly phrased ceòl mòr and to that extent I agree with Robert Mathieson.

• From the January 2000 Piping Times.

* A short-lived magazine from the late 1990s.