MacArthur – MacGregor Manuscript is now available. Go to Explore by Source menu to view.
The Alt Pibroch Club is a safe space for the exploration of new interpretations of pibroch performance.
It is an oddity of pibroch that it is an art form whose adoption by performers is traditionally discouraged by its practioners. Here’s one example from Andrew Wright’s new book General Principles of Piobaireachd:
Modern technology has made an important contribution to popularising the music; there are dozens of easily accessible recordings available and these can help achieve a reasonable competence in expression. True appreciation, however, only comes after years of study with a respected teacher. [emphasis added]
Here’s another example from Bruce Gandy’s interview on this website:
…I feel that from what I’ve heard, these manuscripts (MacArthur, for example) are made for those with much experience. Perhaps the notes themselves in many of these can be adapted, but the treatments, nuances and even the interpretation of the technical embellishments are too much for less experienced players. I truly believe these tunes are difficult to interpret without experience…there are more than enough tunes in there for players to get their first 20 or 30 tunes and learn a standard way of playing the different types of variations first. [emphasis added]
Imagine taking up the violin and being told that concertos are a genre that only the most experienced should play. While it is certainly true that concertos introduce the performer to ever increasing demands of musicianship and expression, this should in no way be a discouragement to learning.
This is an unfortunate perspective, one that discourages musical exploration, separates bagpipe performers one from each other (ceol beag vs ceol mor), and does not encourage early pedagogical introduction of ceol mor into the repertoire of the student.
It is, sadly, a gate-keeping function that stems from a conservatism couched in the rhetoric of conservation. Again, Andrew Wright:
With ceol mor we are tied to settings that have been passed down to us through sources both written and oral. Apart from some small differences in style, performers seldom, if ever, go outside these settings and the required technique, and with good reason: we need to preserve the music in its ancient and traditional form as far as is possible
The difficulty with this perspective, however, is that pibroch performance has changed considerably over the last 200 years. Reasons include the rise of competitions, introduced to rescue ‘ancient’ piping from extinction in 1781, and the transition from an oral culture to one bound to notation. Whereas the early sources of pibroch demonstrate vivacity, modern performances can be remarkably consistent in their performance. In 2013, William Donaldson explained why:
Ceol mor is predominantly heard in competition, and it is asking a lot for people to risk months of practice, their travel and accommodation expenses – very substantial if they have come several thousand miles to attend an event – and their carefully-nurtured reputation as successful competitors – by playing in a style which, however correct, may be rejected by conservative benches out of hand … In terms of available information there has been a revolution; but its effects are yet to be seen.
This studio is a place which makes the available information easier to access and to process. It nurtures experimentation and the confidence to play (and to reward) something different. Since the early 1990s, insights into pibroch’s source material and a deeper appreciation of its cultural context have prompted artists like Allan MacDonald, Barnaby Brown and Peter McCalister to breathe new life into an old art form. At the Piobaireachd Society Conference in March 2013, the Secretary of the Music Committee, Alan Forbes, said:
We don’t see much evidence of people adopting different styles and settings, but we would like to encourage that further.
In an interview in Piping Today (August 2013), Peter McCalister said:
I think I can pull some stuff from the music, using other versions of the tunes, that maybe other pipers won’t have got around to. I need to do that little extra bit… I mean study the music and try to put a little shine on it from that process… the moment I pick up a chanter and look at some of these versions, I can feel my blood tingling, I can see something extra in it.
The Alt Pibroch Club exists to support learners and teachers, exchanging knowledge and counteracting the negative climate of fear and obfuscation which has made listening to pibroch a predictable rather than an exciting experience. How does notation from 1760 or 1820 relate to what great pipers actually played? What separated mastery from mediocrity in this music’s heyday?
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