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.