Revisionist Piobaireachd and the Tradition as it Has Come Down to Us

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

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:

1) What is particularly poor about the fare of the MacDonald book and manuscript?  Is it missing something, for example?  Are the pibrochs chosen too massive?  Some of them are rather extensive.  
2) What ‘un-piping’ motifs do you see?  His book is explicitly designed for piano-forte and violin, but at least nine of the selections come from Hannay-MacAuslan, which manuscript offers no hint at all of being anything other than for bagpipes.  Is it just a matter of the kinds of constraints that time signatures impose upon the notation of rhythm?  Or is there something else?

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 piobaireachd ever was played the ‘alternative’ way (and this I doubt), it is so unmusical that it should be no surprise to anyone that it died out completely. Eventually pipers – those who could read music – disregarded these scores in favour of Angus MacKay. Though not without fault, he made a much better fist of setting the music down on the stave, of course borrowing heavily from the early pioneers such as Donald MacDonald, but distilling their work into a representation that was much closer to what was actually played. That’s why his book was an instant success.
Donald MacDonald’s version of the ground of Suibhal Seumas with trills for cadences, distorted double echoes and piano bass line

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.

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6 thoughts on “Revisionist Piobaireachd and the Tradition as it Has Come Down to Us

  1. “Why compete if you don’t want to win?” this reminds me of the joke; “Did you play your tune in the Cameron style to win?” Oh no. “Did you play in the MacPherson style to win?” Oh no no. “What style did you play to win?” I played the way the Piobaireachd Society wrote it because I wanted the medal.
    There are many reasons to compete, and I think cut-throat arrogant over-compensation to get to the top is rarely successful. I had the wonderful opportunity to compete before Andrew Wright last month, and his gracious words of encouragement and kind support for me playing a pre-PS arrangement more than compensated for my not placing above the 20 other competitors. Maybe that just comes with maturity, or a perspective that puts this music in its rightful place in the grander scheme of life.
    I’m still having a difficult time understanding why those who believe the Campbell/Sheriff Grant/Kenneth manner of notation must be followed note for note, while old MSS and the MacDonald, Ross, or Glen arrangements are somehow dismissed. I often wonder why new interpretations of piobaireachd music, with other instruments and orchestrations, are often lauded as achievements, when examination of varied styles of play in old manuscripts comes off as heretical.
    Again, time spent exploring different styles of playing tunes is not a threat to what exists, and some of the rigid opinions of playing preference appear to be a strawman argument because there will always be differences of opinion based on what is popular or familiar.
    What I pulled from Rab’s article; sort of “If it feels right, it is right”, seems very reasonable, but there’s no reason not to give the entire canon a thorough lookover to see if there are older styles of play due for a new airing. I applaud the efforts of those who take the time to do this kind of thankless work.

  2. Dr. Hester, competition is a struggle. It is not just about music. It’s also about kilts, entry forms, travel, and, let’s be honest, politics. Tell the piper who places second in the Gold Medal at Oban this year that it is just music. I’m not defending it. That’s the game, just like a gunfight is about guns rather than knives.

    I believe that old mss are very important. I agree with you that most pipers don’t spend enough time studying them, but they have other concerns, like winning the prize. Why compete if you don’t want to win? Wagging a finger at them won’t change them. But to suggest that the current fashion is not musical because it follows the tenants presented very well in Andrew Wright’s book, for example, is a very bold statement. Ailean Domhnalluch has many Clasps. Would you say his Clasp winning performances were unmusical because he played a PS setting?

  3. There is an assumption that something that survives must be the best. It only takes the current presidential election cycle in the US to put the lie to that assumption: what survive has many different factors contributing to its ongoing existence. From weight of institutional backing (MacKay and his royal patron, for example) to timing (IBM vs Macintosh) to unavoidable and uncontrollable events (World War I and the loss of 1000 pipers). So I’m not sure that just because something *is* means it *ought to be*.

    The piano connection with DMcD is interesting, but one should also note that Angus MacKay’s settings were also expressly written for the piano. Stating such on the book was simply a marketing device. No pianist played this stuff, really. And if we looked at what piano transcribers themselves did, you’d see a vast simplification of movements (almost a near elimination of them). So, the piano connection isn’t really anything but a diversion.

    But to your larger point: I am in general agreement. I think the bigger issue is that many folks simply have not spent enough time among the primary sources to understand just what, exactly, a crahinin or cadence actually represents. So, they play it as they see it. Heck, they play the whole tune as they see it. I can’t think of anything more boring than listening to a version I heard of the End of the Great Bridge where a very well intentioned performer simply, emphatically stuck to the notes on the page as written, without tempo variation, without rubato, droning on and on in compound time through 3 variations each of taorluath and crunluath motions. Wow, that was awful.

    That said, poor interpretation is not the monopoly of those who are looking at the early manuscripts. I hear very good players simply wipe out a melody by their profoundly insensitive insistence that every cadence must hold the E as long as possible, to the point where the melody becomes immersed in a sea of monotonous cadences. What is the point of that? How is that possibly musical?

    Finally, to John Dally’s point: there is no fight here. These manuscripts are part of our tradition. They tell us something of about our tunes that we didn’t know. We learn, we try, we stumble, we try again. It is what everybody does on the boards. It is music, not a gunfight.

    I will be releasing a series of articles on our website that I hope will clarify more what the intention behind the “modern traditional” approach to pibroch is attempting to achieve. It is not to assert “rightness” or “wrongness”, but to re-extend the idiom by offering pibroch performers a broader palette of musical options from which to choose, based on the historical record, when playing these marvelous tunes. I hope it will help.

  4. I paid, with the help of our local Gaelic language society, to have Ronald MacKenzie’s mss in the NLS photographed so pipers around the world could study them. Musical notation of any sort, however, is so limited that it cannot be depended upon to render the subtleties of flow, rhythm, and melody. We hear this in the playing of William Dixon by pipers steeped in contemporary Highland piping technique who do not understand that piping and the bagpipe at the time of Dixon were substantially different.
    I own John MacDougall Gillies’ copy of CEOL MOR, in which he made corrections. There are not many. In CEOL MOR you find much more rhythmic variety than you will hear today. Judging from his notes I doubt that even the most ardent adherents of the Cameron style today play the way JMG did.
    Even Angus MacKay is problematic because only a musician with massive intellect and talent could have produced his mss, even in the portions of the mss he made in Bedlam, while many believe he was insane and can’t be trusted.
    I haven’t found a better description of the contemporary competition style of playing Pibroch than Andrew Wright’s book. However, I play only for my personal pleasure, so I enjoy following Ailean Domhnullach’s lead. But the playing of others who have tried to resuscitate old styles leaves me cold. What makes Ailean’s playing special is his inbred knowledge of Gaelic song and huge talent. Other pipers who make much of their Gaelic roots are not as persuasive. I do not enjoy listening to the Donald MacDonald competition because I think they are trying to put new wine in old skins. Just one example is the way they play what we call the cadence ‘e’. The reason it sounds terrible is because in most cases that is all the performers have changed when performing Donald MacDonald. Ailean has managed, in Ezra Pound’s words, to “make it new” in a way I find particularly interesting and fresh. I enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoy listening to Donald MacPherson, who did not speak Gaelic as far as I know.
    Because I had a desultory career as a competition piper I can indulge myself in these controversial opinions. Dr. Hester’s goal to bring old playing styles into the competition arena of the 21st Century is a non-starter, in my humble opinion. As the saying goes, don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

  5. Thanks for this, Rab.
    Some of these motifs lasted until the start of the PS. I am looking at Glen’s Lord Lovat’s Lament and see the dot-cut on the B double echoes, which are distinct from the cut-dot of the E echoes before it. I think it makes a nice contrast to other arrangements; however, they don’t suggest the same popping style as D. MacDonald. Evolution perhaps?
    Many embellishments written by Joseph MacDonald appear non-musical to a modern ear unless played at a tempo that would not fit the modern style–even then it could sound distasteful. Experimentation of notation in old manuscripts into territory that is beyond known oral tradition is not necessarily revisionist. Pushing the boundaries beyond 150 years of oral tradition opens up possibilities that may lead to blind alleys, but the exploration is not a threat to what exists. As you suggest, it may only bolster the musical choices made.

  6. > 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?

    It is worth making the point that even today all written bagpipe music follows a convention that bears little resemblance to what is on the page. If our music was written down correctly, a learner should be able to correctly express music from the page without further instruction, other than learning the basic technique and sufficient music theory. Yet most of my time as a teacher is spent teaching pupils how to interpret what is on the page and what is actually meant.

    For example, when we see a GEF gracenote cluster on the page, how do we know that the middle E is fingered as a melody note? We don’t, we have to be taught it separately. In the same way, many of MacDonald’s gracenote clusters are simply ambiguous and we have to interpret them through received tradition, or internal or other evidence.

    Having done some work on MacDonald’s light music, it’s very clear to me that he was a fairly careful notator of music, and I find very, very hard to believe that he could get something like the notation of double echoes incorrect. If he wrote dot, cut, that’s what he meant; the question is how it should be interpreted, and there’s plenty evidence out there to do that.

    Lastly, while I agree that oral tradition should not be gainsaid or set aside, it’s important to note that we have plenty of evidence to show that it has undergone significant change (“You mean to say my son is teaching you such rubbish?”) and to make an honest attempt to reconstruct the playing styles of MacDonald and his contemporaries is a worthwhile endeavour in and of itself, even if ultimately we judge that the evolved results handed down are artistically superior.

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