George Moss – the Master Piper from Strathglass Part 2

Shaking it up – Rhythm and Echo Beats

First of all a “disclaimer” regarding the apparent quality of the playing on the archive recordings:

For those who listen to the re-published CD it is important to note the difficulties facing George in the ‘playing’ aspect. By the 1980s he was rapidly approaching total blindness and, owing to a severe lung condition, had not played pipes for around 30 years. The piping part of the original cassette was achieved by his fingering the pipe chanter and another piper blowing the instrument, never an easy option. – James Hamilton

If you listen to this recording of “the Lament for Mary MacLeod”, the first thing which might strike you (if you are familiar with the prevailing modern style of Piobaireachd) is the timing of the echo beats on the first low “A” of the piece. Therein lies an interesting story…

George is consistent in his timing of what is called a ‘hiharin.’ He plays a long “low A” followed by two fairly leisurely strikes on “low G.” This applies to both opening phrases and closing phrases. There are very few recordings I can find which use this timing, and it appears to have fallen out of fashion completely nowadays. However, there is evidence for George’s approach in this video. Round about 12:45 into it, John Partanen demonstrates the movement from which hiharins evolved, and he plays it exactly as George Moss does. It would be very interesting to find out who taught him this!

George’s timing of his echo beats is probably best illustrated by referring to some examples:

The main point for me here is that compared to the current approach of playing a long “E” followed by a birl, this way of beginning and ending phrases seems more musically pleasing and in keeping with the nature of the music, particularity in the case of laments.


The next thing mentioned on the CD for this track is the timing of the notes in the first variation, as shown here, transcribed by Peter Cooke:

Now this was music to my ears when I found it. It is so simple and elegant. George claims here from 26:20 that Sandy Cameron went out of his way to make it clear that this version was the original, even though present fashion was to shorten the first note and thus alter the underlying time signature.

More generally, there seems to be a more rhythmic approach to George’s playing than is often heard nowadays. In a later article we will explore his approach to “cadence Es,” but it is relevant here to note that he considers their careless use to often break the rhythm of a piece, which implies that he is thinking in terms a definite rhythm which can be deviated from.

According to Peter Cooke, many of the pieces George plays could be regarded as being more or less in 12/8 time and this is in keeping with a comment by James Hamilton that

he favoured 12/8 or 6/8 where appropriate as compound time, in his opinion, gave a superior melodic flow to the tune.

Another very helpful observation that George makes is that there should be a correspondence between the time signature of the ground and of the variations. He claims that other than the case where 4/4 in the ground becomes 2/4 in the variations due to “telescoping” two beats into one, in all other cases, if the ground and variations are in different time signatures then one or the other is wrong.

As an example, he demonstrates how in “Glengarry’s Lament,” the variations have two beats to the bar but the ground very often is played with three. He claims that this is due to a reasonable but not strictly correct tendency to extend the “low A” at the end of the phrases in the ground. He also says of “Praise for Morag” that he learned it with

two beats in the bar in the ground, and that corresponds with all the variations, right through.

Details like these are very reassuring for me as they point to an underlying coherence in the system of Piobaireachd construction. On this track Peter asks about this, and whether an experienced player would understand the system. George states that this is very much the case, and proceeds to give a detailed breakdown of the underlying principles, including how the variations evolve from the ground or siubhal in different circumstances, including places where the piper could exercise their own musical judgment.

All of this gives me the feeling that I am walking on solid ground (no pun intended) when learning and listening to Piobaireachd. It helps me to distinguish between what are likely to be interpretative quirks and what is more likely to be “of the essence.”

Links to resources mentioned in the article:

Next up: Torluaths and the “not-so-redundant A”

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2 Replies to “George Moss – the Master Piper from Strathglass Part 2”

  1. Assuming Partenan received instruction from DS Ramsay when he was recuperating from a gunshot wound in SF, there may be an interesting low A discussion, but the rest of the video is musically repellent to me, with the tune history idea particularly obtuse. I thought these romantic notions died with Seamus MacNeill. While being judged by him, he accepted the low A taps but refused to acknowledge the validity of the so-called redundant A torluath in the David Glen arrangements. This lack of openness to older musical styles caused me to seek solo opportunities elsewhere.

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