By John Mulhearn
There are few pipers in the Highland piping tradition that command the depth of respect that Fred Morrison enjoys. His entertaining and highly charged solo performances on the concert stage are legendary and unique. Equally, his thoughtful and deeply musical performances on the competition stage have earned him some of the art’s highest accolades. Alone, his mastery of these two rather divergent performance contexts places him in a very small club. However, when taken together with his gift as a composer, the picture of a piper apart emerges.
The Second Fred Morrison Collection is, actually, the third collection of Fred’s compositions to come on the market. His first collection was released in 2006 and, owing to the enormous popularity of his album Outlands, a collection of the tunes featured on the album was released. In this new publication, he further establishes himself as a composer with a unique voice. Covering the full range of Highland pipe ceòl beag genres, as well as a small but potent selection of whistle tunes, the 40 pieces contained in the collection reflect many of the characteristics that make Fred’s performances so enthralling.
Humour is the first of these characteristics that we encounter. While everyone is aware that Fred is a master of the ‘heavy stuff’, his concert performances are never short of light-hearted moments. And, so it is with his compositions. The first tune in the collection, Alasdair Gillies, named for his great friend who sadly passed away in 2011, is an excellent example of this.
In an acknowledgment of his friend’s pre-eminence as a march player, it is a jaunty, yet graceful 2/4 march. The humour manifests in its liberal use of common tropes associated with the genre. While borrowing heavily from ‘the tradition’, Alasdair Gillies still sounds entirely original – a considerable achievement in itself. However, it is in the playful, almost cheeky, repetition and manipulation of these tropes that one gets a greater sense of the musical jest. One also gets a sense of Fred’s own fondness for improvisation in some of the small variations and turns that the tune takes.
This is a tune that is much deeper than it seems at first. Furthermore, it is ‘an easy play’ – there is very little to challenge the intermediate to advanced player.
Another tune that knowingly plays with conventions yet sounds unique and amusing is, most aptly, Billy Connolly’s Hornpipe. Once again, Fred’s heavy repetition of motifs is key here. It, in fact, brings to mind the idea, borrowed from film, that if you do something once it’s dramatic, if you do it twice it becomes half as dramatic, and if do it three times it becomes comedy. In this cheery and mischievous hornpipe, the stage persona of Glaswegian comedian, Billy Connolly, is most evident – you can almost hear Connolly plucking the tune on his banjo!
Another characteristic of Fred’s style of playing that comes across in a number of tunes is fluidity. The hornpipe, Bubba the Bear, is an excellent example of a flowing melody that sits comfortably ‘under the fingers’. Importantly, ornamentation is used sparingly. It is widely understood that, in the early 20th century, pipe music started to become more technically demanding. The growing ceòl beag repertoire reflected this trend as the number of exhibition pieces grew exponentially. Tunes such as Bubba the Bear clearly show that every second note does not need to be gracenoted, doubled or gripped, as we have become accustomed to. By avoiding superfluous ornamentation, a greater sense of flow can be achieved. This, again, has the additional benefit of making tunes somewhat easier for less advanced players to enjoy playing.
Also worthy of mention are the two ‘rants’ included in the collection, Howmore and Frosbost. The term ‘rant’ is not commonly used to describe a genre of pipe music. However, as most pipers will know, it is associated with a number of tunes: The Cameronian Rant, Willie Cumming’s Rant, MacPherson’s Rant, The Inverness Rant etc. That these and other tunes are both strathspeys and reels suggests that in describing his tunes as ‘rants’, Fred is implying a blurring of the line between the two genres. Indeed, looking at both the early collections of ceòl beag and the dance styles of Cape Breton it is clear that strathspeys developed from reels. This blurred line is entirely consistent with Fred’s style of playing.
Putting historical matters to the side, the driving nature of the melodies suggests that these two tunes be played at a much faster tempo than is customary for strathspeys today. Additionally, both tunes, and especially Frobost, speak to one of the most important features of Fred’s compositional work: simplicity. His tunes are not needlessly complex or convoluted. In this aspect, more than any other, we can see the confidence Fred has in his own work.
Aside from the more conventional staples of pipe music collections, this publication contains one 7/8 piece, Zacks. As mentioned above, it is the simplicity of this tune that makes it so appealing. From time to time in the history of pipe music we see the adoption of rhythms and forms from other cultures and traditions. Look no further than the waltz or polka in the early 20th century. It is quite conceivable that the influence of eastern European and Scandinavian folk music, as seen in the growing number of 7/8 tunes appearing in recent publications, could become a more permanent part of the Highland piping repertoire. Tunes such as Zacks provide an accessible way into such unfamiliar metres.
The Second Fred Morrison Collection is an excellent addition to the growing library of pipe music publications. His work is original yet familiar, simple yet thoughtful, playful yet respectful, and, above all, distinctive. That Fred’s unique voice as a player can be heard in every one of his compositions is testament to the highly evolved nature of his artistry.
* John Mulhearn is a full-time teacher at the National Piping Centre. He has a Masters Degree in Scottish Music. John released his third solo album, The Pipe Factory last spring and hopes to publish a collection of pipe tunes associated with Glasgow this spring.