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.