Last Saturday at the Georgetown games the band I play in, The Toronto Police Pipe Band, participated in the grade one pipe band contest. The event was a “medley” event and we played a piece of music I built called, “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions“. What an experience. We had all anticipated playing this “medley” and the crowd reaction was spine-tingling. I have never in my long piping career experienced spontaneous, mid-performance cheers from a crowd at a pipe band contest. I’m not sure about the other players but it was all I could do to hold concentration. Believe me, these are the kinds of “challenges” we want to be faced with when competing! Forget the results for a moment, reaction like this is a performer’s triumph. It is what this is all about, or should be.
We all knew the music would be controversial, a real love-it-or-hate-it sort of thing – like art! Someone said the opposite of art is not ugliness but indifference – and that makes good sense to me. Not a lot of indifference amongst reaction to “Good Intentions”.
Comments I’ve heard around have been really interesting, and sometimes surprising – and sometimes disappointing (particularly when you know the person, sometimes a friend or friendly aquaintance, who made the unhelpful comment).
I don’t want to write a defense or an apology for this “Good Intentions”. It has been a great learning and team-building experience for all of us in the Toronto Police Pipe Band. But I do feel compelled to clear up a few misconceptions of the “Good Intentions”.
It is a piece of music made for performance. At a concert, at a games, in a boat, with a goat. Competitions are one of the only performance venues we have in pipe bands (and solo piping) so why can’t we make our best musical efforts here – whatever that effort looks like? I include composition, arrangement, musicianship under the “musical” banner. “A piece for a concert”? How many pipe band concerts happen around the world in one year? Six? And, again, music made for soft concert seats works just as well in the wet, green grass of competition. Maybe better.
It is not a “medley” of wee top-tapping tunes, the kind I have made forever – and most of the pipe band world, too. It is not a “suite”. It is one “tune”, one “thing”, inter-connected. Like a pibroch? I don’t know. Breton music? Nope. It’s no where near as subtle. But there is no innovation that I can identify. This piece of music pretty much represents the standard way everyone else in the world of music approaches composition. “It all sounds the same”? Hardly. “Rubbish”? Well, that’s a hurtful rather than good intention, that’s for sure. I know I have a bit of a track record in building a few tunes a lot of people don’t think are rubbish.
“Good Intentions” is absolutely “judgeable” in the traditional pipe band sense: there’re clear phrases (and phrasing), technique, tempo, harmonic construction, traditional piping idioms, like jig, reel, hornpipe and old-fashioned dime-a-dozen Royal Conservatory musical principles – and, of course, there’s tuning, timbre, rhythmic integration, dynamics and unison all to consider.
In 6 minutes and 40 seconds we have crammed 6 key changes and no fewer than 8 rhythmic shifts - more doesn’t feel right for this particular piece, for the time frame alloted. The average premier grade competition medley might have a similar musical profile.
OK, I am sounding a wee bitty whingey and defensive – not my intention, believe me! I suppose that’s what happens when you’re passionate about something; same, I’ll acknowledge, for those that dislike this music – and are passionate for wee tunes knitted together in bridges (selections like that work for me, too!). Spirited dialogue can’t hurt!
I was around for the 78th FHPB’s “Mason’s Apron” medley. I played it, loved it. “The Immigrant’s Suite” and “Megantic Outlaw” , and all the other various “medley selections” over the years, too – all great adventures in music.
Of pieces, or “medleys”, I have made, “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions” took the most effort and the most time to put together. I’m grateful for Ian K MacDonald’s and Doug Stronach’s leadership and the band’s wherewithal to give it a go. It really was – and is – fun. Pure and simple. I recommend fun to anyone, wherever you can get it.
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