PP Editor’s Blog: Setting Modern Tunes for Ceol Mor Competition

I agree with Dr Hester on the need to encourage and promote modern piobaireachd. It is something I have done all my piping life through Duncan Johnstone’s ‘Lament for Alan’, John MacKenzie’s ‘Salute to the Soldier’, playing the tunes of John MacLellan, and in many other ways. Without new works the art stagnates.

Two comparatively modern tunes ‘The Phantom Piper of the Corrieyairick’ and a ‘A Son’s Salute to His Parents’ have been included as part of the 2016 Senior set lists and the Piobaireachd Society’s Music Committee deserve credit here: for the decision itself, but also for adopting the policy of not considering these tunes as separate from the traditional canon.

spsl logoThe Scottish Piping Society of London are to be congratulated too on their forward thinking decision to set ‘modern’ tunes for last year’s Bratach Gorm (Dr Hester’s point). However, promoters need to balance the practicalities of running competitions where these tunes are to be the main bill of fare. Getting to London is expensive and not all the top names can afford time off to do so. By the time the contest comes around they have completed an arduous season and will have very little time, or perhaps inclination, to get up four ‘modern’ tunes as well. (Four were asked for on the entry form.)

salute to the soldier urlar
An excerpt from John MacKenzie’s ‘Salute to the Soldier’
Many of the leading players have years of playing in the Donald MacLeod Memorial competition where his tunes are prescribed. (Indeed the Bratach was won this year by one of Donald’s works, the same ‘A Son’s Salute to His Parents’). Thanks to this enlightened decision by the organisers in Stornoway, Donald’s tunes are better known and better played than they have ever been.

Unfortunately some of them – not all – are an insufficient test for a contest like the Bratach Gorm. Tunes that are include John MacLellan’s ‘Phantom Piper’ and, as I say, it has been set for Oban and Inverness this year. If his memorial recital/competition becomes ps transparentan annual event then his works will become better known too – and rightly so; he is a wonderful composer of ceol mor. We will hear more about this at the Piobaireachd Society Conference in March when John’s son Colin MacLellan gives a paper on his father’s works and hopefully reveals more about the forthcoming book of his piobaireachd and his compositional theory and practice.

Bill Barrie’s ‘Lament for Robert Reid’ is often heard nowadays, receiving a boost from performance by the SFU band and others. I should also mention that the Society’s book of 20th Century Piobaireachd, blighted by mistakes, has recently been given a thorough examination by PS Music Committee member Dr Peter McCalister and he has produced a definitive erratum which can be downloaded here. Can I respectfully suggest that everyone with this book does so and enters the corrections as appropriate? It makes such a difference to know  you are playing the tunes as the composer wrote them.

Through time these and many other tunes will become more familiar and enter the repertoire of more pipers at the top end – those who compete for the Bratach. At the moment I feel we are a little ahead of ourselves in setting them exclusively for this contest – even if we give the pipers a week’s notification of the piece they have to play.

We have to be fair to the audience too. When a modern tune competition was held in Glasgow by the Scotway Group back in the late 80s there was a fulsome programme note detailing the background to each tune and its composer. If we want to keep the piobaireachd-loving audience onside we need to keep this policy of information dispersal going.

A respectably sized crowd listened to a high standard of playing at the Kensington Conference Centre. Nevertheless, the handful of entries told its own story,  with errors in some of the performances adding to the sense of disappointment felt by all who consider this contest one of the jewels in the piping crown.