The energy from people...

I'm always amazed at what being behind a camera can give the photographer.
The ability to connect with someone because you are there to describe them visually,
to allow you to direct them, to pose them, to sculpt light onto them,
somehow enhances their openness.

Photographing some wonderful Yoga instructors recently was fantastic.
The energy from them flowed through the room.
I almost had a Jedi moment.




Fresh Eyes.

These two B&W images were from a while ago.
Part of a series from the St Kilda Festival, not far from where I had a studio,
they weren't received overly enthusiastically by the clients I had.
I was a clean photographer.  Safe and categorised, I should "stay with what I was good at".

I liked these images, and I never forgot about them.

They played on my mind for a long time...

And after being away from my camera for what seemed like an eternity,
I realised that I had failed to take the pictures I wanted to take, all those years ago.

The desire to take the picture I want to take is still there.
I still love these pictures, gritty as they may be.

They were the pictures I wanted to take and
they are reflected in many of the images I produced now.

Trains and Automobiles... but not Planes

The idea of how we move, and what we feel as we get there, fascinates me.

Bringing people together, whether it is for work or play, for love or money;
evokes so many memories it becomes hard to define 'Travel' as a single genre.

The Metro in Paris, The Tube in London, the Subway in New York.

They all have their smell, their voice and their feel.

Paris Metro, 1995

The car was the obsession of the 20th century.
Very few inventions have inspired so much discourse.

From machismo to carbon footprints, Route 66 to the Autobahn, the choice of vehicle often gave the driver their idea of what freedom meant. 
Ad agencies thrived on this.
Boys transitioned to men (sometimes) through this.

Some cars became a statement of what was their country.
 

 

Paris and the two side walk Mona Lisa, 1995

To many, an airport has its own magic.
I know those who travel by air regularly see it also as a place where the Dark Magic resides.

This is what flying should feel like, but rarely does.  Scotland, 2009

This is what flying should feel like, but rarely does.  Scotland, 2009

For those souls, the magic is properly revealed as a cunning sleight of hand - a grand promise too easily broken.  It possesses all the bright lights and glittering entreaties of a Casino, with the same despair and desperation, just beneath the surface.

A transitory gauntlet of suffering to be endured before release, only to be revisited, like a recurring nightmare, over and over... and over.  Up, Up and Away.

Telling stories that are worth telling...

I often used to rail against commercial and advertising photography, refusing some commissions on moral grounds. 

This lost me clients, and an agent, among other things.

In the end, after wavering a few times when money was tight, I looked at the refusal as a test of my moral character. 

Morally, however, I was no better or worse than any one else.

I made a decision that was right for me.

My own reflection in life's mirror would be my moral compass. How true would it be?

The point of this, if there is one, is that there are things that you do to survive, and things that you can do to thrive. 

Where your compass points, and how long it takes you to discover your own True North, is entirely up to you.

The people I photographed, and befriended, during this time helped me find my True North.

Whether this is the end of any personal discovery or growth as a man is unknown.

Could it be as simple (or as complex) as the Google corporate motto: Don't be Evil...

Patient transfer, 2345 hrs, Royal Melbourne Hospital Annual Report

Surgery, 1504hrs, Royal Melbourne Hospital Annual Report

Pharmacy 0023 hrs, Royal Melbourne Hospital Annual report


The Vicious Observer: Photo-documentary

When a photographer turns a lens on the community or the environment he or she inhabits, the results can be sympathetic or uncompromising, sensitive or brutal.

When history looks at these images, if they survive, it often sees a significance in them that may have been missed in their original time frame. 

When we add, or subtract, context to these images and put them into a perceived space, their reality can change along with their message, and their historical integrity.

What do we ascribe to a blank wall? Is it pockmarked from bullets, or age? Is an old gate a design feature or a safety device?

What do we ascribe to a blank wall? Is it pockmarked from bullets, or age?

Is an old gate a design feature or a safety device?

Is the man in the derelict boat yard what the viewer thinks he is? Or what he chooses to be?

How does the photographer ascribe truth to a picture? Does he distort it through his prejudice or show a version of a truth?

Option A: The truth is the truth... Option B: The truth is a perception...

What is the truth in this picture? The hunchbacked man in the belted coat, hat drawn low on his brow, shuffling away from the Exotic Striptease show and the lurking guy with the camera on a SoHo street.  Is he, observed and shamed into looking into the window of the butcher's shop? Or just buying a half pound of sausages for lunch?

When is an image just a moment in time?

Sometimes I wonder why I put a person in a certain place. 

I think about the incongruity of a person completely connected with a certain place and put them in an environment that seems completely out of place.

Should it say something boldly or should it whisper it?

What does it mean to play visual games with shapes, with people?

Does the observer notice it? Or do they see it?

Griogair Labruidh, Glasgow, 2012


Hong Kong: The Icon

The great thing about having an icon at your shutter finger tip is that your experience is always going to be understood, yet different. 

Different to the next person, even though the street scape and the light and the knowledge of place will be, just that: 'known'...

Known to all and 'all of it' because it is the same.  London Bridge is as known as the Grand Canyon.

The Sydney Opera House is as recognisable to some as the Statue of Liberty is to others. 

The emotion of these is what make the critical eye keener, sharper and more demanding.

How do we capture something different in these iconic places?

Be Truthful. State your own truth. Compose and crate a picture.

Never just 'take a snap'.

Lunch in Hong Kong - Stanley Street, 1997

Then there is the esoteric view of what you might see in a special place.

When you feel that half smile come to your face, you think maybe, just maybe, you have captured what you feel about that place.

You have put your imprimatur on it.  Even if it is only ever seen by you, you have captured something of it; the emotion you felt at that time.

That is the beauty of photography. 

It allows you to distil a complete experience and tell a story with a single image.

Afternoon Off in Hong Kong - Hong Kong 1997

The Colour of Hong Kong, 1997

The Colour of Hong Kong, 1997

The distraction of colour is often the death of composition.

Maybe the photographer and the artist are closer than they both think.

In letting go of the obvious, the truth is revealed.

Having your perspective distorted...

There are times in life when you have your idea of what 'you think you know' distorted, bent out of shape, shattered (pick one) by what you experience, and this becomes 'What you know'...

This has come to me a few times in my life. The first time I tried a single malt from Islay, the first time I saw Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles, when I stopped and stood in awe of Sebastio Salgado's exhibition Workers in New York, the first time I heard Allan Macdonald sing in Scottish Gaelic while Neil Johnstone played cello in a flat in Edinburgh...

A late night session with Allan Macdonald, Neil Johnstone and John Slavin

 

... and every time I have heard band called Breabach perform live.

Megan Henderson. Sublime fiddle, heartbreaking voice and step dancer par excellence.

The Caravan Club, Australasian Tour, 2014

I have seen Breabach perform several times live and they never cease to impress. 

I have interviewed them as a band, and as individual musicians, and hopefully, have done them justice.  They are brilliant individually and even better as an ensemble.

Energy, poise and musical excellence. Breabach @ The Toff in Town, Melbourne, 2013-maybe

RS Macdonald: The Return of the King...

RS Macdonald would have to be one of the most prolific and successful composers of music for the highland bagpipe in modern history.  His contribution to Scottish music is astonishing.

Describing his life as a 'happy accident', Roddy is excellent company and possesses an anecdote (or three) for any and every place he has visited.  A player with brilliant technique and a masterful control of his instrument, every tune he plays seem effortless.

The full interview (below) appeared in Piping Today in 2013.

 

  RS MacDonald – The Return of the King   How do you do justice to a musical legend in a few thousand words, to a composer that has written and performed music that has gone on to define much of the modern piping idiom for over 40 years?  Easy.  Roddy MacDonald is an inveterate storyteller and loves to go off on a tangent - A tidal wave of anecdotes, a rollercoaster of piping lore. His enthusiasm, like his music, is contagious.  The stories cross and intertwine; the warp and weft of an exciting ‘Boys-Own tale’ of piping around the world.  Roddy’s mastery of the bagpipe as a player and composer is acknowledged the world over. As a body of work, his compositions bestride our musical landscape.  His tunes have influenced virtually all avenues of Scottish music; from top soloists, competition pipe bands and folk groups, to experimental artists - Martyn Bennett, Gordon Duncan, Breabach, The Tannahill Weavers, Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, Field Marshal Montgomery, Bagad Cap Caval, Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Shooglenifty, 78th Fraser Highlanders, Scottish Power, PM Alasdair Gillies, Stuart Liddell, The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and most importantly, The Vale of Atholl Pipe Band.  The influence of RS MacDonald seems as wide, and as constant, as the tide. Growing up in Inverness, his father from Gaelic speaking Benbecula, Roddy was surrounded by the music of a family steeped in Highland Piping, Gaelic poetry and song.  As a Highland Dancer and then as a young piper, Roddy MacDonald was exposed to some of the finest piping exponents history has seen.  He played for them, played with them and would write the music for those that would succeed them. His father William MacDonald (Benbecula) was a piper, composer and a noted judge; a double Gold medalist and Clasp winner, competing in the 1960’s and early 70’s; Willie was acknowledged as a living repository of Piobaireachd knowledge.  Willie and a young Roddy made their way together in a campervan across the B-roads and single lanes of the Highlands in the long light of Scottish summers.  While Roddy successfully competed up until the mid-1970’s, his most vivid memories of this period seem to be the Ceilidhs, piping luminaries around the kitchen table in Inverness and his time as the boy-piper at The Garve Piping Society in Ross-shire. “When I was a lad there was this great thing called The Garve Piping Society.  It was a fabulous event run by this guy with a big white beard who looked like the actor, James Robertson Justice. I remember his wife smoking these great big cigars, but he ran the piping night. Jimmy MacGregor, Duncan Johnstone and Donald McLeod all played at these Garve dinners. It was all about the music, the atmosphere.  The night came with a sit down meal, drinks, the lot and I was the fortunate to be the boy piper to many of these legends.  It was a fabulous introduction to the world of piping for me.  Playing before these legends of piping was priceless.” Public performance, often in front of the best pipers of the day gave Roddy an excellent grounding and set him up for a future of playing (more often than not) his own compositions for those who would become his idols.  This exposure, and must have been a gift to a young performer.  Roddy is as effusive about this era of piping as he is humble about his own beginnings. “I wasn’t taught the pipes at School, that sort of thing didn’t really exist back then. You were taught at home or the Boys Brigade.  My father, even though his competition career was relatively short due to his military service, played every day.  Where we lived, in a stone house in Inverness, you could play at 3am if you wanted to.  I was taught initially at the Inverness Boys Brigade by John Hunter, and ex-Cameron Highlanders and a veteran of the Battle of the Somme.  He was a very quiet man.  It’s funny, the thing I remember about him most were his hands.  They were always immaculate.  It was my music teacher at school, Ruth Grant, though, that introduced me to the wider musical world.   What really sparked my imagination in those days was Larry Adler playing Rhapsody in Blue on the harmonica. That really got me going!” Any great musician often has many stories attached to his education.  Many fables are grown out of a need to ascribe a historical context to what is actually often just happenstance.  Often, the right person at the right time becomes the reason for a direction in life - the happy accident.  Roddy is no different.  George Gershwin combining elements of Jazz with Classical-stylised arrangement marked him as a serious, ground-breaking composer in the mid 1920’s.  You could say that George Gershwin, Larry Adler and an Inverness music teacher might have been part of the ‘happy accident’ that helped developed the genius of RS MacDonald. Roddy’s deep love of all music may have come from the seed of Gershwin and the nurturing of an Inverness schoolteacher, however, the eclectic recordings that make up his musical archive certainly took root from his later wanderlust.  His music collection spans Opera to Electronic, Piping to Percussion.  His passion for music knows few boundaries and it is reflected in his amazing musical output. Perhaps because of this early exposure to different musical ideas, Roddy looked to distant shores.  The place known as ‘somewhere else’ beckoned from an early age and he would take his piping to the world. Before Invergordon Distillery and British Caledonian Airways Pipe Bands and well before The Vale of Atholl would travel far and wide with their music; few people associated bagpipes with the life of a professional musician, unless of course, you were in the Army. Professional pipers were from a different era.  Roddy MacDonald would be amongst the first of the modern era to change that. His first sojourn as a professional piper would be to Norway, of all places.  At the tender age of 17 Roddy traveled to Oslo, playing a Scottish show every night for the tourists. “I basically lived in the Hotel during the day and played at night.  My front door was a hotel door and I ate room service or in the kitchen for the whole time.  It was rampant luxury for an 17 year-old-boy from Inverness.” As most exotic expeditions do, Oslo came to an end and young Roddy faced the return to Inverness.  With something less than total enthusiasm, Roddy contemplated his working future in Scotland.  Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band provided him with both a job and a musical outlet.  While not the heights of the Oslo experience, at least it was in piping. “Coming back to Scotland after that was a real shock.  I had to look for something else, so I joined Invergordon under Jimmy Jackson.  During the day I was one of the workers in the distillery, and at night, a member of the band.  It’s funny, but I can’t remember how I got into British Caledonian after that.  Much of my life seems like that: an accident, but a happy one.” By the time Roddy joined British Caledonian, or ‘B-Cal’ as it was known, and was playing at the same time in PM Willie Cochrane’s Balmoral Highlanders Showband, London was out of the ‘Swinging 60’s’ and firmly in the 1970’s.   “Sunday morning practice at Gatwick Airport was like a young footballer going to a Manchester United football practice. It was a ‘who’s who’ of the worlds best.  PM Angus MacDonald, Hugh Macinnes, Tony MacDonald, Sir Patrick Grant, PM Joe Wilson, Jim Hardie, Dr Angus MacDonald, Allan MacDonald, Kenny MacDonald, Iain MacDonald and a host of others… It seems ridiculous to think of the amount of talent that made up that band, and the number of MacDonalds.  It was a privilege to play with them.  My greatest enjoyment out of that period of performing was with my best buddy PM Willie Cochrane of the Balmoral Highlanders.  The greatest thing about Balmoral Highlanders was the diversity.  We did everything from feature movies to opening shopping centers in Japan. Filming on the set of Franco Zefferili’s film ‘Tea with Mussolini’  (pictured with actor Chris Larkin in San Giminiano, Italy - 1999) was amazing.  In the opening take Franco Zeferrelli had tears running down his cheeks. It was only later that we found out that it wasn’t our playing, rather that he was an interpreter for the Scots Guards during the war. Throughout his life he often wore a Scots Guards badge, such was his admiration and affection for the Regiment.” When in England, the house in Wellfield Ave where Roddy first stayed was famous as a share house amongst the musical and artistic fraternity of London.  “Cliff Williams, the AC/DC bass player moved out and I moved in. Dave Stewart fromThe Eurhytmics lived nearby, too.  The place was always full of musicians, actors and artists and was great for a young man from Inverness.  I had some great times there.” The ‘Happy Accident’ had happened again.  Immersed in that time, that place, with those people must have a deep impact on the young man from Inverness.  If Oslo gave Roddy a taste at the musicians’ table, then London must have been a smorgasbord. Roddy took himself, and his music to the world.  From this point on, he was almost a citizen piper, the music taking him to all the corners of the world, and each journey would bring new ideas, new musical riches to add to his collection. Playing his own tunes continued, as would the honing of his craft. During this time, the bagpipe was to the world, a motif of Scotland from travel brochures and shortbread tins, more aligned to Military Tattoos than recording studios and folk clubs.  Innovation was rare, almost frowned upon.  That would change and RS MacDonald would be in the front rank of that change. The true innovators, the ones who almost dare the rest of the world to follow, are an inspiration to Roddy. “Donald Shaw Ramsay with Invergordon Distillery in the 60’s.  Now there was an innovator.  A band playing a set of hornpipes down the cobbled streets at the Cowal Gathering?  That was unheard of!  The first guys to recognise and embrace the influence of other Celtic nations on our music; and more importantly, to bring it to our piping world?  Dr Angus and Allan MacDonald.  True innovators!” These masters of their craft had a strong influence on Roddy, and his musical education.  It’s something that he is passionate about, both from the perspective of creativity, but also being true to the music. “That’s not to say there aren’t those young guys out there now.  There are great musicians playing, across a range of instruments.  The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) is responsible, in part, for a lot of this and it’s a great skill for them to have, but they owe so much to those innovators.  Those guys cut the path we walk on today.” The current support for traditional music and the fostering of an environment of support for performers shines a bright light on just how good Roddy MacDonald is, and was, in his early years of composing.  Roddy is fond of saying that it is ‘Trendy to be Trad’, but it wasn’t always the case.  Nor was there the support for musicians then that there is now.  The RSAMD course, the support for saving what is left of Gaelic language and culture; must give strength to bands such as Breabach, Rura and Treacherous Orchestra and performers like Lorne MacDougall and Julie Fowlis. That light does make the achievements of RS MacDonald as a composer shine all the more brilliantly when you consider that he achieved the greatest body of his work with no support from the apparatus that we see today, and mostly removed from Scotland and its music scene.  This in no way takes away from the achievements of the modern performer, however, it just makes the work of Roddy, Martyn Bennett and Gordon Duncan all the more inspiring for the fact that they did so in an era of staunch adherence to what “Traditional Piping” was. Roddy went on to explain, “While you can never like everything that’s composed, when Martyn Bennett burst onto the scene, it was so exciting.  When Mackay’s Memoirs came out, the idea was Martyns and he really owned it.  That’s what I’m talking about.  His album Hardland, and what he did with Good Drying, really brought it all together:  Innovation at every corner.  I never expected to hear Good Drying presented like that, but I loved it.  Pure Highland pipers like Duncan Johnstone were the same.  Duncan was a great player, a fabulous teacher and a brilliant composer; yet he never really competed.  His like was never seen again until Gordon Duncan came along.  Gordon’s competition success was exceeded by his command of the stage when performing in concert.  Pipers like Duncan and Gordon played a huge amount in public and they had their tunes critiqued by their peers because of that. That’s what helped make them great.” Roddy would later go on to tour the Folk Clubs of Italy with Allan MacDonald, cross-pollination of musical ideas and, I’d hazard a guess, a fair amount of late night research as well: all of it extending his musical horizons.  “Allan is great fun. His passion and his playing are as strong as his scholarship: He’s a great piper and a fearsome intellect." From his travels, Roddy collects experiences and cultural motifs, distilling some into music, others into great yarns.  Apart from penning some of the most memorable and evocative music for the Great Highland Bagpipe ever, he also has a treasure trove of stories and is a walking encyclopedia of musical history.  His move to Japan in 2001 and the significant amount of time spent in Osaka didn’t really have an impact on Roddy as a composer. “I wouldn’t really say that my time in Japan influenced my writing in any way more than the other places I’ve been.  Being away from Scotland for most of my adult life meant that my music comes from wherever I am at the time.” Best illustrated by this is the tune penned by Roddy in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake.  Yet unreleased, but available on Plant Pipe (and featuring Gordon Duncan on a low whistle), Kobe is one of the most gripping, moving modern tunes I have heard.  It is rare that a significant event is captured so completely by a piece of music. RS MacDonald achieved that with Kobe. “Being in the Kobe earthquake was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever endured.  There was no escape from it.  We were in Osaka when the earthquake hit, it was surreal to watch the swaying buildings.  I wrote the tune a few days after the quake, and I played it to Gordon when we were doing some other recording.  It wasn’t part of what we were working on but, he picked up the tune and played it on the Low Whistle with Dougie MacLean’s son, Jamie on percussion.  Something magic happened on that one take.”  Roddy has spent little time in Asia, however, he is impressed with what’s happening in piping there. “There are so many pipers coming through from Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan; the emergence of a growing piping tiger in Asia is exciting.”  He believes it is a place to watch, especially in no-traditional piping. “It’s great to see this emergency of piping there.  There are solo pipers who have got great potential, but also, bands right out on the edge. Punk piping: watch this space…” Roddy is somewhat of an enigma.  He is both part of the pipe band fraternity, yet somehow at a remove from it (He hasn’t competed in any serious way for nearly 40 years).  A prodigious composer of pipe tunes, however, a sometimes reluctant publisher.  A confident musician-composer, yet a very modest, almost shy, man. Roddy is the consummate ‘hunter-gatherer’ when it comes to music.  Galician, Breton and Asian.  Classical, Rock and Folk. Driving rhythms, bass motifs and subtle riffs. Traveling the world via London and Osaka and ending up, as Pipe Major of Queensland Police Pipe Band; his musical wanderlust has led him around the world.  “My composing life is completely different from my work life with Queensland Police. With over 500 gigs in a year, we’re probably one of the busiest bands around, but it is far removed from what I do as a composer.  The band plays none of my music.  We are a working band.” As a performer and a tune writer he has found inspiration in these ‘other’ places and the music that comes from them.  Says Roddy, “I was writing in my mid teens, 15 or 16 I think, before I started to travel and see the world.  When I got to London in the mid-70’s, I was isolated from the Scottish scene a wee bit, but I think it was good for me.  It allowed me to be influenced by other music. Irish, Rock, Classical. All of it.” The isolation he may have felt as a young man certainly was to be replaced with a musical education and a confidence taken from the far corners of the globe. Ambivalent about solo competition, never having chased the Gold Medals or hung too much import on the result of a pipe band competition, Roddy still understands the importance of the competition world for his music.  It gives it centre stage, and from that, often, it filters back into the broader world of music. “I have been working recently with a musical arranger, getting some of my work into the realm of Symphony Orchestras and Military bands; the latest piece being With Honour We Serve.  This avenue of musical exploration for me is exciting and new.  Not just bagpipes, but chanters as well.  I’m looking forward to seeing this new avenue expand and develop over time.” His prolific output, crafted throughout a writing career spanning more than four decades, he has inspired countless composers of pipe music and delivered polished gems to medley arrangers the world over.   As long as the pipe band medley has been something more than just a collection of tunes put together, it’s feels as if there has always been an RS MacDonald piece somewhere in the mix of the top bands. Roddy’s relationship with Ian Duncan is probably one of the greatest relationships in piping of the modern era, and one of the most cherished that Roddy has.  His prodigious output, and the dynamism that it brought to The Vale’s concert pieces and competition-medleys is well known.  Nothing is ever completely as it seems, however.  The ‘boundary pushing’ of Ian Duncan and Roddy MacDonald was met, in their early years, with derision by some.  Entrenched views, especially those threatened by innovation, go on the attack.  A relationship built on trust, mutual respect and a desire to ‘not let things lie’ saw them through this, and on to a period when The Vale were at the forefront of the development of piping concerts and the pipe band medley. “I really wrote a lot of my work specifically for The Vale and, for better or worse, a lot of my stuff is overloaded with technique.  Ian Duncan was always a great filter, he’d take a lot of what I’d load into the tune out, but it would still keep its melody and integrity.  That is his genius.  The most exciting thing for me this year is that The Vale will be using my hornpipe The Piper’s Inn as their entry tune in one of their medleys.  Rab Wallace and The Whistlebinkies first recorded my music for Chance is a fine thing and then Boghall and Bathgate recorded Rubiks Cube. I wrote a bit for Gordon Duncan... but it was always The Vale. Trip to Ballymena and Good Drying - The Vale was always the main aim of my writing.” ‘Would it work for The Vale?’ seems to be the litmus test for any piece of his music. Ian Duncan is Roddy MacDonald’s long time friend and musical ally.   Theirs is a relationship built on mutual respect, trust and history; and is as strong now as it was when they lived near each other in Perth in the 1970’s. “Roddy, Gordon and I went around the games in the North of Scotland in the early 1970’s in a campervan, all single track roads and ferries.  It must have been after ’74 as I’d just got my drivers license.  I’d recently taken over the Vale, but what I best remember about that time were the laughs.  It was just fun.  Gordon was just a boy then, in his teens and it was before Roddy went to London.  The playing was constant, pipes were for playing, not nursing for a competition. We didn’t worry about them getting wet; here was no nursing of reeds for competition, we’d often play all day.  Those trips were like a mobile Ceilidh.” Ian and Roddy have cemented themselves as one of the longest partnerships in piping, both on the concert stage and the competition circle. “Roddy would always give me first refusal of a tune, often by phone or by cassette tape.  I’ve got hundreds of tapes of Roddy’s music at home.  It’s how he’s always sent his music to me. I think that the sense of freedom he keeps in his music (by recording and developing an idea without staff notation) prevents him from getting bogged down in a tune.  He’s brilliant in how he lets the music flow.  In the early Vale days in Perthshire, we spent a lot of time in each other’s company.  When he first discovered (and introduced me to) The Bothy Band, it seemed to enlighten him, and kick started his composing. It also sparked my mind to the possibilities in the formation of our music and medley construction.  Neither of us actually remembers when we started to work together seriously.  It was probably ’81 – 82, around the time we moved into Grade 1.  It developed the way our friendship developed; we did stretch things, and may have won the worlds if we didn’t get chastised for playing ‘round reels’ (as ALL bands do now), but it was always about the music and having fun.  We were on the phone every other day, and in that period, a lot of the music Roddy produced for us was discarded, not because it wasn’t up to scratch, but just because of the sheer volume, we could only play so much.” That seems to be a hallmark of Roddy MacDonald - the man that can turn nine notes into hundreds of tunes. “Roddy is like most great composers, not much happens for a wee while and then something kick starts him and he’s off.  Gloria Estefan, I think, sparked off something in Roddy that became Il Paco Grande.  He’s like that; sometimes the smallest thing will put a musical idea in his head, and it will take off… I love him to bits, he’s such a close friend.  He was, and is, a real inspiration.  We still phone each other every week, even after all these years.  I feel very privileged to be a close friend.” Roddy and Gordon Duncan go back before their association with The Vale of Atholl.  The composer and the performer seemed almost to be made for each other, feeding off each other’s strengths, pushing each other’s boundaries.  Roddy is still in awe of what Gordon Duncan could do with the music Roddy penned, but rates Gordon Duncan as the most influential composer of the 1990’s through to the new millennium. “There are loads of good players around right now and lots of great CD’s being recorded.  Some are better produced and slicker than what Gordon did, but they rarely have the impact that Gordon Duncan’s music had.  The sheer impact of Gordon on piping was phenomenal.  I believe that those people who didn’t ‘like’ what Gordon did, how he played, what he wrote and recorded were somewhat secretly envious (as I was myself!) - envious of his ability, of his music and his potential.  I remember when he recorded Good Drying in Edinburgh, I was in North London and he rang me from the studio, playing the recording down the phone line; I don’t remember who was more excited, him or me. When the CD was released, I took it down to a piping buddy of mine who had a bar in London. When he played it, he nearly fell of his bar stool.  He’d never heard anything like it. None of us had. I think I wore my CD player out on that disc.” When Gordon recorded Good Drying and Last Tango in Harris, two of Roddy’s most emphatically driving tunes (although it is hard to separate two from the pack) you can feel the energy pouring out of the speakers, the tunes become Gordon’s. He owns them. Roddy likes this, “It’s funny, you have someone who plays something you’ve written; and you know that they’ve just played it better than you ever will; it’s brilliant, it’s exciting.”  It’s rumoured that Last Tango in Harris was actually supposed to be Last Mango in Harris, after a local importer of exotic fruit ran out of a certain delicacy.  As with many stories, it’s all the funnier for not being told that often. Roddy doesn’t play Good Drying any more, and hasn’t for years.  It’s always interesting to listen to the many versions of Good Drying out there. Gordon Duncan, Breabach and Roddy himself have all put their stamp on the tune - all different, all imbuing their own special touch, but the magic exists within the tune for all of these artists. That’s what is so special about Roddy’s music; it can exist strongly across so many iterations without losing anything in the interpretation.  Which brings us to the album Good Drying… and what an album! Recorded and produced in Melbourne, Australia and delivered to Scotland; Good Drying is in the opinion of many, one of the most brilliant piping recordings ever produced; an album of such virtuosity that it still leaves you breathless 10 years later.  Virtuosity and imagination, hand in hand with dreamlike motifs and deep rhythmical overlays.  The opening track, Bullet Train, takes you to a place where dreams merge with reality.  Such sculptural brilliance had rarely been attempted with a bagpipe so predominant (and rarer still), accomplished.  Murray Blair is credited by Roddy as the driving force in the production of his seminal album Good Drying. There is a common theme of respect and admiration between these two, producer and composer, an instantaneous chemistry when they met. The relationship between Roddy and Murray Blair goes back to the days of HYPE TV, Murray Blair’s innovative web-based Piping programme.  When Murray interviewed Roddy (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) about how to get upgraded when flying and from that first meeting grew Murray’s involvement with Good Drying. Roddy is forthright about Murray Blair’s involvement in the production of the album. “Good Drying was as much Murray Blair’s album as it was mine. I write melody lines.  That’s what I do - I write ditties. There are lots of people that then take my melody and move it on, Murray is one of the best.  I do visualise the arrangements behind a piece of music. I have this image in my head of what it is that is going on with the music, but I don’t have the musical education to write the arrangement myself.  When Murray and I were doing Good Drying, I knew exactly what I wanted with Il Paco Grande.  It was all about a tympanic richness and the arrangement written and produced by Murray was perfect. When I first met Murray in Osaka, we just hit it off. The connection was instant.  We were on the same page immediately.  I put the success of Good Drying down to Murray’s work.  All I did was record the tunes and then harass Murray constantly over the next two years… “Are we finished yet?”  Ian Green of Greentrax was incredibly patient, but the result was well worth it.” I asked Murray Blair about Good Drying.  “Roddy’s strength is that he writes tunes that you don’t need any ‘bells and whistles’ in arrangement to make the tune work.  They stand as strong today as the first day they were played, it’s as simple as that…” Murray went on to describe Roddy’s influence on piping. “Roddy is the 'statesman' of composers. He’s conservative when it comes to piping composition because he is so immersed in the fundamentals of piping.  He leaves just about any composer light years behind.  20 years before the new breed of composers and arrangers, Roddy MacDonald was the driving force behind ‘the acoustic jukebox’ that helped make The Vale of Atholl what it was in the 1980’s.” What is more incredible is the amount of work that Roddy has not published.  His prolific output is only matched by what he wont release. It needs to be right: Absolutely right. An inveterate pocket recorder, Roddy’s tunes come to him at the most obscure times and places. Pulling the car to the side of a road in the middle of nowhere to get out and sing or hum a phrase, to take a note or record a phrase or a bar, bringing closer to fruition what may be the next great piece. Who is it for? Who will capture it?  Orchestral percussion is one of Roddy’s great interests, especially for composing for the bagpipe, and it’s something he’d like to explore more. “You know, it’s funny when people say to me, ‘Oh Roddy, you’ve been a bit quiet over the last few years…’ I just haven’t been putting the music I’ve written out there.  So, I’ve been putting pieces together for The Vale, Manawatu Scottish, Boghall and Cantebury Caledonian, among many others, for the 2013 season.  A lot of what I write for pipe bands I think can be looked at as a bit ‘pop’, the tunes have a use-by date.  So with some of my favourite pieces, the ones I’ve kept in the background, I’ll be putting them out there soon.  I think it’s time.” It might be easier to imagine Good Drying as a singular work, a tour-de-force either to the start or end of a career. It is, however, such an intrinsic part of the phenomenal body of work that Roddy has produced that you might wonder when and where a follow up CD might have come.  Who knows?  I’d hope for a second RS MacDonald recording.  It’s been a long time coming, but Roddy is not one to rush things. In the competition pipe band world, expect to hear a lot more of RS MacDonald in the Grade 1 circle. I’ve heard a few people say, “It’ll be good to see Roddy back composing for pipe bands…” RS MacDonald isn’t back:  He never left.

 

RS MacDonald – The Return of the King

 

How do you do justice to a musical legend in a few thousand words, to a composer that has written and performed music that has gone on to define much of the modern piping idiom for over 40 years?  Easy.  Roddy MacDonald is an inveterate storyteller and loves to go off on a tangent - A tidal wave of anecdotes, a rollercoaster of piping lore. His enthusiasm, like his music, is contagious.  The stories cross and intertwine; the warp and weft of an exciting ‘Boys-Own tale’ of piping around the world. 

Roddy’s mastery of the bagpipe as a player and composer is acknowledged the world over. As a body of work, his compositions bestride our musical landscape.  His tunes have influenced virtually all avenues of Scottish music; from top soloists, competition pipe bands and folk groups, to experimental artists - Martyn Bennett, Gordon Duncan, Breabach, The Tannahill Weavers, Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, Field Marshal Montgomery, Bagad Cap Caval, Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Shooglenifty, 78th Fraser Highlanders, Scottish Power, PM Alasdair Gillies, Stuart Liddell, The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and most importantly, The Vale of Atholl Pipe Band.  The influence of RS MacDonald seems as wide, and as constant, as the tide.

Growing up in Inverness, his father from Gaelic speaking Benbecula, Roddy was surrounded by the music of a family steeped in Highland Piping, Gaelic poetry and song.  As a Highland Dancer and then as a young piper, Roddy MacDonald was exposed to some of the finest piping exponents history has seen.  He played for them, played with them and would write the music for those that would succeed them.

His father William MacDonald (Benbecula) was a piper, composer and a noted judge; a double Gold medalist and Clasp winner, competing in the 1960’s and early 70’s; Willie was acknowledged as a living repository of Piobaireachd knowledge.  Willie and a young Roddy made their way together in a campervan across the B-roads and single lanes of the Highlands in the long light of Scottish summers.  While Roddy successfully competed up until the mid-1970’s, his most vivid memories of this period seem to be the Ceilidhs, piping luminaries around the kitchen table in Inverness and his time as the boy-piper at The Garve Piping Society in Ross-shire.

“When I was a lad there was this great thing called The Garve Piping Society.  It was a fabulous event run by this guy with a big white beard who looked like the actor, James Robertson Justice. I remember his wife smoking these great big cigars, but he ran the piping night. Jimmy MacGregor, Duncan Johnstone and Donald McLeod all played at these Garve dinners. It was all about the music, the atmosphere.  The night came with a sit down meal, drinks, the lot and I was the fortunate to be the boy piper to many of these legends.  It was a fabulous introduction to the world of piping for me.  Playing before these legends of piping was priceless.”

Public performance, often in front of the best pipers of the day gave Roddy an excellent grounding and set him up for a future of playing (more often than not) his own compositions for those who would become his idols.  This exposure, and must have been a gift to a young performer. 

Roddy is as effusive about this era of piping as he is humble about his own beginnings. “I wasn’t taught the pipes at School, that sort of thing didn’t really exist back then. You were taught at home or the Boys Brigade.  My father, even though his competition career was relatively short due to his military service, played every day.  Where we lived, in a stone house in Inverness, you could play at 3am if you wanted to.  I was taught initially at the Inverness Boys Brigade by John Hunter, and ex-Cameron Highlanders and a veteran of the Battle of the Somme.  He was a very quiet man.  It’s funny, the thing I remember about him most were his hands.  They were always immaculate.  It was my music teacher at school, Ruth Grant, though, that introduced me to the wider musical world.   What really sparked my imagination in those days was Larry Adler playing Rhapsody in Blue on the harmonica. That really got me going!”

Any great musician often has many stories attached to his education.  Many fables are grown out of a need to ascribe a historical context to what is actually often just happenstance.  Often, the right person at the right time becomes the reason for a direction in life - the happy accident.  Roddy is no different.  George Gershwin combining elements of Jazz with Classical-stylised arrangement marked him as a serious, ground-breaking composer in the mid 1920’s.  You could say that George Gershwin, Larry Adler and an Inverness music teacher might have been part of the ‘happy accident’ that helped developed the genius of RS MacDonald.

Roddy’s deep love of all music may have come from the seed of Gershwin and the nurturing of an Inverness schoolteacher, however, the eclectic recordings that make up his musical archive certainly took root from his later wanderlust.  His music collection spans Opera to Electronic, Piping to Percussion.  His passion for music knows few boundaries and it is reflected in his amazing musical output.

Perhaps because of this early exposure to different musical ideas, Roddy looked to distant shores.  The place known as ‘somewhere else’ beckoned from an early age and he would take his piping to the world. Before Invergordon Distillery and British Caledonian Airways Pipe Bands and well before The Vale of Atholl would travel far and wide with their music; few people associated bagpipes with the life of a professional musician, unless of course, you were in the Army. Professional pipers were from a different era.  Roddy MacDonald would be amongst the first of the modern era to change that.

His first sojourn as a professional piper would be to Norway, of all places.  At the tender age of 17 Roddy traveled to Oslo, playing a Scottish show every night for the tourists.

“I basically lived in the Hotel during the day and played at night.  My front door was a hotel door and I ate room service or in the kitchen for the whole time.  It was rampant luxury for an 17 year-old-boy from Inverness.”

As most exotic expeditions do, Oslo came to an end and young Roddy faced the return to Inverness.  With something less than total enthusiasm, Roddy contemplated his working future in Scotland. 

Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band provided him with both a job and a musical outlet.  While not the heights of the Oslo experience, at least it was in piping.

“Coming back to Scotland after that was a real shock.  I had to look for something else, so I joined Invergordon under Jimmy Jackson.  During the day I was one of the workers in the distillery, and at night, a member of the band.  It’s funny, but I can’t remember how I got into British Caledonian after that.  Much of my life seems like that: an accident, but a happy one.”

By the time Roddy joined British Caledonian, or ‘B-Cal’ as it was known, and was playing at the same time in PM Willie Cochrane’s Balmoral Highlanders Showband, London was out of the ‘Swinging 60’s’ and firmly in the 1970’s. 

 “Sunday morning practice at Gatwick Airport was like a young footballer going to a Manchester United football practice. It was a ‘who’s who’ of the worlds best.  PM Angus MacDonald, Hugh Macinnes, Tony MacDonald, Sir Patrick Grant, PM Joe Wilson, Jim Hardie, Dr Angus MacDonald, Allan MacDonald, Kenny MacDonald, Iain MacDonald and a host of others… It seems ridiculous to think of the amount of talent that made up that band, and the number of MacDonalds.  It was a privilege to play with them.  My greatest enjoyment out of that period of performing was with my best buddy PM Willie Cochrane of the Balmoral Highlanders.  The greatest thing about Balmoral Highlanders was the diversity.  We did everything from feature movies to opening shopping centers in Japan. Filming on the set of Franco Zefferili’s film ‘Tea with Mussolini’  (pictured with actor Chris Larkin in San Giminiano, Italy - 1999) was amazing.  In the opening take Franco Zeferrelli had tears running down his cheeks. It was only later that we found out that it wasn’t our playing, rather that he was an interpreter for the Scots Guards during the war. Throughout his life he often wore a Scots Guards badge, such was his admiration and affection for the Regiment.”

When in England, the house in Wellfield Ave where Roddy first stayed was famous as a share house amongst the musical and artistic fraternity of London. 

“Cliff Williams, the AC/DC bass player moved out and I moved in. Dave Stewart fromThe Eurhytmics lived nearby, too.  The place was always full of musicians, actors and artists and was great for a young man from Inverness.  I had some great times there.”

The ‘Happy Accident’ had happened again.  Immersed in that time, that place, with those people must have a deep impact on the young man from Inverness.  If Oslo gave Roddy a taste at the musicians’ table, then London must have been a smorgasbord.

Roddy took himself, and his music to the world.  From this point on, he was almost a citizen piper, the music taking him to all the corners of the world, and each journey would bring new ideas, new musical riches to add to his collection.

Playing his own tunes continued, as would the honing of his craft.

During this time, the bagpipe was to the world, a motif of Scotland from travel brochures and shortbread tins, more aligned to Military Tattoos than recording studios and folk clubs.  Innovation was rare, almost frowned upon.  That would change and RS MacDonald would be in the front rank of that change.

The true innovators, the ones who almost dare the rest of the world to follow, are an inspiration to Roddy. “Donald Shaw Ramsay with Invergordon Distillery in the 60’s.  Now there was an innovator.  A band playing a set of hornpipes down the cobbled streets at the Cowal Gathering?  That was unheard of!  The first guys to recognise and embrace the influence of other Celtic nations on our music; and more importantly, to bring it to our piping world?  Dr Angus and Allan MacDonald.  True innovators!”

These masters of their craft had a strong influence on Roddy, and his musical education.  It’s something that he is passionate about, both from the perspective of creativity, but also being true to the music.

“That’s not to say there aren’t those young guys out there now.  There are great musicians playing, across a range of instruments.  The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) is responsible, in part, for a lot of this and it’s a great skill for them to have, but they owe so much to those innovators.  Those guys cut the path we walk on today.”

The current support for traditional music and the fostering of an environment of support for performers shines a bright light on just how good Roddy MacDonald is, and was, in his early years of composing.  Roddy is fond of saying that it is ‘Trendy to be Trad’, but it wasn’t always the case.  Nor was there the support for musicians then that there is now.  The RSAMD course, the support for saving what is left of Gaelic language and culture; must give strength to bands such as Breabach, Rura and Treacherous Orchestra and performers like Lorne MacDougall and Julie Fowlis.

That light does make the achievements of RS MacDonald as a composer shine all the more brilliantly when you consider that he achieved the greatest body of his work with no support from the apparatus that we see today, and mostly removed from Scotland and its music scene.  This in no way takes away from the achievements of the modern performer, however, it just makes the work of Roddy, Martyn Bennett and Gordon Duncan all the more inspiring for the fact that they did so in an era of staunch adherence to what “Traditional Piping” was.

Roddy went on to explain, “While you can never like everything that’s composed, when Martyn Bennett burst onto the scene, it was so exciting.  When Mackay’s Memoirs came out, the idea was Martyns and he really owned it.  That’s what I’m talking about.  His album Hardland, and what he did with Good Drying, really brought it all together:  Innovation at every corner.  I never expected to hear Good Drying presented like that, but I loved it.  Pure Highland pipers like Duncan Johnstone were the same.  Duncan was a great player, a fabulous teacher and a brilliant composer; yet he never really competed.  His like was never seen again until Gordon Duncan came along.  Gordon’s competition success was exceeded by his command of the stage when performing in concert.  Pipers like Duncan and Gordon played a huge amount in public and they had their tunes critiqued by their peers because of that. That’s what helped make them great.”

Roddy would later go on to tour the Folk Clubs of Italy with Allan MacDonald, cross-pollination of musical ideas and, I’d hazard a guess, a fair amount of late night research as well: all of it extending his musical horizons.  “Allan is great fun. His passion and his playing are as strong as his scholarship: He’s a great piper and a fearsome intellect."

From his travels, Roddy collects experiences and cultural motifs, distilling some into music, others into great yarns.  Apart from penning some of the most memorable and evocative music for the Great Highland Bagpipe ever, he also has a treasure trove of stories and is a walking encyclopedia of musical history.  His move to Japan in 2001 and the significant amount of time spent in Osaka didn’t really have an impact on Roddy as a composer. “I wouldn’t really say that my time in Japan influenced my writing in any way more than the other places I’ve been.  Being away from Scotland for most of my adult life meant that my music comes from wherever I am at the time.”

Best illustrated by this is the tune penned by Roddy in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake.  Yet unreleased, but available on Plant Pipe (and featuring Gordon Duncan on a low whistle), Kobe is one of the most gripping, moving modern tunes I have heard.  It is rare that a significant event is captured so completely by a piece of music. RS MacDonald achieved that with Kobe.

“Being in the Kobe earthquake was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever endured.  There was no escape from it.  We were in Osaka when the earthquake hit, it was surreal to watch the swaying buildings.  I wrote the tune a few days after the quake, and I played it to Gordon when we were doing some other recording.  It wasn’t part of what we were working on but, he picked up the tune and played it on the Low Whistle with Dougie MacLean’s son, Jamie on percussion.  Something magic happened on that one take.” 

Roddy has spent little time in Asia, however, he is impressed with what’s happening in piping there. “There are so many pipers coming through from Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan; the emergence of a growing piping tiger in Asia is exciting.”  He believes it is a place to watch, especially in no-traditional piping.

“It’s great to see this emergency of piping there.  There are solo pipers who have got great potential, but also, bands right out on the edge. Punk piping: watch this space…”

Roddy is somewhat of an enigma.  He is both part of the pipe band fraternity, yet somehow at a remove from it (He hasn’t competed in any serious way for nearly 40 years).  A prodigious composer of pipe tunes, however, a sometimes reluctant publisher.  A confident musician-composer, yet a very modest, almost shy, man.

Roddy is the consummate ‘hunter-gatherer’ when it comes to music.  Galician, Breton and Asian.  Classical, Rock and Folk. Driving rhythms, bass motifs and subtle riffs. Traveling the world via London and Osaka and ending up, as Pipe Major of Queensland Police Pipe Band; his musical wanderlust has led him around the world. 

“My composing life is completely different from my work life with Queensland Police. With over 500 gigs in a year, we’re probably one of the busiest bands around, but it is far removed from what I do as a composer.  The band plays none of my music.  We are a working band.”

As a performer and a tune writer he has found inspiration in these ‘other’ places and the music that comes from them.  Says Roddy, “I was writing in my mid teens, 15 or 16 I think, before I started to travel and see the world.  When I got to London in the mid-70’s, I was isolated from the Scottish scene a wee bit, but I think it was good for me.  It allowed me to be influenced by other music. Irish, Rock, Classical. All of it.” The isolation he may have felt as a young man certainly was to be replaced with a musical education and a confidence taken from the far corners of the globe.

Ambivalent about solo competition, never having chased the Gold Medals or hung too much import on the result of a pipe band competition, Roddy still understands the importance of the competition world for his music.  It gives it centre stage, and from that, often, it filters back into the broader world of music.

“I have been working recently with a musical arranger, getting some of my work into the realm of Symphony Orchestras and Military bands; the latest piece being With Honour We Serve.  This avenue of musical exploration for me is exciting and new.  Not just bagpipes, but chanters as well.  I’m looking forward to seeing this new avenue expand and develop over time.”

His prolific output, crafted throughout a writing career spanning more than four decades, he has inspired countless composers of pipe music and delivered polished gems to medley arrangers the world over.   As long as the pipe band medley has been something more than just a collection of tunes put together, it’s feels as if there has always been an RS MacDonald piece somewhere in the mix of the top bands.

Roddy’s relationship with Ian Duncan is probably one of the greatest relationships in piping of the modern era, and one of the most cherished that Roddy has.  His prodigious output, and the dynamism that it brought to The Vale’s concert pieces and competition-medleys is well known.  Nothing is ever completely as it seems, however.  The ‘boundary pushing’ of Ian Duncan and Roddy MacDonald was met, in their early years, with derision by some.  Entrenched views, especially those threatened by innovation, go on the attack.  A relationship built on trust, mutual respect and a desire to ‘not let things lie’ saw them through this, and on to a period when The Vale were at the forefront of the development of piping concerts and the pipe band medley.

“I really wrote a lot of my work specifically for The Vale and, for better or worse, a lot of my stuff is overloaded with technique.  Ian Duncan was always a great filter, he’d take a lot of what I’d load into the tune out, but it would still keep its melody and integrity.  That is his genius.  The most exciting thing for me this year is that The Vale will be using my hornpipe The Piper’s Inn as their entry tune in one of their medleys.  Rab Wallace and The Whistlebinkies first recorded my music for Chance is a fine thing and then Boghall and Bathgate recorded Rubiks Cube. I wrote a bit for Gordon Duncan... but it was always The Vale. Trip to Ballymena and Good Drying - The Vale was always the main aim of my writing.”

‘Would it work for The Vale?’ seems to be the litmus test for any piece of his music.

Ian Duncan is Roddy MacDonald’s long time friend and musical ally.   Theirs is a relationship built on mutual respect, trust and history; and is as strong now as it was when they lived near each other in Perth in the 1970’s.

“Roddy, Gordon and I went around the games in the North of Scotland in the early 1970’s in a campervan, all single track roads and ferries.  It must have been after ’74 as I’d just got my drivers license.  I’d recently taken over the Vale, but what I best remember about that time were the laughs.  It was just fun.  Gordon was just a boy then, in his teens and it was before Roddy went to London.  The playing was constant, pipes were for playing, not nursing for a competition. We didn’t worry about them getting wet; here was no nursing of reeds for competition, we’d often play all day.  Those trips were like a mobile Ceilidh.”

Ian and Roddy have cemented themselves as one of the longest partnerships in piping, both on the concert stage and the competition circle.

“Roddy would always give me first refusal of a tune, often by phone or by cassette tape.  I’ve got hundreds of tapes of Roddy’s music at home.  It’s how he’s always sent his music to me. I think that the sense of freedom he keeps in his music (by recording and developing an idea without staff notation) prevents him from getting bogged down in a tune.  He’s brilliant in how he lets the music flow.  In the early Vale days in Perthshire, we spent a lot of time in each other’s company.  When he first discovered (and introduced me to) The Bothy Band, it seemed to enlighten him, and kick started his composing. It also sparked my mind to the possibilities in the formation of our music and medley construction.  Neither of us actually remembers when we started to work together seriously.  It was probably ’81 – 82, around the time we moved into Grade 1.  It developed the way our friendship developed; we did stretch things, and may have won the worlds if we didn’t get chastised for playing ‘round reels’ (as ALL bands do now), but it was always about the music and having fun.  We were on the phone every other day, and in that period, a lot of the music Roddy produced for us was discarded, not because it wasn’t up to scratch, but just because of the sheer volume, we could only play so much.”

That seems to be a hallmark of Roddy MacDonald - the man that can turn nine notes into hundreds of tunes.

“Roddy is like most great composers, not much happens for a wee while and then something kick starts him and he’s off.  Gloria Estefan, I think, sparked off something in Roddy that became Il Paco Grande.  He’s like that; sometimes the smallest thing will put a musical idea in his head, and it will take off… I love him to bits, he’s such a close friend.  He was, and is, a real inspiration.  We still phone each other every week, even after all these years.  I feel very privileged to be a close friend.”

Roddy and Gordon Duncan go back before their association with The Vale of Atholl.  The composer and the performer seemed almost to be made for each other, feeding off each other’s strengths, pushing each other’s boundaries.  Roddy is still in awe of what Gordon Duncan could do with the music Roddy penned, but rates Gordon Duncan as the most influential composer of the 1990’s through to the new millennium.

“There are loads of good players around right now and lots of great CD’s being recorded.  Some are better produced and slicker than what Gordon did, but they rarely have the impact that Gordon Duncan’s music had.  The sheer impact of Gordon on piping was phenomenal.  I believe that those people who didn’t ‘like’ what Gordon did, how he played, what he wrote and recorded were somewhat secretly envious (as I was myself!) - envious of his ability, of his music and his potential.  I remember when he recorded Good Drying in Edinburgh, I was in North London and he rang me from the studio, playing the recording down the phone line; I don’t remember who was more excited, him or me. When the CD was released, I took it down to a piping buddy of mine who had a bar in London. When he played it, he nearly fell of his bar stool.  He’d never heard anything like it. None of us had. I think I wore my CD player out on that disc.”

When Gordon recorded Good Drying and Last Tango in Harris, two of Roddy’s most emphatically driving tunes (although it is hard to separate two from the pack) you can feel the energy pouring out of the speakers, the tunes become Gordon’s. He owns them. Roddy likes this, “It’s funny, you have someone who plays something you’ve written; and you know that they’ve just played it better than you ever will; it’s brilliant, it’s exciting.” 

It’s rumoured that Last Tango in Harris was actually supposed to be Last Mango in Harris, after a local importer of exotic fruit ran out of a certain delicacy.  As with many stories, it’s all the funnier for not being told that often.

Roddy doesn’t play Good Drying any more, and hasn’t for years.  It’s always interesting to listen to the many versions of Good Drying out there. Gordon Duncan, Breabach and Roddy himself have all put their stamp on the tune - all different, all imbuing their own special touch, but the magic exists within the tune for all of these artists. That’s what is so special about Roddy’s music; it can exist strongly across so many iterations without losing anything in the interpretation. 

Which brings us to the album Good Drying… and what an album!

Recorded and produced in Melbourne, Australia and delivered to Scotland; Good Drying is in the opinion of many, one of the most brilliant piping recordings ever produced; an album of such virtuosity that it still leaves you breathless 10 years later.  Virtuosity and imagination, hand in hand with dreamlike motifs and deep rhythmical overlays.  The opening track, Bullet Train, takes you to a place where dreams merge with reality.  Such sculptural brilliance had rarely been attempted with a bagpipe so predominant (and rarer still), accomplished. 

Murray Blair is credited by Roddy as the driving force in the production of his seminal album Good Drying. There is a common theme of respect and admiration between these two, producer and composer, an instantaneous chemistry when they met. The relationship between Roddy and Murray Blair goes back to the days of HYPE TV, Murray Blair’s innovative web-based Piping programme.  When Murray interviewed Roddy (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) about how to get upgraded when flying and from that first meeting grew Murray’s involvement with Good Drying.

Roddy is forthright about Murray Blair’s involvement in the production of the album.

“Good Drying was as much Murray Blair’s album as it was mine. I write melody lines.  That’s what I do - I write ditties. There are lots of people that then take my melody and move it on, Murray is one of the best.  I do visualise the arrangements behind a piece of music. I have this image in my head of what it is that is going on with the music, but I don’t have the musical education to write the arrangement myself.  When Murray and I were doing Good Drying, I knew exactly what I wanted with Il Paco Grande.  It was all about a tympanic richness and the arrangement written and produced by Murray was perfect. When I first met Murray in Osaka, we just hit it off. The connection was instant.  We were on the same page immediately.  I put the success of Good Drying down to Murray’s work.  All I did was record the tunes and then harass Murray constantly over the next two years… “Are we finished yet?”  Ian Green of Greentrax was incredibly patient, but the result was well worth it.”

I asked Murray Blair about Good Drying.  “Roddy’s strength is that he writes tunes that you don’t need any ‘bells and whistles’ in arrangement to make the tune work.  They stand as strong today as the first day they were played, it’s as simple as that…”

Murray went on to describe Roddy’s influence on piping. “Roddy is the 'statesman' of composers. He’s conservative when it comes to piping composition because he is so immersed in the fundamentals of piping.  He leaves just about any composer light years behind.  20 years before the new breed of composers and arrangers, Roddy MacDonald was the driving force behind ‘the acoustic jukebox’ that helped make The Vale of Atholl what it was in the 1980’s.”

What is more incredible is the amount of work that Roddy has not published.  His prolific output is only matched by what he wont release. It needs to be right: Absolutely right. An inveterate pocket recorder, Roddy’s tunes come to him at the most obscure times and places. Pulling the car to the side of a road in the middle of nowhere to get out and sing or hum a phrase, to take a note or record a phrase or a bar, bringing closer to fruition what may be the next great piece. Who is it for? Who will capture it? 

Orchestral percussion is one of Roddy’s great interests, especially for composing for the bagpipe, and it’s something he’d like to explore more. “You know, it’s funny when people say to me, ‘Oh Roddy, you’ve been a bit quiet over the last few years…’ I just haven’t been putting the music I’ve written out there.  So, I’ve been putting pieces together for The Vale, Manawatu Scottish, Boghall and Cantebury Caledonian, among many others, for the 2013 season.  A lot of what I write for pipe bands I think can be looked at as a bit ‘pop’, the tunes have a use-by date.  So with some of my favourite pieces, the ones I’ve kept in the background, I’ll be putting them out there soon.  I think it’s time.”

It might be easier to imagine Good Drying as a singular work, a tour-de-force either to the start or end of a career. It is, however, such an intrinsic part of the phenomenal body of work that Roddy has produced that you might wonder when and where a follow up CD might have come.  Who knows?  I’d hope for a second RS MacDonald recording.  It’s been a long time coming, but Roddy is not one to rush things.

In the competition pipe band world, expect to hear a lot more of RS MacDonald in the Grade 1 circle. I’ve heard a few people say, “It’ll be good to see Roddy back composing for pipe bands…”

RS MacDonald isn’t back:  He never left.

Murray Blair: From Deep Roots

When I first met Murray Blair, I was surprised at his apparent ordinariness

If it wasn't for the fact that Murray liked the idea of being somewhat invisible (except to those who knew him), that might sound insulting.

Just a guy, like every other guy, there was nothing visually to set him apart.  From his reputation, and from the music I had heard him produce, I was expecting something akin to an antipodean Martyn Bennett; a wild visionary of pipe music.

What his 'every-man appearance' couldn't hide, however, was his brilliance with sound, his deep understanding of music and his capacity to design and produce excellence within a niche market.

His products are sold to pipers and pipe bands all over the world, and the music he records and mixes for bands from Scotland to Canada is heavily represented in collections everywhere; you just need to look at the liner notes, his name is liberally spread.

Even though he rarely plays these days, his involvement to promote and develop bagpipe music means he is still deeply involved in the piping scene in Melbourne, Australia.  

You can find his products at: http://thebagpipetuner.com/

The full article appears below.

­Murray Blair: From Deep Roots

If you Google “Murray Blair” you would be hard pressed to find more than a few grainy pictures of him.  Actually, there is only one: Victoria Police Pipe Band, Scotland, sometime in the 90’s.  There are few images of the new product Tunetape, a few of his Highland Bagpipe Tuner – HBT2, a few more of an iPhone app and, of course, the Bagpiper case he designed with Ian Lyons. 

Scroll down that Google results page and you see reference to Philharmonic, for many years, THE music book for pipe bands wishing to invigorate a medley or young dreamers looking to the future of piping.

This would be gratifying if all you cared about was search engine results, but it is also a mark of a rather private individual who is well known for his lack of gratuitous self-promotion.  Because of this he may be well known by few, but held in the highest regard by all who know him or have worked with him.

His work speaks for itself.

It could be said that Murray Blair was born to pipe. Started at the age of eight, by his father Donald, a piping legend in Australia, Murray would sit at the kitchen table of their farmhouse in the rural area of Warnambool in South West Victoria.  A family of pipers, in a community of pipers, you could have easily transported the Blair clan back to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.  Until you realize that the Blair lineage is from Glasgow. James (Jimmy) Blair, Murray’s grandfather, was taught by Jack Laurie in Glasgow.  A Royal Navy sailor, Jimmy left the service in Fremantle, West Australia.  At the height of the Great Depression, Jimmy walked with his Bagpipes across Australia in search of work, ending his travels in South West Victoria, some 2,000 miles away.

Jimmy settled in Terang, where Murray’s father Donald was born and the Blair piping dynasty began.  Setting down an awe inspiring base of piping and pipe band roots, Donald taught his children Merran, Airlie & Murray along with Grandchildren and in-laws, the youth of the district leading them for many years in the Warnambool and District Pipe Band.  One the earliest Blair recording artists, there is still a recording of Jimmy piping where the gentle snoring of one of his companions can be heard in the background.

Donald instilled a strong grounding in the basics, the foundations for all great pipers.  “Dad would insist on teaching the fundamentals correctly; doublings, 2/4 marches and instill in his pupils the importance of these as the foundation of any good piper. Dad was strict, but only had to shoot you a look for you to know he wasn’t pleased.  That was about as stern as he got.  You always wanted to please him, and he wanted you to enjoy your playing.  It was always fun.  He always encouraged the learning and playing of good, fun tunes. We always had new music from Scotland coming into the house. Gordon Duncan and Angus Macdonald were staples.”

Murray was a keen competitor in his youth, never beaten on the local solo boards until he reached ‘Open’ grading.  Such a formidable track record would be hard to replicate, regardless of the location or the competition.

“I loved competition.  Competing against people my father had taught, people I admired, who were my peers, was great. I owe a lot to them for their encouragement. They were all older, and of course I looked up to them. 

Tim Macleod, Fiona Wilson, my sister Airlie, other members of the band. It was very competitive, but we all got on very well.  It never got to the stage of ruining the enjoyment of playing, though.  Dad always had us playing in public. We played everywhere; Scottish dances, Ceilidhs, Burns suppers, weddings, funerals and street parades.  It used to drive us mad, but I see the benefit of it now. It all helped to hone our skills.  Competition is a great benefit for pipers, but the camaraderie you get from piping is one of its greatest rewards.”

Coming to join Victoria Police Pipe Band from a country town, barely 17 years of age, had a very strong influence on Murray, and not just on his piping.  “I moved to Melbourne after High School for further study, and joined this band of adult men from what was essentially a country, family type band.  I’ve only ever played in two bands.  Warnambool and Victoria Police. I learnt so much from that time; etiquette and protocol, not just learning new tunes, although that was a steep learning curve as well. It wasn’t just playing in a different band, but playing a different style. I was given a lot of help within the early years, but you still had to do the work yourself.  Everything was different about my early time with the Police. You didn’t have to car pool to get to competition; there was a bus provided!  Victoria Police as a band was really getting it together when I joined in 1991. It was still up to us to get there, though. We used out annual leave to compete, raised funds from play outs, dances, functions; much like any other band. The aim was to get to Scotland and compete; and at that level, when you compete, you want to win.”

The change Victoria Police helped to bring to so many areas of the pipe band idiom is well known. Much of what was brought to their competition circle by this band was a result of many people over many years.  Sound and harmonic development, stability of the instrument through the use of synthetics, chanter volume and projection; all were key characteristics of Victoria Police Pipe Band.  What stood out above much of this was musical development.

The music is at the core of the band. Murray Blair was at the core of the music. Six out of the nine tunes of the 1998 medley were written by Murray Blair. Murray credits pipe major Nat Russell with his development as a tunesmith and as a performer.

“Nat Russell had a huge influence on my piping, encouraging throughout my time in the band and motivating me to write. In the later years I was fortunate to be closely involved with the bands concert productions and CD recordings, due in part to my formal training as an audio engineer. On a personal level I gained much support from Nat who opened up opportunities that I never imagined possible. I’m deeply grateful for his help and enjoy his friendship still. When I left the band, it was quite sad as I enjoyed the camaraderie, but pleased to leave on such good terms and maintain a close relationship with them.

Within the Pipe Band world, you hear a lot of talk about “new” music. Around the Victoria Police piper’s table, everyone had an input into the tune selections. Essentially, we used whatever worked and much of the music that didn’t make it to the medleys would be used in the concerts.  Over the years many pipers came and left, including the well-known names.  For me being in Victoria Police was about being part of a team, and many of the unsung members who performed the daily work of the band were vital to any success. One of the driving forces  behind Victoria Police Pipe Band was loyalty; loyalty to the Band.

There are notions that the band was conservative in its music construction and I feel that is misinformed.  In my mind, innovation is about new music that’s presented in a way that is appealing and entertaining, not just for the sake of being innovative.  I feel the band was very innovative in it’s tune selection, but only if it had musical merit within the medley idiom. In competition at the Worlds, we played ‘Riverbeat’, a 6/16 changing into 7/16 mid-way through as a finisher to our set. Key changes within the tunes were carefully chosen and were really complemented by the Drum Score. Harold Gillespie’s arrangements of the drums scores I feel really complemented the tunes. In tune structure for the pipers ‘Edwyns Digi Place’, having counter harmonies with a ‘network’ of pipers playing long note chords, then building up with one on one harmonies.

Really, though, music is music. If it works, it will survive.”

After the disappointment of the 1995 Worlds Campaign, the years 1996 to 1998 with Victoria Police were very special years for Murray. The success of the 1996 tour of the UK, Indonesia and the USA, the Motherwell Concert, recording the Masterblasters CD in Melbourne, the release of his own book, winning ‘The Worlds’ in ’98 the future must have looked pretty rosy for Murray Blair.

Nothing is ever quite as it seems, however. In 1996 at the peak of his career as a performer and band member, Murray was diagnosed with Focal Dystonia, a neurological condition usually affecting the hands.  Murray sought treatment across the globe to keep him piping, from MRI’s in the US to treatment in clinics in Germany, but to no avail.  This condition eventually led to him retiring from Victoria Police, but not retiring from the piping scene.

Heavily involved in the local Australian folk scene in the band Caledonia and Piping Hot, which would eventually become Dalriada, his deep involvement in piping would be reflected in many projects, only now being recognized for how revolutionary they were.  Brainstorming with Athol Chalmers from Telstra (the Australian telecommunications company) they developed Hype TV. Years before broadband Internet was around, Murray and the team behind HYPE TV were streaming up to 20 hours of audio and video per month.  Bringing interviews and recordings of piping luminaries such as Field Marshal Montgomery & Richard Parkes, SFU and Terry Tully to remote areas was years ahead of its time.

“Hype TV gave me some fantastic stories, great memories. Jock McCallum from the Humpty Doo Highlanders, just outside Darwin in the Northern Territory retelling a story about fishing with Pipe Major Angus and crocodiles, piping in he far North of Australia and how his band raises money selling meat trays to attend their local yearly competition…in Indonesia, is priceless.  Jock sending Pipe Major Angus Macdonald a stuffed crocodile to the National Piping Centre is a favourite.  I often wonder what happened to that crocodile…”

In the years after Victoria Police, Murray went on to consolidate his early training in audio engineering into what many modern piping listeners accept as the benchmark in recording and sound presentation. It is a testament to Murray's skill and passion for sound that those at the pinnacle of piping have chosen to be recorded by him.  ‘Roddy MacLeod MBE ‘Piobaireachd Volume 1’, Alasdair Gillies ‘Loch Broom’, The Lord Todd DVD and CD.  All are ‘must-haves’ in any collection.

While in Japan, I met up with Roddy MacDonald in Osaka and as they say, one thing led to another. ‘The Big Break’ you often hear of came through this meeting.  Producing “Good Drying” and the artistic license that Roddy allowed me was a great privilege.  I only ever tried to replicate what the piper wants to hear from his or her instrument.  Some sound engineers don’t understand what pipers want from their recording.  The understanding of what the piper is looking for is the key.  If someone is using Eezedrones, Hendersons’ and a McCallum chanter; that’s what you have to replicate. A great pipers’ sound is like their signature.  There is no point in making it sound something it’s not.  If a piper plays with a flat “B”, they play with a flat “B”.  That’s what you have to produce on the CD. 

Guys like Roddy Macleod have a beautiful, perfectly balanced and harmonic pipe.  Roddy has the accolades and prizes to prove it.  Recording his pipe is often just a matter of balancing the drone to chanter, because the harmonic is there right from the start.”

Field Marshal Montgomery, Simon Fraser University, Shotts & Dykhead, Victoria Police, Scottish Power, Vale of Atholl, Manawatu Scottish, Strathclyde Police: All of these bands have been recorded by Murray Blair. All of these bands have recordings that display their excellence. 

“Recording Pipe Bands presents more challenges to the producer and audio engineer. Recording “live or in a studio” makes no difference. Pipes and pipe bands are “live”, that is the attraction to the instrument from both the artists’ and the audiences’ perspective.  The key with recording is the selection and placement of the microphones.  Drums spilling into drone tracks are always a problem.  Tenor drums are notoriously difficult to balance into the mix.

You can’t “airbrush” a sound. It has to be there at the start. You can make the mix louder, but the harmonic still won’t be there. Having said that the higher the level of the band, the less they seem to have to do with the recording and mixing.

They know their sound, they just expect you to reproduce it.

When I left Australia and first went to Scotland to record, I learnt a very valuable lesson.  Our perception of sound, the sound being produced in Scotland was that is was mellower than we were used to. Here in Australia, for 20 years, since Crozier and Ross have been on the scene, the sound has been bold and vibrant.  It’s very different to Scotland, and that is the great thing about it. It would be slightly boring if we all sounded the same.  Having said that, however, there is still the expectation of uniformity when you compete in Scotland.  Performing in that arena presents its’ own challenges.  You always have to remember what a pipe band sounds like, to be true to it.  If you mess with it you lose that second and third harmonic that you get when it all comes together.  When I recorded Shotts and Dykhead with Bagad Brieg, in their album La Boum Ecosse, the normal compression that you might do with recording, switching off unused microphones; you’d lose the “boom” that you got from that recording.  The 60 to 70 performers on stage at one period of the concert gave such a huge amount of rumble that it made, the recording what it was. That’s what we heard in the hall. That’s what I tried to put down on the CD.

Working in Scotland, apart from the competition and commercial world, I was also exposed to a much broader range of piping.  Working with John Wilson and Simon McKerrell, I gained so much just listening to them talk about different styles and types of music. In the Highlands, the sheer enjoyment of the music is apparent, completely separate from competition. I saw people there that I never saw at competitions. Singing along in Gaelic to a piper playing in the West Highland style is fantastic.  Hearing Alasdair Gillies at the Scots Guards Club with a good curry and a pint for a few quid or at the British Legion in Inverness; the place was packed.  No competition, no pressure of expectations. That love of the music outside of the competition spectrum was great to see. Guys like Lorne MacDougall and Rory Campbell, the music these pipers are bringing to the world is phenomenal.  Lorne’s album ‘Hello World’ is outstanding.”

Much as it is easier to ask who hasn’t Murray recorded, it may also be easier to ask what Murray hasn’t done.  Add into this his collection of music – Philharmonic, considered by many to be one of the definitive collections of bagpipe tunes in the modern idiom and you get to see Murray as a quiet constant in the Bagpipe community. He has gone on to develop bagpipe cases, stand alone bagpipe tuners and pipe chanter tune tape.  This year it was an application, or app, for the iPhone.

Murray’s enthusiasm for the music of the bagpipe, in all its forms and styles is evident, but so is his passion for a quality instrument and quality bagpipe products in general.  This desire has seen him design one of the best and most affordable bagpipe tuners on the market, the HBT2.  Hot on the heels of the HBT2 was the iPhone application, Bagpipe Tuner.  Murray also developed Tunetape, a product that was almost begging to be invented, to pipers frustrated with tape that was either too adhesive or too soft, slipping half way through a performance. 

“Getting a product to market takes an enormous amount of time and effort.

Whether it’s chanter tape or a bagpipe tuner, the research and the development is the key.  Even with the iPhone app, the development of the programme is very expensive.  The iPhone app is, I believe a great introduction to bagpipe tuning.  I believe a standalone tuner, though, should be in every pipe bag. I can’t get around this concept that you should only be able to tune by your ear.  All musicians have tuners in their pocket, or bag.  Whether they use them constantly or not, it doesn’t matter. The key to tuning is to train your ears and the best way, I believe, to achieve that is to use a tuner to check what you are hearing.  As your skills develop, your blowing steadies while you tune, therefore your skill increases.  It’s obvious.  If you go into a studio, you always have a tuner.  It saves time and money when recording. On the boards, the confidence that you take with you when you can tune your drones, and chanter, is evident.  The only way to achieve that, in the most part, is to practice it, and practice it with a tuner.

It’s a device that can help many pipers achieve what maybe difficult for them to do.”

Ten years with Victoria Police Pipe Band culminating with the 1998 World Pipe Band Championship, HYPE TV, the Silver Medal at the RU Brown Piobaireachd competition in 2003, founding the Victorian Pipers Association with Ian Lyons and Brian Niven, multiple recordings with Victoria Police Pipe Band, including the legendary Masterblasters CD, numerous recording and production credits of piping luminaries; it’s a full list. 

What does the future hold for Murray Blair?  A new recording for Simon Fraser University Pipe Band in New York, continuing product development (the HBT3 is on the cards) and with Bagpiper Case having sponsored a recital competition at before the Australian Pipe Band Championships in Ballarat this Easter, the piping roots set in the Australia by Jimmy Blair and his son Donald are strong, and through Murray, getting stronger. 

 

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Source: https://stuart-curnow.squarespace.com/blog

Ian Lyons: A Piping Life

This was the first interview I ever did.

It started me on this path of writing about and photographing the same subject, often at the same time.

Ian Lyons has been a great mentor to me in my piping, and has tried to help me improve my playing.  I think at times he probably wanted to scream, but has never given up.

Both Ian Lyons and David Macdonald have been formative in my love of the bagpipes, both for different reasons.

It's been an honour to write about them and their many skills with this unwieldy, often frustrating and misunderstood instrument.

The original appeared in Piping Today, a little over 2 years ago.  Since then, it's been a privilege to have interviewed some of the guiding lights of the piping world and have had my musical taste taken on many twists and turns. 

 

 

Ian Lyons: A Piping Life….

Reaching the pinnacle in piping, or any endeavour for that matter, takes persistence, a solid work ethic and a not inconsiderable amount of talent.

Staying at the top requires so much more.  The pressures of work, family and the perfection demanded by the best bands in the world often extract a heavy toll on an individual.  There is, of course, the support of being surrounded by elite players and knowing that the intensity of daily practice and sometimes two or three sessions a week with the band will assist with the attainment of the goal: Winning the World Pipe Band Championship.

Unless, of course, you live 10,000 miles from the band hall.

Ian Lyons has been guest playing for Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band for the last three years, this last year getting his hands on the coveted Grade 1 trophy.  If this was his only achievement in piping, given the tyranny of distance and the pressure to “hit the ground running” with only a few full band practices before the Worlds, it would be impressive.  It’s not, however, his only achievement of this kind. Ian first helped lift that particular trophy with Victoria Police Pipe Band in 1998.

FMM however, represents only a brief period in an impressive piping career; a career that is not yet over.  Two Grade 1 World Championships. Victoria Police in 1998 and FMM in 2011. 17 top six finishes at the Worlds, 5 Australian Championships, 4 North American Championships, Ulster Championships twice, the British Championships, the European Championships and the Champions of Champions Title in 2010 & 2011.

Add nine years as a guest player with 78th Fraser Highlanders and a 20 plus year career with Victoria Police Pipe Band and their numerous recordings; solo success in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, teaching, judging, bagpipe development and innovation, starting a successful piping business and you get more than just a glimpse of a “Piping Life”.

His father, William Lyons BEM, initially taught Ian. His father being a strong personality, former Pipe Major of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards in the same era as P/M's Angus MacDonald, Dixie Ingram and Jimmy Banks would enforce a solid grounding on the chanter. “Alan Gourley from Banbridge Pipe Band pretty much took me under his wing. He pretty much let me get on with it in my own way, in my own time.  I was actually quite a slow starter on the chanter, and it wasn’t until I was nine that I progressed to a sheepskin goose, corks in the stocks, that sort of thing. I spent a year or so on that until my first parade at the age of ten. My practice at home was, on occasion, very strict. Rattling across the knuckles kind of thing. There were a few tears…”

In many ways the strictness of Ian’s early tuition informed how he starts young pipers. He doesn’t force his younger students to practice. Part personal philosophy, part experience, part being a father.  “I don’t force or pressure young kids to practice.  They’ve got such a good grasp these days of learning; computers, games, all these things help them. Unlike 25 years ago, when we were learning, they pick new skills up so easily, they hardly have to do the skill and they’ve got it. The last thing I say to a young student, even with Zeb, my son is “Go home and practise this!”

“I have always emphasised the need for a strong grasp of the scale.  I teach it thoroughly focusing on learning and developing three particular skills.  The development of good habits, excellent basics, is the key.  Progressing to the next level for the student is almost a ‘moment of clarity’ for them. The student will almost always tell you when they are ready. Force them to do anything and they will probably walk away. You can set goals for them, but they have to be nurtured in the pursuit of those goals.  There is a time where actively encouraging a student is important, especially as they grow older and the desire to improve and develop becomes stronger.”

Blowing excellent tone and having a stable, well-balanced and harmonic pipe is a hallmark of Ian Lyons playing.  It is interesting to note that Ian can move between the worlds of synthetic and cane with ease and can produce a sound that meets the critical benchmark set by luminaries such as Richard Parkes when playing cane and sheepskin or receiving “Bagpipe superb throughout. Strong presentation” on Piobaireachd critique sheets from Bob Worrall when playing synthetic.

“I’ve always been a bit OCD, a bit obsessive, about sound.  When I was 14 my father asked me to tune the Banbridge Pipe Band by ear.  I was able to do it, for some reason.  I’ve always been good with that. I’ve never had an issue about tuning my pipes.  Later on, I learned everything I know about setting up a Pipe Band and getting good tone from my time with Victoria Police and then perfected those skills during my time with 78th's.  The time we spent at Victoria Police as a group, talking about it; talking about tone, was just mad. Years of it.  In any normal persons time frame, it would equate to about thirty years of talking about tone. Not just two practices a week, we were continually talking about tone, perfecting it, not just achieving it.  My Dad instilled it in me early on, “If you can’t blow tone, you just won’t get there.”  In the 1980’s, in a lot of the top bands, Pipe Majors would pick players based on their ability to blow tone.  It’s different now, you have to be both an excellent player and have excellent tone.”

Looking at that period, and the Victoria Police pipe set up, Ian has a different view than some on the Victoria Police sound.

“Until I came to Australia, I’d only ever played sheepskin and cane. I’d barely ever seen a synthetic bag or a plastic reed. We knew that the sheepskin and cane system was hard to run in Australian conditions. In Victoria Police, we developed our own sound, our own distinct formulae. It worked, and we stuck with it.”

We always used cane as a benchmark and tried replicate that sound as best we could with synthetic, but knew deep down that synthetic could never quite get us there. The pay off was the stability and longevity in our, sometimes, extreme weather conditions.  Having vision and faith in a sound that was distinct and identifiable as their sound, may have been the key.

“Aim for developing excellent tonal quality. Stick with it. Develop it. In a lot of ways, we had an advantage in that we had control. Our system of the time was not overly affected by weather. It could have been hot and sunny or lashing down.  We could control our instruments regardless of the climate.  Bands these days seem to be searching for something or often, searching for “something else”. They listen to a band that has a great sound and chase that instead of developing, working and sticking to a system that suits them.

This excellence in tone was developed early, and continued to evolve in that short but impressive Victoria Police “Era”.  In this game changing period, Victoria Police Pipe Band produced some of the greatest recordings and live performances ever.

“Nat Russell was the “Grand Architect” of that whole period.  His leadership and drive was the key to Victoria Police.  Intelligent leaders use all their skills to get the best out of their people. Nat was making everything happen at the time and our constancy as a team was an essential part of it. There has been talk in the past that Victoria Police was a “guest player project”. Untrue. We won the Worlds with 14 pipers, 10 of which were there from beginning to end. It was truly a Champion Team, not a Team of Champions. Most of what I learned about sound within Pipe Bands and developing tone, I learned from Robert Crozier and Ross Bates.  Every single step of the development of our sound was discussed hundreds of times. The quality, characteristics and combinations of reeds, chanters, drying systems was thrashed out on a continual basis.  Three to four times a week.  Hours at a time.”

There is no doubt that Victoria Police was “the” formative influence on Ian Lyons’ development as a Grade 1 Player and Pipe Major in Australia. Yet Ian plays sheepskin and cane with FMM.  In Australia, he plays his own synthetic bag, valves and drying system developed with Nigel Hyland, and moves comfortably between the two.

“The ultimate drone sound comes from cane, but it does come with its own pitfalls. Cane is the ultimate bagpipe reed sound but the right synthetics can create a great bagpipe sound as well.  Moose products were developed to make piping a more accessible hobby to more people. The synthetic revolution has made it easier for kids to play, for older pipers to play.  It’s made it easier to set pipes up and not have to play them every day, or having to spend great amounts of time re-seasoning bags and keep drones going. It’s been of great assistance to lower grade bands and players; to get their pipes up, steady with good tone throughout a performance. That’s not to say we want to make it “easy”, it’s not all about that.  It assists in raising the reliability of the instrument for many hobbyist players who may otherwise give up due to the vagaries of cane, regardless of the climate.”

That Victoria Police experience and the antipodean influence to feel free to push the traditional boundaries may have influenced Ian in his product development, but he is a still a traditionalist when it comes to competition medley construction. “To a certain extent, you have to look at what judges are looking for. My Dad used to say to me, ‘No matter what you do, I will never like Heavy Metal music’.  That idea goes for pipe bands as well. There are some fantastic compositions out there. They’re technical. They’ve got heaps of harmonies, however, you’ve still have to appeal to the demographic to which you’re playing. Judges are part of your audience.”

When asked how that sits with the ground breaking way Victoria Police influenced medley construction, Ian believes that it is about keeping the interest of the judges.  “Medleys sometimes have too much going on, too many harmonies and too much for the judge to absorb.  Keep it simple. Select tunes that work well together, have some new music within the medley, but it has to work with the whole of the medley.”

The most successful music changes your perspective without you truly knowing it.  This could be said for much of the music that came made up Murray Blair’s “Philharmonic” collection from the 90’s. It was cutting edge composition, game changing even, but never seemed to overpower the traditional nature of the music and the use of the scale and balance.  The tunes still work within the context of a medley.

You can see this in the fact that these tunes still appear in many medleys alongside very traditional strathspey and reel combinations.

Like most great pipers, Ian has had many influences on both his Band and Solo careers.  “In Northern Ireland, early on in my playing career, it was very much dominated by Bands and Light Music Solos. I joined the RUC Pipe Band as a teenager and was competing at the Junior level in solos but only light music. I got my first Piobaireachd from my father, but it was more a case of “learn the music and figure it out”.  He’d sing me the tune and answer questions about the music, but it wasn’t until I travelled to Canada with 78th Fraser Highlanders and stayed with John Cairns that I discovered how the Canadian guys were “engulfed” by the Solo scene, which occurred on the same day as the pipe band contests.  I wasn’t really keen on it from the start, but the opportunity to learn from John was too good to pass up.  Once I started to compete, especially at Maxville with MSR’s, there was an expectation that I’d play in the Gold Medal.  I didn’t move through the ranks, as you would say in the RU Brown Piobaireachd contest in Adelaide, Bronze through to Gold medal.

The work ethic required to master set lists is well documented.  The strength of competition in Canada also provided a clear delineation of what was required.  Even before the “hands-on” mentoring of John Cairns and the inspiration and discussion with Bill Livingstone, Ian had the drive and work ethic required to succeed.  Formidable for their record, work ethic and their pursuit of excellence, these two stellar Canadians had a great influence on Ian’s development in both Piobaireachd and Pipe Band competition.

“John Cairns basically took me on as an adult learner when it came to Piobaireachd.  I set myself a goal in 2005. I’d give it 5 years, with a goal to play in Scotland at the major solo contests.  I believe I had the piping skills and the tone to take to John, the interpretation of the music came from John.”

Advice for young pipers comes from all corners of the piping world. Much of it polarises opinion. Much of it misses out on a very important point.

“The main thing I was encouraged to do by my father was not be afraid of your pipes.  So many players learn how to play. That’s it.  While they play very well, their Pipe Major tunes their drones, they play, they go home.  I think it’s really important to experiment with your pipes. Work your own reed, mess with it, carve and file it until you break it. Many pipers ‘think” they know how their pipe works. Take your pipes apart, learn how they work. Experiment.  In judging, I find that so