Murray Blair gives us one of his new tunes (including a sound file), and a few older ones, in this article which has been updated for 2022.
NINE NOTES AND MORE…
by Stuart Robertson.
Piping Today #55 2011.
Our featured composer for this edition is Murray Blair, one of Australia’s finest composing talents and also regarded as one of the best in the world at recording pipers and pipe bands alike. He is partly responsible for the great music Victoria Police Pipe Band gave us in the 90s and he continues to develop and create for pipers and pipe bands around the globe.
Murray grew up on the south-west coast of Victoria, Australia, and was taught by his father Donald Blair. At age 17, he moved to Melbourne for academic studies and also joined the Victoria Police Pipe Band where he remained from 1991 to 1999. During this time, he also released the music book Philharmonic in 1998, which coincided with the Masterblasters CD release and the band winning of the Grade 1 World Pipe Band Championship title. The band performed eight tunes in their medley, of which he wrote and arranged five.
In 1999, he left the band due to suffering from focal dystonia, however he still remains closely associated with the band and won the RU Brown Silver Medal for Piobaireachd in 2003.
Professionally, he is an audio engineer and television sound recordist with BBC training and he has worked with major broadcasters around the world including BBC, ITV and ABC.
In the piping genre, he has been involved in many solo and pipe band recordings such as Roddy MacDonald, Gordon Duncan, Alasdair Gillies, Gordon Walker, Roddy MacLeod, Jack Lee, Angus MacColl, BBC Northern Meeting, Piping Live! Masters, SFU, Shotts & Dykehead, Field Marshal Montgomery, Scottish Power, Vale of Atholl, Manawatu Scottish, and Victoria Police Pipe Band.
With an audio engineering and piping background combined, Murray developed the Blair Digital Chanter, Blair Bagpipe Tuner, the Bagpipe Tuner App for iPhone/iPad Bagpipe Tuner and the Blair Pro Pipe Band tuner.
With longtime friend Ian Lyons, he has also manufactured the Bagpiper case for 14 years.
I put the usual questions to Murray….
When did you start composing?
I grew up on a farm just outside Warrnambool in south-west Victoria and was lucky enough to be taught by my father Donald. He still teaches in the local pipe band and living on a farm meant there wasn’t any problem in playing pipes at any time with the closest neighbor around 2km away.
We had music playing constantly and my two older sisters are also pipers, so there were plenty of tunes heard every day.
What I liked doing was making up variations to tunes I already knew and also playing lots of music by ear. Formally composing tunes kicked off from there and I started writing in High School. At the time, I was mad about piping and couldn’t get enough, totally inspired by 78th Fraser Highlanders, Vale of Atholl and Gordon Duncan. Wanting to be ‘just like them’, I started to write more and more tunes with one of the first being the Bulgarian Bandit. The way the beat structure was formed in tunes like the Vale’s Jim Blakely, Zito the Bubbleman and Smenco Horo really appealed to me. The Bulgarian Bandit stemmed from there and I wrote Airlie’s Big Day for my sister’s wedding shortly after.
At age 17, I moved to Melbourne for study and also joined the Victoria Police Pipe Band. It was an exciting environment with lots of new music being played and a good place to influence more composing.
What inspires you to write?
I enjoy working up new melodies, playing tune after tune, then continuing on the fly into something that I’ve no idea where it’s headed. I can’t pinpoint a formula – to be honest and not that deep or philosophical. I’m inspired by melodies and like hearing other pipers play my tunes — it’s a great buzz! I find it really difficult to write tunes on demand, it just doesn’t work in for me. I’m also completely indecisive about the title of a tune for months.
Modern day composers…who do you rate?
That’s a hard question. I prefer tunes with strong melodies and rate Roddy MacDonald and Gordon Duncan as simply brilliant. I’ve been lucky to work with them both, which has been amazing, entertaining and eye opening to see how easily they can make a tune ‘sing’. Don Bradford, Terry Tully, Chris Armstrong, Finlay MacDonald, Ryan Canning and Stuart Robertson all write tunes that appeal to my taste. Lately I’ve been listening to Lorne MacDougall’s tunes, a very classy composer and also Stewart McKenzie.
But in particular, James Duncan MacKenzie’s tunes have been on constant repeat this year (2022).
How do you mould a tune from conception to completion?
Unfortunately there’s no formula with my writing. However, there are two essentials tools I use: a recording device and plenty of manuscript.
I usually play a set of tunes in the same time signature, then attempt to play a tune in a new key and see where it leads. I always record the tune, write down any good parts and develop from there. Lots and lots of phrases are usually chopped and I try not to become over-analytical on progressions and modes. As long as there’s a good melody, hooks, in key and is enjoyable to play then it’s a good start. If it’s a tune that has real potential, I’ll leave it for a few hours, or days, then come back to see if its actually ok.
I’ve had a few long time friends to give an honest, sometimes brutal, but fair opinion. In the Victoria Police Pipe Band there was a high turnover of music from concerts and public performances. The other pipers were good sounding boards and feedback was always forthcoming.
The tune/s you have given us, how did they come about and what was the inspiration?
Ross’s Farwell to Pangnirtung was inspired and named for a good friend in Halifax, Ian MacIsaac (Nova Scotia) whose brother had just received a posting to Pangnirtung in the Arctic Circle. For an Australian this was bone-chilling news. The Canadian band Slainte Mhath later recorded this tune for a track called Annie, also with a music video.
New Year in Noosa was a long time ago and a great way to see the New Year in a brilliant part of the world.
Pte Joe McConnell (1943) served in the 2/24th Australian Infantry Battalion 10th and was killed in action November 1943 in Papua New Guinea. Like so many soldiers Joe enlisted was a young man who sadly didn’t return home to his wife Ivy and baby daughter Ronda. Only an old photo and written memory exists of Joe, and now a tune.
Find out more about Murray on his website at www.murrayblair.com
Stuart Robertson is originally from Ardrossan in Ayrshire and was previously Pipe Sergeant with Torphichen & Bathgate Pipe Band in Grade 2, and played under Robert Mathieson at Shotts & Dykehead Pipe Band in Grade 1. He moved to Australia in 2010 to work for WAPOL as a piper in the band and was Pipe Sergeant under PM Jim Murray and Pipe Major for seven months until a full time replacement for Jim could be found. He is currently at the police mounted section.
Stuart released a solo album called North to South last year which can be downloaded at all the usual streaming platforms (Apple Music, Spotify etc) and also available from Bandcamp. He is also a member of the high octane traditional music band, Spirit of Alba, who are currently recording a few tracks for release sometime in 2022. You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram @spiritofalbaband. He is still enjoying life down under and composing now and again.