The Need for Aesthetic Analysis in Grade 1 Medleys

RSPBA Adjudicator Robert Mathieson continues his expert analysis of the Grade 1 Medley with particular reference to the first Major of the season, the British at Gourock. It was written immediately after Robert spent ‘a day in the dugout’ listening to all the performances in the grade in a non-judging capacity. This article appears by kind permission of the RSPBA.

I heard and enjoyed all ten Grade 1 medleys at Gourock, but let us not forget that this year it was each band’s own choice. From that it might be assumed that this is as good as it gets for 2022. The standard was very good and did not really highlight any lockdown induced performance malnutrition. Take that covid!

Judges are challenged to embrace comparative analysis when faced with totally contrasting criteria in performance delivery. Historically we have installed mandatory tests: the two three-pace rolls, the constant playing of every instrument and the same static performance template for every performer, all essentially designed to facilitate an audit style of analysis, giving the assessor an easier system of opportunity to justify why he or she has put the bands in a particular order of merit. 

By Robert Mathieson

Like all art forms, pipe bands should be governed by the canons of aesthetic criticism: Imitationalism, Formalism and Emotionalism. These isms very much apply to the creative element of our medley presentations. 

Taking a look at the process of comparative analysis of opening tunes for example, St Laurence O’Toole opted for the Music of Spey as their opener whilst Field Marshal Montgomery chose Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band. Both tunes were delivered with great impact and the highest level of tonal unison and precision. Both presented indisputable qualities of an ideal standard. Two inspired tune choices. However, if we dig deeper into the presentation, we uncover the underlying musical intention.

The Music of Spey is delivered with an almost tongue in cheek, quirky, flowing style. It’s a long-established Scottish melody, but this musical presentation and style is reminiscent of what might be described as a fife and drum idiom. It also has the swaggering feel of a marching flute band, albeit the drum line presents the highest level of percussion expertise.

MacRaeBanner ’19
Ayrshire Bagpipes Nov 2020
shepherd banner ’22

I don’t say this as a negative criticism in any way. Only musical arrangers and performers of the highest calibre could pull this off successfully. The band fully embrace and capture the intended mood and style. The difficult part is knowing when does enough become too much. The syncopated feel and staccato effect takes the performance to an almost theatrical level.

I think they refer to it as entertainment in the outside world of music. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that they pulled it off in a very professional manner and are looking to appeal to an open-minded listener when it comes to musical style.

On the other hand, the connoisseurs of our craft might wish to warn us of the potency of cheap melody and a lower level of technical content, reminding us of our duty to preserve our piping and drumming traditions. Choose your standpoint. Have a listen:

SLOT and their opener

FM’s Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band was executed with a strong Scottish flavour showcasing a mature understanding of the cut and snap style. The heavy demands on the piping execution in the opening phrase has often led bands to plod into a laboured presentation where over-expression conflicts with forward movement, leaving drummers to push the load on.

None of these shortfalls were evident in this performance. The tune was neatly styled closer to the upbeat feel of a Scottish country dance band, all embellishments played in unison and receiving exactly the right amount of compression. There is nothing more musically powerful than seeing our top technicians putting style and artistry before technical showboating.

The triple run anacrusis licks up the pedal harmony in the second part smoothly placed after the melodic motif has been established – simple decoration with no intention of trying to impress by being clever. This successful formula applied to the 2/4 idiom within the pipe band format, is like the treatment Inveraray and District gave to Father John MacMillan of Barra in previous years.

This treatment is highly successful in a musical sense and manages to articulate and maintain all the integrity of the piping and drumming execution. The stylisation is still within the traditional Scottish music idiom, which might be of some solace to those that don’t feel comfortable when our music goes outside our recognised traditional boundaries. 

FMM’s opener

Both SLOT’s and FMM’s openers were presented with no obvious, glaring flaws in tonality or execution. At this point the adjudicators are backed into a corner and forced to assess aesthetic quality and taste. This is often the last area of critique that adjudicators venture into when it could be argued that it should be the primary area of analysis at a Grade 1 major championship.

It is all too easy to grab the lifeline of a fluctuating D, slight drone waver or a snare drummer having a split-second lapse off the drum, to produce an audit style order of merit. An absence of these types of errors often presents a dilemma for those who are shy about venturing into the canons of aesthetic quality and taste. 

How do we entice the evolvement of this type of creative artistry in our medleys? The contest rules and constraints placed on the Grade 1 medley format has not changed or developed in over 50 years! This is surprising given the evolution and substantial changes that can be observed in the current composition of our Grade 1 bands. 

  • Next a suggested way forward.

2 thoughts on “The Need for Aesthetic Analysis in Grade 1 Medleys

  1. Wonderful insights Robert, thanks for sharing, enjoying these. As a competitor you sometimes wonder how the rankings are really done, tough job. As a musician from non-piping background previously, I was surprised at the audit-style grading approach. I can see the need for technical basics to be maintained, but nice to see the musical component being given some daylight. The medley isn’t the quickstep after all! And when will get rid rid of the circle? Imagine any other musicians (or military for that matter) turning their backs to the audience. Makes pipebanding look even more insular than it already is 🙂

  2. Great insight to how a judge might listen to the tunes of a competing band. How would ‘Joe Public’ judge, for me, some of the impact was lost in both examples by overzealous ‘seconds’ and would be totally lost on ordinary non-piping public.

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