David Hester of the Alt Pibroch website has been in touch following my article on judging and subsequent comments on Donald MacDonald. David: Two quick questions, just for the purpose of me gaining a bit of insight and better sensitivity to the idiom:
I would love to learn more from you and perhaps pull together an article or two of your insights for Alt Pibroch Club, where, I think, a lot of us can learn from your insights. What do you think?
Well David, firstly apologies for taking so long to get back to you. D McDonald’s scores, when played literally, are, to my ear, musically inept. Double echoes are a case in point. It should be no surprise that we do not play them the way of the early writers; they disturb rhythm and worse – there is no echo to speak of.
Playing cadence Es as part of a three or four note trill may be fine on the harp or piano or small pipes even, but they were never meant to be heard as such on the great pipe. Remember that the music has been fashioned to suit the instrument, the strong harmonic on the bass matching perfectly our constantly repeating E and providing satisfaction each time it does so.
As regards time signatures, these are always a mere guide. There is no passage of ceol mor which conforms exactly to 3/4 or 4/4. Try running any urlar through computer software and you will see what I mean. A good teacher is essential; the page a rough approximation of timing with the correct notes and movements.
If MacDonald was so correct why did all the later 19th century composers/ compilers: Glen, William Ross, Gen. Thomason, John Ban MacKenzie not follow him in their depiction of the crucial motifs? In their young day all of these men would have known pipers or tutors alive and playing at the time MacDonald was writing. Anyone aged 80 today can easily recall the music of the 1950s. Someone of that age in say 1880 would know how pipers played in 1820, well before Angus MacKay’s book appeared.
I keep hammering away at getting revisionists to appreciate that I agree that alternative settings as found in all the sources you mention on your fine website are things to enjoy, publicise, promote. The sad thing is that adoption of these interesting differences is hindered by the need, as some see it, of preserving the unpleasant way some of these writers portray double echoes and cadences – with devotees requiring these to be performed literally.
Yet, as I say, I doubt if these figures were ever in common currency and you yourself have acknowledged the piano connection in D McD. As Duncan Watson’s recent piece recorded from Archie Kenneth, we will never know, and looking to Gaelic song for evidence in favour of this approach has led researchers up a whole series of well-intentioned, but ultimately fruitless blind alleys. It may be worth mentioning that if knowledge of this language is ‘the thing’, Donald MacLeod, a native speaker steeped in song, followed mainstream tradition when composing and writing his sweet tunes.
So rather than concentrating on evidence in favour wouldn’t it be more fruitful to look at evidence against playing these motifs the way you demonstrated at the Piobaireachd Society conference? Look closely at the work of the writers mentioned above, but more than anything do not shy away from piping’s oral tradition. We have recordings of William MacLean talking about and playing what he was taught in his lessons with Calum Piobair in the 1890s. We have the music of John MacDonald, Inverness, and MacDougall Gillies whose learning pedigree stretches back to the same time. Are we really saying that these giants of the art and, more importantly, their tutors, got it all so horribly wrong?
When we interpret Donald MacDonald’s settings and those of MacArthur and others within the oral tradition that has come down to us they present some marvellously interesting variations on the usual settings we hear. But we do all of their work and their memory a disservice when we insist on a literal reading of their scores. Their music deserves to be heard and celebrated but not in the way the revisionist lobby dictates.