The art and mystery of composition for the bagpipe: part 2


Piping Today #101, 2020.

My own experience of composing music started when I was in my teens, creating rock and roll songs in the simple three or four-chord form of the times. But still I was doing it, and they gathered some local popularity. Of course there was some reliance on familiar riffs and patterns, but they still seemed to be “mine”. Music grows in just this way… it undergoes a natural metamorphosis in the hands of each new musician who visits it. Which is why the decision in the estate of Marvin Gaye against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke is a bad one and may lead to a chill on the expansion of music in any form.

The inspiration for a piece of music, whether a suite or only a tune, can come from almost anywhere, and sometimes really nowhere. I composed my first jig when I was about 16, having been inspired by syncopated bits in the Braes of Mellenish. My tune The Crooked Finger employed that little riff sparingly, and the tune was clearly my work.

The tune The Double Gold for J. K. Cairns came from necessity and was made from whole cloth. The Frasers needed a closing hornpipe to finish off a medley, nothing was working, and I deliberately set about to create what I hoped would be a strong melody with catchy rhythmical features. I can’t say  how it came into my head, but it seems akin to Neil Young’s comment that I mention later: I went fishing, dropped a line in the water and caught one.

When Doug Stronach and I were woking on my CD Northern Man we had nothing that would work as a title track. Doug, my producer, told me he had always wanted to the record the bagpipe “huge” in the style of Davey Spillane’s brilliant performance on uilleann pipes of Caoineachd cu Chulainn on Riverdance. I said that tune was completely out of our range. So he told me to go and make one of my own. “Yeah right,” said I. Sometime after, Lily and I were watching a movie called The Cuckoo – it’s the story of a Finnish and a Soviet soldier who land at the home of a Sami woman in Lapland, during WW II. A brilliant, funny and heartbreaking movie. The soundtrack contains a wonderful bit of music which plays on the tonality of the fifth interval. The feel of it captured me and I tried to think of ways to adapt it to the bagpipe. I worked something up using this as the basic inspiration, thinking it might make a nice slow air, but as I played it over in my mind, it seemed it could be something bigger and better. I wrote another part and quickly realised that would be a good precursor to the melody I had first created. The rest was easy. The whole piece stepped up in keys and drama, if that’s not too pretentious a word, and led to an ending that was somewhat anthemic.

My piobaireachd For Ranald (my late brother) came unbidden into my head while I was parking my car on Brock Street in Whitby. What a pedestrian beginning. The first two phrases appeared to me as pretty much fully formed, and I had to scribble out some lines on a piece of paper to make a rough manuscript sheet before they got lost in the detritus that accumulates in any musician’s mind. The rest of it took a long time and many edits, but without the opening theme of those first couple of bars it would never have happened.

The suite In Celtic Times happened in the following way. Lily and I were in Barbados on holiday, and we had gone to the supermarket for supplies. Lily was in the store shopping, while I, suffering from a nasty cold and avoiding the Arctic air conditioning, stayed outside in the tropical heat, kicking stones and waiting for her. For some reason a song called The Battle of New Orleans started up in my mind on full repeat like an earworm. This is a tune from my boyhood by a country singer by the name of Johnny Horton, which celebrated the victory over the English at that famous battle. It features an old-fashioned military beating on something like a rope tension drum, in 4/4 time at about 72 beats per minute, with a repeating riff that sounded like “prrum pum pum, prrumpa pumpa pum”. I couldn’t get this out of my head and soon enough I was toying with a martial melody to support this rhythm. It sounds backwards, I know, but that’s how it happened.

We went home to the digs, had some white rum and tonic and the tune got finished. I mean that passive voice – it “got” finished. I created the first part using my brain and sense of music, and the rest just seemed to come along. I didn’t set out to create a full suite, but I seemed to get locked into a mindset that sought something more from a broader source – the notion of Celtic music, and Celtic times both historical times and in the sense of time signatures. A detailed exposition of the creation In Celtic Times would bore readers to the point of writing suicide notes, but its form can be deduced from the score. The ending section with its frantic jazz-infused rhythms was written when we came home from holiday.

My Barbados cold had now blossomed into a full-blown flu, with a high fever, lots of medication, and, to be candid, reasonable dollops of hot whisky and honey. There are reports of bouts of creativity bursting from this combination of factors, whether from drugs, the sweat lodge or plain dissociation from one’s normal reality. In my case, all of these influences conspired to put me into a frenzy of ideas. Turning to Shooglenifty, the last crazy –  as in completely non-piping – section, fell into place. I once heard Robbie Robertson, the guitarist and songwriter of The Band, and writer of such classics as Up on Cripple Creek and The Weight, being interviewed on the CBC. He was asked if taking drugs helped him creatively, and he answered: “Well, yeah!” Now I wasn’t into that scene, but in those fever driven moments I likely approached something like it.

Another great Canadian pop star, Neil Young, said that composing was like fishing. You go to the river drop a line and sometimes you catch one and sometimes you don’t. Or consider Keith Richards, who said that songs were out there, fully formed, waiting to be snagged. Explaining the whole phenomenon is a challenge. Leonard Cohen was asked where do great songs come from, and he said: “I don’t know. If I did, I’d go there all the time.”

Philip Glass is one of the greatest living composers of opera, classical music, music for movies and more. He supported himself until he was 41 – by driving a taxi, carpentry, plumbing and working in a steel plant… all the while composing in a rigorous and highly-disciplined routine. He didn’t live on fellowships, university appointments or any other outside help. Because he owed no-one anything, he was free to create music as he wished. You may find the analogy a bit of a stretch, but it seems pretty clear to me that pipe band music choice and composition owes far too much to the competition scene, and in particular to the World Pipe Band Championships.