Dr. Peter Cooke, an appreciation

George Moss, left, being interviewed by Dr. Peter Cooke some time in the 1970s.

By Jo Miller

I was extremely sad to hear of the recent death of colleague and friend, Peter Cooke. His contributions to the field of ethnomusicology have been many, and he championed the subject across the United Kingdom (UK) in his academic posts at Edinburgh, Birmingham and at the University of London’s School of Oriental & African Studies. Peter is integral to the history of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology (BFE), having helped to instigate an affiliated branch of the International Folk Music Council (later the ICTM) in the UK in 1973. He was the subject of a special issue of the British Journal of Ethnomusicology in 1995, an honorary life member of BFE, and was interviewed by Carolyn Landau for the series, ‘Interviews with Ethnomusicologists.’ https://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Interviews-with-ethnomusicologists

Peter’s work will be fully surveyed in due course but I’d like to offer a personal note. He introduced me to ethnomusicology and guided me through my first postgraduate research at the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University. He was also a role model in applying such research beyond academia. Peter guided me in preparing teacher support materials when traditional music became a compulsory element of the Scottish school music syllabus in 1988.

He often not only researched but also became an advocate for the music he studied and was always very keen to exploit technology to disseminate audio-visual material. His relationship with renowned traveller singer and storyteller Betsy Whyte led to her writing and publishing autobiographical books that reached a wide audience. His contribution to the wider Scottish music community was recognised in 2019, when he accepted the Hamish Henderson Award for Services to Traditional Music.

Dr. Peter Cooke.

Peter’s mentorship nurtured a community of researchers in Scotland who were encouraged to study our traditions in a comparative context. My friend Stuart Eydmann shares the following story:

“Peter once accompanied me to a postgraduate musicology conference in London where I was giving an early paper on the research he was supervising me in. Noting that I was nervous and somewhat overwhelmed by the painstaking analysis of scores and erudite historical speculation of the other presenters, he said: ‘Never forget how lucky you are to be in ethnomusicology – you work with real people and the actual sounds they produce, and their thoughts, feelings and motivations are always just a question and answer away”.’

 • Jo Miller has had a long involvement in traditional music education including the founding of the first UK conservatoire-based degree course in 1996 at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). In 2017 she received the Hamish Henderson award for services to traditional music at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, the same award Peter received two years later.

Stuart Letford

Stuart Letford adds: I met Peter Cooke on only a few occasions although we corresponded fairly regularly over the years. I found him a fascinating individual. Peter came to ethnomusicology as something of an outsider – and this is where the value of his research is. He did a lot of primary work in Scottish music that, perhaps now, bears re-examination. For example, we’ve never really had a satisfactory answer into the relationship to pibroch with other music and Peter’s death is an interesting pointer as to where we should now go with this. Is ceòl mòr really one of the very rare examples of a culturally hermetically sealed musical tradition? It would be brave of someone to look into this and to develop it.

Peter gave a few talks to the Piobaireachd Society Conference and wrote some articles that were published in the Piping Times and in The International Piper, two of which can be read here. To me, he was convincing in many respects but not all and I understand that James Campbell (son of Archie Campbell of Kilberry) was dismissive of many of Peter’s points. It is a brave man who would try to discredit Angus MacKay!

After the March 2015 edition of the Piping Times appeared, I received some flak from some of the more conservative members of the piping world for publishing Bridget MacKenzie’s last article. The subject of her piece was George Moss, someone on whom Peter Cooke place much pibroch authority – as did, as Bridget pointed out, John MacDonald of Inverness. Peter thanked me for publishing her article. (The article will be uploaded to Bagpipe.News this week).

In Scotland, we seem to seal ourselves off from the rest of the world. Highland piping is so singular in terms of the instrument. In piping, we tend to think of ourselves as global – witness the number of piping schools, events and contests that take place annually all around the world – but it is still relatively singular.

Which of our piping academics will take up the mantle now that Peter has died?

• Stuart Letford edited the Piping Times from 2014 to 2020. He is now part of the Bagpipe.News team.