Studies in Pibroch – An Urlar a Day

Strictly a vanity project. I am making my way through all the pibrochs we’ve assembled at Musical Materials. I will be recording only the urlars. My interpretations will be based upon the APC Approach I, outlined here.

I select from the earliest piping staff score. When that is Angus MacKay, I select from his Kintarbert, which is his latest manuscript and represents his most worked upon material. Otherwise, you will see Hannay-MacAuslan, MacArthur-MacGregor, Donald MacDonald and Peter Reid.

I try to be respectful of the score selected, but I recognize the idiosyncratic nature of the interpretation: MacKay’s predilection for held-E cadences and standardized echo-beats typically do not survive as literal. That is intentional: first and foremost, I make an effort to recover the melodic core. Cadence and crahinin performance comes from the perspective of viewing those motifs as interpretive supplements to the melody.

What I am toying with is, in addition to the chanter version, I may do a sung canntaireachd version.  In particular, as I have been doing this, I’m finding it much easier to read and understand Colin Campbell and the interpretive freedom his notation represents, after I take a gander at the staff notation (of any transcriber).  Such a comparison truly allows one to see just how idiosyncratic performances were (and could be), and how inflexible staff notation can be.

When I’m through all 314 songs*, I will probably circle around and put them on the pipes.

Tempos are as indicated. Otherwise, they are generally faster than normally performed today, and may be chosen based upon genre considerations or simply musical interpretive intuition (what sounds good and memorable).

Every week I will release 5 urlars. Every month I will assemble them into a play list.  The first installment is a recap of the APC Approach I.  You may find it here:

Once I release you will hear that they are  done on electronic chanter, with drone accompaniment. Each recording is generally quite brief: most are around a minute, with a maximum (so far) of 2-1/2 minutes.

These are intended to be provocative, to stimulate discussion, encourage reaction and incentivize you to go make your own music.

I hope you will subscribe and enjoy.


3 Replies to “Studies in Pibroch – An Urlar a Day”

  1. Now this is a very commendable project David.

    Something I have done in the past is to typeset a source as ABC (as mentioned here recently) and use that to generate a midi sound file. I find that the awful non-musicality of the sound file helps to reveal the score in a way that a human performance doesn’t necessarily. It’s basically about enabling those not fluent in notation reading, or not familiar with the idiosyncracies of old manuscript notation, to quickly get a sense of what the source actually “says”.

  2. This blog post includes a midi realisation of Donald MacDonald’s score of PS 008, MacNeil of Barra

  3. I feel that in describing the different ‘genres’ of pipe music, perhaps not enough emphasis has been given to the cultural ‘gap’ which existed in the 17th century and earlier, and that pibroch, an anglicized version of a gaelic word, piobaireachd ( rightly translated as ‘what pipers play’), was a musical idiom peculiar to the highlands, but foreign to lowland ears.
    There were, in effect, two ‘Scotlands’ – the English speaking lowlands, and the Gaelic speaking Highlands which were as oil and water. The political power of the former was directed towards subjugating the latter; in medieval times this distinction was described by the terms ‘domestic scots’ and ‘wild scots’, the domestic being those who lived in towns and the wild being those who lived in the uplands in scattered communities, and who regarded the former as usurpers. They still clung to their old name for their country: Alba.
    There was great suspicion and hostility between these cultures, hints of which can be glimpsed in the names of a few tunes. The King and most of the powerful aristocracy were of the lowlands, and desired to eliminate the highland culture which they held in contempt.
    This cultural clash can also be seen in Irish history, and is still alive today, underlying the tragic events in Ulster. It is so contentious that many feel it is best not to speak of it at all.
    I think this background goes a long way towards explaining why pibroch seems so ‘foreign’ to many pipers and to audiences. It is the music of another culture, once despised but now regarded as worthy of preservation, as a part of the national identity. To learn pibroch is, in effect, to learn gaelic – a language even King James the 6th regarded as barbaric and ugly, and who was instrumental in its destruction. Laws were passed outlawing the musical traditions peculiar to the highlands, schools teaching English were set up there, and settlements of lowland people promoted, to help this process…not to mention The Clearances.
    We may thank James MacPherson and his Ossian poems for turning the tide and casting a new light on gaelic culture and, ultimately, for the renaissance of pibroch – his publications made Gaeldom fashionable and led to the revival we now enjoy, a real example of the pen being mightier than the sword.

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