by Michael Grey
Piping Today #69, 2014.

There’s one thing I know: it was the sound of the bagpipe that attracted me, that made me want to find any damned way I could to learn to play the instrument. Haunting, stirring, soulful, inspiring, soothing, ethereal; bagpipe music touched me (and continues to) in an almost indescribable way. The pipes have seriously made a difference to me — and my life — in a way that can only be described as supernatural, a way unexplainable by science and the laws of nature. Supernatural. Magical. How else to describe the life-altering effects of nine blasted notes?    

And so, it’s always struck me as a little ironic that there’s such a tight binding tie of competitiveness in the world of piping. Here’s the Great Highland Bagpipe, an instrument hailing from Gaelic tradition and that tradition, as far as I know, not generally characterised as “competitive”.

The Gael, “never far from a tear” — said author Hugh MacLennan — and the Gael, builder of a rich cultural mother-lode of language, music, art and an inherited way of living that seems to me not all that closely aligned with today’s competitive way — especially the piping world that competes.

And yet, at every turn of the drones, we have competition. I mean, the pipe is an important voice of the Gael. And competition? What’s that about?

Competitive piping; let’s face it — it’s pretty sporty. It’s about assessment where grace notes are counted, errors given the jack boot and where rhythm and melody are trumped by the mathematical correctness of the sound of the instrument.  “Sound”, as we generally call it, that be-all and end-all. Sound, outside of very inexperienced competitive levels, is most always given the most cred.

The tunefully sonorous quality a bagpipe makes is table stakes — music swirls around tone and resonance and is ranked second, or, maybe, as is the case with pipe bands, third behind technical unison. It’s true that making good music on a discordant instrument is tricky, to say the least, yet there really seems to be a heavy “sound” bias in our world, one that crushes all other elements.  

And still — surprise — I come back to me, and my own experience. The bagpipes I heard as a kid, the wicked pipes that cast their spell, were not roddymacleodic — far from it. Scarey piping Shriner clowns at a World’s Fair and a young inexperienced piper from Quebec [a resident of Dunrovin Farm, just by the way] were my bagpipe spell-casters. The sounds of what I’m pretty sure were untuned, uber-amateur instruments delighted me. Really. And when I think of it, this has to be the way of it for most of us who get turned on to piping.

It’s maybe not always Glenfiddich recordings and YouTubes of leading Grade 1 pipe bands that draw in the uninitiated — it’s the local enthusiastic amateurs that work a figurative piping cromach. They’re the ones who so often hook the uninitiated in freely laying out the Tunes of Glory as they know them. They’re the ones most hear real-time — sound be damned. And God bless them.

And on that, eyes right: American writer, Kurt Vonnegut and his epitaph: “the only proof I needed for the existence of God was music”.  The old Gaels, the inventors of the Great Highland Bagpipe, knew that. I doubt many of us can imagine a 23-minute piobaireachd like, say, Lament for the Harp Tree — the only near-half hour tune I know — played on a perfectly tuned pipe. Trust in God is something you’d surely have to have for that.

There were few tunes back in the day — even, not so long ago, in living memory — played on perfectly tuned instruments.  More than a few Gold Medals and Clasps have been won where pipes did not hold their tuning. Great and inspiring bagpipe music has been made long before the technical innovations of synthetically reliable accoutrements. I mean, the music has survived — and thrived — so it’s clear that current precise levels of bagpipe tuning and bagpipe sound are not required to engage and delight new aspirants, new pipers.

Certainly, even today, most pipe music is performed on out-of-tune instruments.

What I’m suggesting is that while it’s a good thing to have great pipes — and what a sonic treat when they’re right — there is surely a little wizardry in the intrinsic sound of the instrument, that grand effect that still so strangely — and mysteriously  — connects with people — and those of us who’ve found ourselves besotted by the instrument.

And how did they do it, those Gaels, the founders of the piping feast? Their science then was maybe less black and white and a little more, em, grey. Uncertainties in life may’ve found easy assignation to the other-worldly, the magical.  And the same for the pipes they made and the music they invented.

While he was no slouch on the boards, John MacDonald (Inverness) wrote a little about the extraordinary power of the pipe and the transformative power of the music: “When a piper is at his best and is being carried away by his tune he sees a picture in his mind — at least that is how it is with me. When I am playing The Kiss of the King’s Hand I visualise Skye and Boreraig and the MacCrimmons … I also have in my mind a picture of the old pipers and how they played the tune I am playing. A piper in order to play his best must be oblivious to his surroundings — he must be carried away by the beauty and harmony of the tune he is playing.” 

MacDonald wasn’t talking competition. He wasn’t referring to sound and tuning — at least not alone. His words are poetic. They remind that the sporty edge of piping can filter out the more mystical aspects of the music, the qualities that give it soul. The qualities that allow the music to be never far from a tear.

Michael Grey’s book, Grey’s Notes on a Life around Bagpipes, is available from The National Piping Centre shop