Response to the ‘Some Thoughts on Piobaireachd Study’ Essay/ Archie Kenneth Reminder

Dr J David Hester (pictured) of the Alt Pibroch website has replied to the article published last week on the study and analysis of piobaireachd….
‘Mr. Wallace, I very much appreciate your feedback on our project and welcome the ensuing discussion. I hope we can truly engage in an informative and thoughtful dialogue, and avoid the pitfalls of ‘serial monologues’ that are the hallmark of most modern discourse. 
Because, while I am a scholar, I am also a musician and performer of pibroch. I, too, love and enjoy the deep musicality and tradition of this musical form. I listen to it whenever I can, play it as much as my wife will allow, think and learn as much as I can from as many different people as will put up with my questions and performances. It is an incredible art form, one deserving a greater audience and appreciation than we see today. 
And what we see today is a remarkable resurgence of interest, make no mistake about it! So, while I take a scholarly approach to pibroch, it is always in the interest and service of the music itself. And that is why I find these old manuscripts remarkable. A revelation, really. Because what they show is an unassailable fact: that the idiom was far more broad, far more stylistically variable than anything we hear today. It was a class of music with many genres reflecting many performance contexts requiring  the piper to play to a variety of styles to meet audience expectations. 
But this has been fundamentally altered by history, to a point where the dominant public performance context is a tightly constrained and limited singularity: competitions. Our effort at the Alt Pibroch Club is not to critique or castigate competitions. To the contrary: without them, the art form very likely would have died off. But with the ready availability of primary source materials we are witnessing a growing realization that the competition context is just too limited to contain the fulness of the musical tradition. The art is experiencing a renaissance of discovery: of forgotten movements, of forgotten styles, of elaborate and fluid structures, of multiple tempos. 
viscountThe admittedly provocative, but also tongue-in-cheek title, ‘we’re playing it wrong’, is meant to awaken our readership to these facts. After all the times other people have told me, ‘you are playing it wrong’, I thought it would be fun to turn the tables a bit. But please don’t misunderstand our project. It isn’t so much interested in critiquing the current state of the art, as it is in invigorating the future through a livelier, stronger connection with the past.
The music and musicality of these primary source manuscripts and books speak for themselves: these transcribers were remarkable musicians seeking to capture the art form they loved. They caught what they heard and did the best they could to do. That is what is so incredible about these scores: the humanness, the struggle to capture the ineffable. Peter Reid gave up time signatures. Donald MacDonald didn’t bother to standardize movements. The anonymous author of the Hannay-MacAuslan collection scribbled measures across lines. Angus MacKay wrote and rewrote the same tune over and over again, each time differently.  There wasn’t one gospel truth.
We at the Alt Pibroch Club want to help others understand this.  We are making these material readily available to everyone, but are also committed to help put them in context, gain a keener insight into them, and adopt these insights into performance.  But we aren’t setting out to ‘revolutionize’ pibroch: we are simply a location for what is a growing community of players and fans of pibroch. As such, we are a witness to an inevitable trend toward exploration and musical plurality.

Because, for the first time in its history pibroch performers and fans have through our site (as well as the Piobaireachd Society, Ceol Sean and others)  ready, direct and universal access to materials that had only been accessible to scholars and archivists.  And what these materials show is an incredible variety and vitality of expression and interpretation we might have intuited or possibly heard about, but never directly encountered. And now, everybody and anybody can.  

The recordings of the MacCrimmon associated piobaireachd have been completed with the addition of MacDonald’s Salute:

Are these scores and manuscripts easy to understand? No. Are they easy to play and interpret? Certainly not. They are quite foreign, even though strangely familiar.  But it is that quality of foreignness that makes them so important: they are evidence of musicality much broader than we assume today.  Most people initially reject this foreignness – they dismiss it, they mitigate it, they try to shape what’s written into a modern style not reflected on the pages they see. Some simply walk away, saying that ‘It is not how we play it today’, or ‘I play to win, and judges won’t accept these’.

But those who stick with it and take these ancient musicians seriously, struggle with the strangeness, experiment with these ‘new’ styles and interpretations, experience something enriching.  Their musicianship becomes deeper, broader.  They take more risks, accept greater responsibility for their interpretive choices.
And if they then choose to continue to pursue the modern style, that’s up to them.  But they do so now with an experience and an appreciation for the music that they didn’t have before.
Change is the one constant in history.  With the easy accessibility of these remarkable manuscripts, profound changes are taking place.  We at the Alt Pibroch Club welcome this change, find it exciting, and look forward to the time when it is only natural to hear many different styles of pibroch in a wide variety of contexts.
 J David Hester, PhD, Alt Pibroch Club 


The twenty-fourth annual amateur Piobaireachd competition for the Archie Kenneth Quaich will take place on Saturday, 5th March 2016, in the rooms of The Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society, 127 Rose Street Lane South, Edinburgh, starting at 10am. Entries and enquiries to Alan Forbes, 24 Garscube Terrace, Edinburgh EH12 6BN.   Tel: 0131-337 4094 or e-mail:

Mr Stephen Mitchell, winner of the Archie Kenneth Quaich in 2004

Competitors should submit two tunes with their entries, one of which they will be asked to play.   Competitors may not submit any tune with which they have previously won first prize in the competition. Conditions for eligibility are as follows:
Competitors must be aged twenty or over.
Competitors must be amateur pipers. In particular, the following are not eligible: holders of the Army School of Piping’s Pipe Major Certificate; anyone who has won a prize in open competition or who has, within the past five years, taken part in open competition; anyone who has taken part in public recitals with professional players.

Anyone in doubt about their eligibility to play should contact the
competition organiser for advice. Please note the following change to previous arrangements: In the event that there are significantly more than 25 entries the competition may be run as two heats with a final of three or four from each heat, the finalists being required to play the tunes not chosen for them in the heats.   This is to enable as many competitors as possible to take part.

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