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 from The 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. 

 

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

John Mulhearn: Providing an Organic Soundtrack to Digital Dreams

 

There are times that phrases like ‘new standard bearer of the tradition’ or ‘next big thing’ must be just as grating for musicians as ‘Destined for greatness’ or ‘Future Gold Medalist’ are for young athletes. When we anoint those with these weighty expectations, do we actually burden them instead of inspiring them?  Music is littered with those that society loads up with expectation, only to have them disappear all together.  I’ve sometimes wondered if all they really wanted to do was just make music, to just sing or play, but the weight of our expectation destroys what makes them love what they do.  Piping might be different.  Massive recording deals don’t exist for pipers, but often, other pressures are there.  The pressure to succeed - to win.  Some decide not to compete, some expand their musical horizons, some evolve into other areas - some end up just making music because they love music.  Success can be elusive and shallow unless you define it for yourself - and John Mulhearn fits into the latter category.

Beginning his piping at the age of nine, John Mulhearn received his early tuition from his father Brian.  Soon after, he went to Angus J MacLellan of Strathclyde Police and summer schools led by John D Burgess at Sabhal Mor Ostaig; their influence and inspiration evident in his early competition years.

“I remember always being quite impressed with the look of a pipe band, and seeing the young kids playing, thinking, ‘I can do that!’  It helped that my Dad played, and he used to say that I wouldn’t go to sleep unless I had a piping record on in the background.  Funnily enough, I think one of the tracks was Desperate Battle from Seamus O’Neill’s album Purely Piobaireachd.”

Did that piece have an impact on John as a child? Who knows, but as a Junior, the prizes followed steadily and by the age of 18 he placed 3rd in the Silver Medal at both Inverness and Oban.  Heady stuff.  Would these wins be the springboard to the top ranks that so many gifted young pipers aspire?  

When I met John in 2010, he had by this time taken a dramatic, if temporary, left-turn from competitive piping.  I’d taken a room at his flat for the week at Piping Live and offering me a lift there from the Piping Centre, the talk was of Piping Live and not much else. I’d heard one of John’s tracks, The Desperate Battle Of The Birds (Featuring Allan MacDonald), a few months before, and without wanting to sound like an acolyte, told him that I liked it – a lot.

What I didn’t say was that I was as moved by the beauty of The Desperate Battle as when I first heard Liberation by Martyn Bennett with the gripping voice of the legendary Michael Marra.  Both tracks left me with a feeling that someone had recorded the soundtrack of my dreams.  Knowing there was more depth to this music than my laptop could provide, I splashed out on a pair of ‘high-end’ headphones.  The reward from my new Sennheiser’s was ten-fold.  There was so much more in it than the epiphany of the first listen.  My understanding of Piobaireachd, in fact traditional music - full stop, had been issued a challenge and it was up to me to take it up.  Where would this brilliant music lead me?

Music should do that for you. If you take the chance to wander the broader piping world (with an open mind), you are guaranteed reward.  It’s all about the music.

I didn’t see much of John during that week; the odd crossing of paths at the Piping Centre and at the flat, but two things stayed with me from that trip.  A winner’s Quaich used as a change jar and a stack of CD’s on the kitchen bench.  I have no chance at obtaining the former, however, John gave me a copy of the latter.  That CD has proven to be one of the most interesting journeys I have had within music.  Three years down the track and I experience it with fresh ears every time I play it.  It continues to lead me in unexpected directions.

Revisiting music that was formative for me has benefits beyond emotional comfort.  I gain a greater understanding of history, culture and narrative every time I listen to albums like Mackay’s Memoirs.  Recorded by the students of the Edinburgh Music School the morning after Martyn Bennett’s passing, the narrative, as well as the music, makes it all the more poignant.

John Mulhearn is a complex musician operating within simple parameters.  The music must be honest and it must have something within its construction that supports a story.  To me, John’s first album was a narrative.  Each of the tunes from his first album has a story in it, albeit a re-imagining of a standard. It is also about the growth of a musician.  The vision of his first album came as he took time out from competitive piping and spread his wings, both musically and geographically.

 “I wasn’t really playing the pipes at that stage for about four or five years.  I was working at the College of Piping, doing a bit of teaching, but I’d been filling my time with rock bands and other stuff.  I’d been spending all these years practising, competing and developing a repertoire, since I was nine.  It was pretty intense, almost ten years and I’d begun to take it for granted.  I ended up getting a bit bored with it all.  I realized that doing half a job of it was not going to work. In taking the time off, I think, it was better that way.  Better than burning out and giving it away completely.”

The success he had in competition as a youth and the rather sharp deviation from them, may lead you to wonder where his passion truly lay.

Playing in rock bands and taking to electronic music as an outlet may have given him license to come back to piping with a different perspective, however.  This perspective grew idea of a new type of piping album. The Extraordinary Little Cough, John’s first album, grew in part while working and travelling in Australia.  The change of pace and climate may have helped give birth to ideas rolling around in his head.

 “In Brisbane, initially at Sandy Campbell’s shop The Highland House, then with the Queensland Police was really the first time I’d worked professionally in piping. The genesis of the album was playing about with The King’s Taxes and Donald MacLeod singing the tune, this grew both in Australia and back in Glasgow, into The Extraordinary Little Cough CD.  That album was really just an experiment more than anything else. I’d been tinkering away with this idea in my head of using electronics to try and approach pipe music.  A few years into the rock band thing, I felt that I was wasting the start I had, but it gave me the idea of moving back into it.”

That time in Australia, and the freedom it gave John to work this ‘treatment’ of light music, gave him enough material to do more than think about an album.  The culmination of this process, working with Allan MacDonald on Desperate Battle and Lament for Owen Roe O’Niall, upon his return to the Glasgow and teaching at the National Piping Centre, brought the experiment to it’s zenith.  These two tracks, the most visceral of the album, show a focus and craft that belies experimentation.

“I was always after an organic sound in essentially a digital medium.  I found a huge amount of samples on the Internet. The web certainly helps your work flow, but it’s recording things yourself in different places which makes the memory of it all the more valuable.”

With Tiree Bridal Song, John recorded ambient sounds from his friend Phil Cowan’s backyard in suburban Brisbane, the melody line of the tune coming in and out, like a lazy memory. One of the most distinctive tracks of the first album, this track is one that requires the listener to step into the environment, and become all the better for it.  You might wonder, as a piper, from where does the tune writer get their inspiration?  GS MacLennan and the genius of his dripping tap in The Little Cascade or the harrowing power of the coda in Duncan Johnstone’s Lament for Alan, My Son; two tunes that stand out amongst a myriad of other great tunes for their simple musical virtuosity.  Truly innovative interpretation of a great tune is a rare thing to find in piping. When you do find it, revel in it.

With Jock Wilson's Ball, John went home, much in the way you might go home to what you know for comfort or for sustenance.  Of all the tracks of the first album, this was one of the standouts.  

“I went into the workshop with my Dad, who runs the Ayrshire Bagpipe Company from home, and recorded all of the percussive sounds I could think of; ferrules in a box, lathe chucks, emergency stop pedals, levers of all kinds, grinding machine, milling machine, tool box drawers. I then started playing about with making beats from all of these samples, which was a lot of fun. The tune is harmonically quite interesting so I spent quite a bit of time arranging the guitar parts and bass lines - and again the mandolin found its way in.” he said.

The idea of disposability of modern music is a common refrain, as is the viciousness of an industry renowned for chewing up and casting aside young hopefuls.  It was ever thus, argues John.  “They don’t make them like they used to… In an interview, back when The Beatles still had mop-top haircuts, Paul McCartney said basically, ‘I don’t expect to be singing Please, Please Me in 10 years time…’ This is so true.  An essential part of music is constant reinvention.”

The need to reinvigorate the music itself is on one hand an economic necessity within the music industry, and again, the expectation of a better, different album each release.  This invigoration also has the benefit of spurring on the next generation. 

The Extraordinary Little Cough received some very good independent press and was very much noticed on alternative music blogs, however, like most recording artists, by the time it came out, John was ready for the next project, almost bored with it.

Says John, “ The basis of the first album was to experiment with the traditional music in an electronic world.  The two final pieces I produced, both featuring Allan MacDonald, were almost the precursors to the idea of the next album, just with my own compositions to the front.” 

The true success of The Extraordinary Little Cough, I believe, will not be in this decade.  My guess is it will act as a precursor to other young artists, who in their own liner notes, blogs and virtual worlds will attribute John Mulhearn as one of their great influences.  What of the next album?

Waulking songs are a fascination for John, as is including guest musicians and vocalists on key tracks.  The richness provided by a signature vocal style to an individual piece of music is a common collaborative theme.  The modern idea of remixes with the ‘feat.’ appellation is not restricted to Hip Hop, House or Pop music, it can just as readily be seen in modern piping albums.  Hello World by Lorne MacDougall is one of a string of albums featuring varied contributors, enhancing the overall album.

John hasn’t restricted himself to solo and electronic production.  He has had The Big Music Society, an 8-piece band project, seemingly the natural progression of the final experiments for the album The Extraordinary Little Cough, as a most successful experimental ensemble venture.  Combining the talents of some of the best young talents in the business and debuting at Celtic Connections, its aim was to be as true as possible to the origins of Piobaireachd.  It received significant recognition and praise from many quarters and interest from other festivals.  The financial strictures placed upon large ensemble projects of professional musicians made it untenable for John to continue with it as an independent project.  There is hope for it to return, however.

“I like being the composer, producer and artist.  That is the way things can be these days.  It can give you a great amount of freedom, infinite sounds, opportunities and control.  The infinite number of sounds available to you can work the other way though.  Your music can get cluttered.  My aim is to keep it minimal and keep a coherency throughout the album.   I was thinking along the way to this interview about trying to explain the creative process; but there really isn’t one.  It just occurs as it occurs.  That is the freedom you get from being in control of the whole process.”

With that freedom, though, comes the obverse of the coin - Money.  Gigging and touring often consumes more money than it produces and musicians are rarely paid what they are worth in talent, experience and hard work.  Funding through arts foundations and collaborative enclaves is often the apparatus that keeps music, and musicians, alive. Having a steady job helps too, but only so much.

“It’s always a problem when funding inhibits your project, but it seems to be the way things are.  Arts funding is available, but the paperwork and hoops you need to jump through make it hard to concentrate on the reason you’re actually there - to make music.  I did want to expand The Big Music Society even further, to have a full string section; to add more texture to the music, but the problems associated with getting a large ensemble of professional musicians together is difficult.  Everyone has multiple projects going on, money is tight.  It’s still there, still in my head, I’ve got all the scores ready.  It’s really just timing and funding it.”

What I like about John Mulhearn is his somewhat diffident approach to commercial success and a clear direction in music.  Influenced by what he was listening to yesterday or last week, as well as last decade; his palette is as rich and varied and his desire to be rich and famous is absent.  He just wants to make music.

John is quite direct about this, “There is no aim. No grand plan. It’s just about making music for the sake of making music.”

The beauty of John’s first album and his follow-up project The Big Music Society is that he may achieve both re-invention and re-invigoration in his new album; both for himself and the seeding in new minds of new ways to appreciate old tunes; and the inspiration of young composers to take a very traditional music idiom and forge a new genre and in a new package.

How important is the whole package of the music?  A limited edition vinyl album and free download defies the disposable market, the package suits the audience.  Vinyl has it’s own qualities that digital can’t provide for many artists.  For mixing and sampling live, vinyl still has it.  It is also the tactile nature of the album, the delicate nature of the disc and the purity of the organic nature of capturing the music onto a medium.  Vinyl can be considered (unkindly) by some to be the ‘this season’s constant new black’, but for John and many others, it seems that both the tactile nature of the physical manifestation of his music is an important part of the process.  It also reaffirms one of the ironies of music.  Musicians and producers spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting the balance and the subtleties of a piece, or even a measure of music, only to have it played on cheap laptop speakers or bud earphones, then discarded.  Such is life, as well as music.

One of the satisfying things about John Mulhearn’s music is his wandering style.  He easily transcends many styles of music, but never loses the integrity in any of the genres he crosses.  The wee taster I had of his musical treatment of Robert Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter for the Scottish Youth Theatre in 2009, reeks of class and innovation, yet maintains the integrity of the original poem and story.  Echoes of Martyn Bennett, again.

Being in the front-rank of a new generation of shape shifting musician-producers, John Mulhearn proves that boundaries are for people without the artistry or the courage to break them. The competition boards are back under his feet (John was runner-up in the 2012 Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering) and the music, big or otherwise, still under his skin.

The depth and breadth of John Mulhearn’s musical experience will again be on display soon.  Keep an ear out for a new download only EP release sometime in 2013 and an album following hot on its heels. 

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FDNY Pipes and Drums

When I was 5 or 6, it was impossible for our family to drive past a Fire Station without stopping for a look.  Or a visit.  I would draw fire trucks all day, copying pictures of some, making up others.  Apparently, it was all I wanted to be.  I didn't remember that particular fact until I was going through the collected pictures and keepsakes of my parents after they passed away.

But the bagpipes?  Dad would regularly drop the most unsubtle of hints, usually around Christmas or New Year, as to how I should 'play the pipes'.  This was often repeated as we sat watching the Edinburgh Tattoo, eating the remnants of another failed haggis experiment, most of which was scraped from the kitchen ceiling.  We always managed to fall asleep in front of the old black and white TV, both of us neglecting in our slumber, the goings on in the kitchen.

The clatter of the saucepan lid would awaken us to another missed Hogmanay.  

I have always loved the bagpipes.  There is something about the constancy of the drones that stirs me. The music, simple but moving, is as much a part of my life now as eating or drinking.  It took my Dad's only request, a lone piper for his funeral, for me to take the plunge; to finally decide to learn.  What a journey it has been thus far.  

It took a while, but these two vivid memories of my early life are now a large part of my life. Piping and fighting fires.  Photography was, is, and always will be, a large part of my life.  It's funny that we think we know who and what we are, only to be surprised that we are forever capable of great personal change...

FDNY - The Fire Department of New York.

The events in the US on 9/11 changed us all. They became part of our collective consciousness.  When the towers fell, I was completing one of the last assignments of my photographic career in Sydney.  I would soon start on a new journey.  

Fighting fire.  

Over the coming months I was left with a lump in my throat many times by the funerals for the 343 fallen fire-fighter from FDNY.  Their pipe band, The FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums piped out all of them. Every last one.

In 2012 I interviewed Tim Geraghty (both FDNY fire-fighter and piper with the FDNY pipes and drums) for Piping Today.  It was a privilege to interview Tim, both regarding the documentary he is making on the FDNY pipe band and his own story as a piper and a fire-fighter.

The images were supplied by Tim, the layout and design strangely matched a picture I had in my head as I wrote, well before I started to work the page design.  Weird.

The typography was by the brilliant John Slavin from Designfolk in Scotland.

Look for the documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival - New York and / or read the full piece below.

FDNY Pipes and Drums: The Beating Heart of FDNY

FDNY (Fire Department of New York) firefighters work 24-hour shifts in rotating rosters.  They cover 322 square miles of real estate from over 200 firehouses with over 10,000 uniformed firefighters.  The FDNY attend over 480,000 emergency incidents annually of which 25,000 are structure fires… and they have the largest and proudest Fire Service Pipe Band in the world.

Long before I even started this article, I had thought a lot about the FDNY Pipes and Drums.  My fascination with both firefighting and piping came at an early age.  Most young boys dream of being a fireman and I was no different.  Most grow out of it, some don’t.  Some, like me, just take a while to get there.  When I saw the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre on fire from a TV screen half a world away, I had just completed the final assignment of my photographic career, ironically it was for American Express, located in 7 World Trade Centre.  I was soon to begin my new career as a firefighter and I watched in awe as engines from FDNY streamed towards the World Trade Centre, trying to rescue those trapped, in what was about to become the toughest, most tragic day in the history of FDNY. 

What happened that day, the sacrifices made, the stories that came from 9/11 and after are now part of our collective consciousness. FDNY has become legend, and a part of that legend is woven into the fabric of the band.

For months after, one of my most vivid memories was of the FDNY Pipes and Drums, playing at funeral after funeral for their fallen brothers. This role, one that its members hold as the greatest privilege, was never more important than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

They piped their brothers to rest - all 343 of them.

The FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums had a humble beginning.  A few Irish-American firefighters, none of who could play the pipes or drums, got together to form a social society, much like émigrés do the world over.  Most of the original dozen or so members, were good Irish-American boys looking for a way to re-connect with their heritage through music; and as a result, FDNY Pipes and Drums have “Emerald Society’ as a feature of their title.  They are proud of their heritage, their country and their fellow firefighters.  Over one hundred strong, in both parade and Competition bands, the FDNY pipers and drummers are all professional firefighters.  They receive no personal compensation for playing over 200 engagements a year. 

This year, the FDNY Pipes and Drums are both celebrating and reflecting upon 50 years of joy, sorrow and achievement; and Lieutenant Timmy Geraghty, FDNY firefighter and piper, is making a documentary of it. Theirs is a story of Brotherhood, history and honouring those who have sacrificed their lives for others; including 343 firefighters who lost their lives on a perfect blue September morning in 2001. Through Triumph and Tragedy: 50 Years of the FDNY Pipes and Drums is their story, and it is a story every piper and drummer should hear

Tim’s documentary is also a story from humble beginnings.  Asked to produce a 5-minute show for the band’s 50th anniversary dinner dance, Tim knew this project could be so much more.  More than just the reminiscences and snapshot portrayals of 5 decades of bandsmen, St Paddy’s Day parades and the sadness of line of duty deaths; he quickly set about drumming up support for a feature length documentary.

Tim Geraghty’s own story is as emblematic of Irish-American firefighting families as you’ll find and his story almost reads like a TV screenplay. Before Tim became a member of what is universally known as ‘New York’s Bravest’, he was a TV producer and with this in his background, he is eminently placed to tell the story; his band’s story.  As much as the documentary tells of the band’s history, it speaks just as truly of how traditions in piping grow, as they grow in fire fighting.

While awaiting his acceptance into FDNY as a rookie firefighter, he completed his education in TV production, but the burning desire to join FDNY was always there. Tim is clear about his motivations, “When people ask me how I became a firefighter, I always say, ‘I didn’t want to join the Fire Department, I wanted to join the Pipe Band…’ My father was a Firefighter, but he didn’t talk much about the job - all I knew was the Pipe Band. He was a bagpiper, and every weekend the family would go out to a parade or party and I would be surrounded by theses men who were not only Firefighters but played in the band. It was awesome!  I joined the Fire Department in 1998 and it took me almost 10 more years before I became a member of the FDNY Pipes & Drums.  I picked up and put down the bagpipes over many years, starting when I was about 13. I didn’t really take them seriously until after 9/11 and I saw what the band did for the 343 members that died that day. They played every funeral and memorial service for the members we lost on 9/11.”

Being a firefighter may have had something to do with Tim’s delay in auditioning for the band.  Riding the Big Red Truck gets under your skin, it becomes part of you.  The adrenaline, the camaraderie and the sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself is common to most fire services the world over; even more so when you are at a busy firehouse and the jobs are running, and Tim’s fire-house was a busy one.  Tim’s first station was Engine 50 / Ladder 19, a mile east of Yankee Stadium.  One of the busier firehouses, off duty often means sleep, and that can certainly cut into your practice time.  When Tim won a promotion to Lieutenant, he finally decided the time was right to take the bagpipes seriously.

He had followed his father into the fire department, now was the time to follow him into the band.  Then came the audition…

Says Tim, “The audition process for the band is a bit like American Idol.  I had to march and play a selection of 20 tunes for five of the senior members of the band. It was one of the proudest days for me, to pass that audition and play in the band with my Dad.  I had the privilege of both working a fire with my Dad as well as marching with him in the band.  I was working on Engine 26, and Dad was on Ladder 26 when that picture was taken.  On his last tour of duty we pulled a few strings.  I was transferred for the night to work with him; he was my Officer and I was his Firefighter, his can-man (junior man on the platoon).” Captain Ed Geraghty, Tim’s father, retired from the FDNY just before 9/11.  Still active in the band, his influence on Tim both professionally and musically is obvious.  The sense of tradition, the rites of passage (in both pipe band and fire service) have been passed down Father to Son. The love of Brotherhood and the understanding of sacrifice are embodied in this relationship.  Father and son, firefighter and piper.

The band started in 1962, mainly firefighters from the South Bronx area.  One year later they were playing in the St Patrick’s Day parade, to the cheers of the crowd.  It would not be until a tragic fire in 1980 in Upper Manhattan that their true mission as a band would be revealed.

Tim tells the story, “It was June 27 1980, and the FDNY responded to a fire in Upper Manhattan.  Firefighter Frisbee working in Ladder 28 was trapped by fire on the top floor of the building. Firefighter Larry Fitzpatrick from Rescue Company 3 was lowered down the side of the building on a life saving rope in order to rescue him. When Frisbee got onto the rope to be lowered down, the rope snapped and both men plunged to their deaths. This was the first time the band would play a funeral for a firefighter that was killed in the line of duty. From that moment forward the band’s mission was clear. ‘To honor, remember and celebrate the members of the Fire Department’ has become the message of the band ever since.  

‘Every funeral would be covered, everyone would be looked after…’

9/11 changed the world.  It also changed the FDNY. Firefighters to whom the Job meant everything, said that after 9/11 they never recaptured the love they had for it. Others just kept on going.  The Pipe Band guys were just as affected. ‘Bronko’ Pearsall, stalwart drummer, with a love of the band that was legend, was famous for saying, “Without the Kilt, I’d just be another fat guy at the bar…”

The band would play at his funeral.  Durrell V. Pearsall Jr, “Bronko”, a member of Rescue 4 and FDNY drummer, died in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Father Mychal Judge was a larger than life figure for FDNY and the band.  Completely supportive of FDNY firefighters and the role the band played in both the high and low times.  Father Mychal was one of the victims of the first tower collapse, killed by debris as he was administering last rights to a victim of the attack. Father Mychal understood the importance of the band to the firefighters and to the families, especially in the event of a Line of Duty Death.

So did Rudy Guiliani, the Mayor of New York during that intense period or disaster and of recovery. He puts it succinctly in Tim’s documentary, “Firefighters are our Heroes.  The Bagpipe is a symbol; an evocation of Heroism.  It is both a very beautiful instrument and a sad instrument; a lot of what the life of a firefighter is like.  I could never have been prouder of the band than when they played at the funerals of their friends; of people they loved.  The world got to see what we all knew…”

Tim’s reverence for his fallen Brothers and the band that honoured them is clear.  “Playing all those funerals has definitely affected each member of the band in a profound way. The loss for the department was so enormous; I still think that members cannot fully comprehend it. It’s still with us every day and anytime we put on the kilt, we are reminded of the supreme sacrifice that firefighters make in order to protect the public.”

I asked Tim if he thought the band could have survived the 9/11 funerals if not for the strength of history and the fellowship of the band?

“I don’t think so. Before 9/11, at the end of a funeral of a Brother, fallen in the line of duty, the band would always play an uplifting tune.  For the firefighters of FDNY, this was often the most emotional part of the service. It symbolised the future; knowing that whatever we as brothers had to endure, we would go on.  The spirit of the Brotherhood would go on.”

The band didn’t follow that tradition during almost two years of funerals and memorials, however, as the last notes of the last funeral of the 343 firefighters echoed in the distance, the traditional end to a FDNY funeral was resurrected. 

As the last of the 343 was laid to rest, the band, almost as one, struck up and played Garry Owen and Atholl Highlanders.  These two tunes that had always marked the end to a funeral service now marked the start of a new day for the Pipes and Drums of FDNY.  Firefighters who had been through so much over almost two years; men who had not allowed a tear to fall in that time, broke down and cried. The symbolism of the last funeral of the 343 firefighters show how much the Pipes and Drums of FDNY are a part of the whole. 

Tim believes that the Chief of the Department, Edward Kilduff put it best when he said, “The FDNY Pipes & Drums is not only considered a part of the Fire Department, they are the beating heart.”

You’d have to have a hard heart to disagree.

Hurricane Sandy hit the FDNY firefighters and members of the band hard.  Many of their homes and neighbourhoods were devastated by the tidal surge and storm damage. At the time of writing this article, Tim and his brothers and sisters in FDNY were working round the clock. Band performances were cancelled as members of FDNY responded with other emergency services, both when on and off duty, to get New York on the road to recovery.

Tim Geraghty’s documentary was funded in part through public fundraising via the social media website Kickstarter.  Tim can be contacted by email: timgeraghty@yahoo.com or through the Kickstarter site:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1139469356/through-triumph-and-tragedy-50-years-of-the-fdny-p

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