16 questions with … John Dew

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John Dew.
John Dew.

1. How are you these days?
I’m pretty well. I didn’t think I’d be missing the business of university but with restrictions in place I’m going a little mad. Other than that, I’m grand. I spent four years studying on the BMus (Traditional Music – Piping) Degree course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and I graduated earlier this year. I’m now looking to progress with my composition work. I’ve recently released my first album, The High Bridge Walk, which I’d love to gig in the near future. I’m preparing to produce and release my first book of tunes and work has started on the next album, which, again I’d like to gig.

Outside of that I have several online pupils and I have been working on my new composition projects of contemporary bagpipe/classical fused music. You can find out more about those projects at my website johndew-composition.com

2. Did you manage to take part in any shows or concerts this year?
I competed in a few online contests. I helped out in a ‘S.O.F.A. Festival of the Arts’ at the Strathearn ArtSpace in Crieff, my home town, which was a lot of fun and I’m about to play in the ‘Up to the Line: Pipe Band Podcast’ Recital Challenge which is on December 5. Tickets can be found on Eventbrite.

3. Was piping something you wanted to do from an early age?
I think so, maybe. I was always fond of bagpipes and pipe bands. They were heard fairly regularly around Crieff with the big games and several parades every year. I was lucky enough to get very good tuition at school so I gave it a try and it was totally for me. I loved every minute of it. The rest is history.

4. What piper or pipers did you aspire to?
In the early days it was any top Grade 1 band. I used to love all of the medleys from the Grade 1 arena from all the majors and Worlds recordings. Then I heard Gordon Duncan’s Thunderstruck album and fell in love with that kind of playing. At school I had very open-minded music and piping teachers and I was able to discuss Gordon Duncan and other artists’ work for a better understanding and influence. From this I’m a massive fan of Daimh, RURA, Breabach, Flook, Mike McGoldrick, Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton and it’s these type of artists that I think we all aspire to. On a solo level, I love hearing recordings of Alasdair Gillies for light music and Roddy MacLeod and Murray Henderson for piobaireachd.

5. Is there a recording you return to time and again – solo and pipe band?
Solo: The Glenfiddich Piping Championship 25th Anniversary and Outlands by Fred Morrison. I have a medley playlist of performances from the World Pipe Band Championships from 2007-2014 that is nice to go back to, as well as Affirmation by SFU.

6. Do you recall the very first competition you competed in, whether solo or in a band?
Yes, I remember it like yesterday. It was the Age 12 and Under March at the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band’s Junior Solo Piping Contest. I went every year for about six years and it’s an exemplary piping competition – extremely well run and great judges, prizes, other competitors and feedback. I think I came second that day.

Competing with Inveraray at the Worlds in 2018.

7. What’s your most memorable performance, either band or solo?
In bands, either with Inveraray & District at the British Pipe Band Championships in 2016 – it was my first win at a major in a Grade 1 pipe band – or the 2015 World Pipe Band Championships. That was my first medley performance in the big Grade 1 arena and it was like a dream come true. Not only that, I remember we felt we had all given it our absolute best.

In the solos, it was probably competing in the Marches at the  in 2019 Gathering. I had had a fairly successful trip so far and this was the final event of the day for me. I really enjoy playing double marches either in a recital or in a contest and that is what was required that day. I felt I really got into a good groove on the stage and found the swing of the marches nice and early on. It was one of the very few times I came off feeling quite happy about my performance – many pipers will be able to relate to that. Not only that but I am an advocate for playing 21st century compositions in competitive light music contests and one of the two tunes I played was PM Roddy MacLeod MBE by Chris Armstrong.

8. As a composer, what do you set out to achieve in your tunes?

There are a few main objectives to composing a tune but they come down to three main elements. Firstly: the tune must have a hook of some sort. This melodic lick or phrase or rhythmic motion within the tune should define the tune as a ‘piece’, which makes it memorable. A good example is in the third part of Roddy MacDonald’s Fancy the fourth part of Alex MacDonald. It is these hooks that make us remember a good tune from the average one and want to learn it.

Secondly, it has to have a memorable characteristic, I’ve written a few 2/4 marches and at least half of them sound like 100 other 2/4 marches. There is a particular characteristic you can hear in tunes like Dugald MacColl’s Farewell to France and Colin Thompson or Parker’s Welcome to Perthshire or Hugh Kennedy. These tunes have a well-defined general characteristic or feeling to them. I try to make each of these tunes stand alone in that regard. A lot of new tunes out there are decent but don’t capture the same characteristic that these tunes have captured.

The third element is its ‘user-friendliness’. There’s almost no point in writing a six-parted reel with a different final phrase each time. It will simply collect dust. The more different musical ideas or variations you add to a tune the harder it becomes to memorise and therefore fewer people will play it. If we look a piobaireachd, Lament for Mary MacLeod and The Groat, for example, will be more popular than Lament for Colin Roy MacKenzie or Roderick MacDonald’s Lament because they are generally easier to memorise. Sure, some people like a challenge but not with 100% of their repertoire. Similarly, there is arguably more skill in writing a very simple tune than a Wurlitzer tune.

9. Who has been the biggest influence on your piping?

There have been four major influences: Finlay MacDonald, Stuart Liddell, Alasdair Henderson and Willie McCallum. All four have passed on points of wisdom in some way. Pipers I love to listen to are the pipers from Rura and Daimh – Angus MacKenzie and Steven Blake – but I also enjoy hearing Ross Ainslie and Ally Hutton play.

10. How do you relax and do you have other interests or hobbies?
These days relaxation comes in the form of TV and Netflix. I love sports and keeping active. I try to play football once a week, take a couple of long walks and climb a few Munros [Scottish mountains over 3,000ft – Editor] when I can. Before lockdown this was a lot more doable. Prior to lockdown I played a lot of squash as well and recently I’ve taken up running. I am also a massive rugby fan and the Six Nations weekend was very relaxing indeed.

John’s debut album.

11. You’re from Crieff but live in Glasgow these days. How do find it?
Glasgow is naturally a very social place with lots to do and you’re never short of good company and a pint! I’ve managed to get back to Crieff a few times but obviously travelling just now is tricky.

12. What’s your favourite destination, either for a holiday or for something piping related?
I’ve been lucky to travel to so many different places and a few favourites include the south of France for some gigs and other European countries for family holidays. London for a new years holiday last year was also a favourite for me. For me, anywhere with lots of sun will immediately become one of my favourite places!

13. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I’m very unadventurous when it comes to food, but there used to be a buffet restaurant in Glasgow that I went to. It had some great meats that included hare, buffalo, kangaroo as well as shark, swordfish but to name a few. They were great! My favourite international food is Indian.

14. Rule of Six: Six figures from any period of history you’d invite to a dinner party. And why?
1. Robin Williams – Needs no introduction.
2. Sean Connery – Again, needs no introduction. He seemed like he’d have been a cool guy at a dinner party.
3. Mary Jackson – Anyone who is that intelligent and can break a gender and racial barrier in the era that she worked is probably very charismatic.
4. Jonah Lomu – Not only did he come across well but he would be able to defuse any conflict.
5. Walt Disney – A storyteller
6. Gordon Ramsay – Why would I do the cooking when he could? That’s would be like asking someone, “Would you rather I played you a 2/4 march or Angus MacColl?”

15. What other types of music do you enjoy listening to?
I enjoy contemporary classical and folk, film soundtracks and electric acoustic. I enjoy listening to Danny Elfman, John Metcalfe, Brian Eno, Edmund Butt, Hans Zimmer and Anze Rozman.

16. What was the last book you read?
I read a lot of sheet music and scores so truthfully it was Mourice Ravel’s score to Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no 2. That counts as a book right?

Thanks for taking time out to speak with us, John.