Stuart Letford reviews the James Duncan Mackenzie Collection


James Duncan Mackenzie had a busy and creative lockdown. The Silver Medallist from Lewis, Scotland published this, his first collection, at the end of 2021 and he has just released his third solo-piping album, a recording that features music from the book.

Too many collections produced these days contain page after page of text and photographs, anything to divert your attention from the fact that the music isn’t that great. There are exceptions to this, of course, such as the collections of Michael Grey and Iain Bell, which are full of inventive music. This book, The James Duncan Mackenzie Collection, contains nothing but the music. A review copy arrived at the Multimedia Suite high above the National Piping Centre in Coocaddens just before Christmas. I’ve been enjoying learning the tunes therein ever since.

This simply produced book really is quite superb. It may seem incredible to some, but there really is no bad tune in this collection and there are no fillers whatsoever. Clearly, Mackenzie has taken his time compiling this collection and been judicious in including only those tunes that have been tried and tested live over the years. (James is a former member of the folk band Breabach, competed with Scottish Power and is a current member of pipe ensemble, Tryst.).

Despite the fact that the book contains quite a number of tunes that have been played by pipe bands over the years, I think many tunes in this collection will be heard better outwith the modern pipe band medley format, a format that has evolved into a mish-mash of musical incoherence and, increasingly drifting into a temperate scale. The scale produced by Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) is pentatonic and pure in harmonics. It does not fit into temperate music in terms of both music theory and sound. These GHB minor scale notes have a different sound from the GHB major scale notes and you can hear the drone harmonics shifting as you play the different notes/scales. This is why we should not try to bring the GHB into standardised temperate music and why the GHB should not be played with any other instruments that are not pure in sound. Further, too many young pipers try to put sharps into pipe music. There are no sharps in highland pipe music.

James Duncan Mackenzie.

Too many pipers simply do not understand all this. That’s not really their fault because this is a subject that hasn’t been taught anywhere in the piping world for quite a few generations now. I digress.

MacKenzie’s compositions make sense. They balance. It’s also refreshing to find so many two-part tunes in this collection. Clearly, he doesn’t see the point of milking a melody to the point of diminished returns. This is a lesson for many younger would-be composers. With more than a few tunes in this collection I came away thinking that they would’ve fitted perfectly into collections such as, for example, that of Calum MacInnes or in even older collections such as Gunn. MacKenzie’s music is full of Gaelic blàs.

It’s somewhat a tonic to find that MacKenzie hasn’t include a pibroch composition in his collection. Most modern pibroch compositions are, let’s face it, sub-standard musically with the result being that one questions the point of the composer bothering to unveil to the public. If you will ‘have a stab’ at it, make it ‘different’ and not merely an unimaginative play on a 19th century dirge. This is another lesson for those composers thinking of publishing their material.

There’s so much pounding rhythm in this book and too many good tunes to list them all. For me, the stand out compositions include Smelling Fresh, Fibhig, Second Sight, Iain Dubh MacGillivray and Seaforth’s Wall.

There is much to devour in this gem of a collection. It’s the best that’s come our way in years.