by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #77, 2015.

Yonge Street is one of the City of Toronto’s most important thoroughfares. It dissects the whole of the metropolitan area along north-south lines. From Lake Ontario north over 50 kilometers, Yonge covers a lot of diverse, sometimes gritty ground and on its path walk a lot of diverse people: the rich, the poor, the fat, the thin, the fit and the down-and-out. The part of the street I was wandering through was near glamourous Yorkville and the University of Toronto, so an eclectic mix of people, including lots of women in designer duds, some even holding wee dogs like in the movies, and students heaving massive knapsacks and at least one clever piper – that’s me (I try never to assume). 

And it was while walking the thought came to me: the sparkling realisation that hipsters are not – not hip. 

The “hipster” is a person who generally views their way as a subculture of intelligent, independent thinking – and this includes the clothes worn, the look. The air of the vintage and thrift store are markers of the hipster style. And so, I don’t know if there was a “hipster” convention nearby or if a busload of threadbare lumberjacks was sprung from the camp for a shopping excursion to the likes of Dolce & Gabbana and Brooks Brothers. But the place was heaving with people that looked like they were from the same tribe – if not the same mother. 

On this day it was the “lumbersexual” hipster subset that seemingly swarmed the place: first, all male, in plaid shirt and jeans, at least one piercing on the face or ears, a carefully coiffed wave of hair with closely shorn sides and big beard. I don’t think you can be part of this club without the beard. Anyway, it was this “look” that made me think about the futility of their individual attempts at portraying independence or anything close to originality. On this day, a guy walking by in a three-piece suit would’ve radiated more subversion – or, at the very least, independent thinking.

“It’s just a style,” I can hear you say. And, yes, agreed. But taking on a fashion of this kind suggests a need to be marked as not part of the mainstream, to be original, maybe. And these “styles”, yes, have been with us forever. Mostly embraced by the young – and those that wish they were. I think back to my own attempts, a long time ago, at sartorial marks of independent thinking: denim overalls, steel-toed builder’s boots or, ready for this, clogs – yes, clogs. So very cool – well, at least my heels were. 

In listening to Grade 1 pipe band medleys at a contest I came to reflect on the idea of original and creative thinking and bagpipe music. Even considering the rules and competitive parameters that need to be followed, there seems to be a lot of sameness to the music we create – in both composition and performance approach. Every band imagine they have a style; a way of playing that is clearly identifiable – and a damned good one at that. Maybe so, but is any of it original? I guess it depends on what defines “original”?

Our various mainstream English dictionaries use words like “new”, “fresh” and “inventive” to describe the word original. In art, as in music, “original” is the first of its kind, the earliest form of something. And it can be said that original is not synonymous with creative. We can have original crap. I know this first hand. Love it or leave it, we can have but one original – there is only one. Setting aside ideas of copyright and all that, it can be said that from the original, copies can be made. 

There is no suggestion here that there is only one “original” strathspey out there, only one original reel or one lonely authentically original glass encased master pibroch. The original is mostly sprung from somewhere else: an outside influence – a person, a place, a thing or another original; or maybe all of these things. Human history is long; hundreds of thousands of years. It’s probably safe to say that in that time any idea we today imagine fresh and inventive has been thought of – and forgotten – many times over.

When I think of bagpipe music performance and the idea of “original”, I think of the print maker. The print maker carves or engraves his creation on a stone, block or screen. Each (usually) hand-pressed impression is original, not only a mirror image of the artist’s creation but each print is unlike any of its fellow pages. Variable ink consistency, plate wear and the reliability of the press all ensure each print is different. No two pages are the same. Each page is original. 

So in performance of music it’s easy to see that each performance is different. Every performance of music is quite unlike any before it – and none to follow will ever be the same, the same as the “original”.

In building bagpipe music, in composing, we are generally hidebound by conventions that are based on tradition – on what was done before and accepted as good music. The world of music, too, is all about this: remixes, sampling and the rearranged homage to original forms all permeate what happens everywhere. But on the field of bagpipe music-making, in comparison to that of mainstream music, I suggest what happens in music composition is amplified.  

The limitations of the instrument both in mechanics and music structure have us all bumping elbows in our creations. Sometimes our creations are original and something they are extremely derivative. With an instrument blessed with nine non-dynamic melody-making notes and a tunebook featuring models for music that hover around a dozen (think march, strathspey, hornpipe, reel, and so on) to be fresh, inventive and “only one”– to be original – is not easy. Sound the trumpets for the beaming flash of unoriginal understatement.    

And yet from the sonic steamroller that is our 100-plus decibel bagpipe we continue to innovate and create meaningful, inventive original bagpipe music. The music we make and the music we create ricochets around the place in reel time. We’re all influenced by that which is around us – including the other band’s latest medley or maybe a groove-filled track from a rocking dance band. Sometimes imaginative, sometimes inventive and occasionally fresh, we still find that, as said by French film-maker, Jean-Luc Godard, “it’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to”.

I firmly believe that we are all original – each of us the product of unique experiences that shape equally unique outlooks and perspectives on the world. The style of The Yonge Street Hipsters (yes, it does scream a tune name) may not have appeared, new, never-before-seen or, well, original. But they were; on the inside, at least, their original selves.  

How we apply our core originality, how we apply what and how we take in to create that which is “original”, to successfully derive something fresh and inventive, well that is the trick, isn’t it? That’s at the heart of the struggle for originality. One that is unrelenting. 

Mike Grey plays, teaches, judges, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Grey’s Notes series ran in Piping Today magazine for ten years. His book is available in the UK from