The competitive pipe band world is a challenging environment to make music. Rules (and hefty musical parameters) aside, its a place, generally speaking, where there are strong preconceptions about what a pipe band should – or should not – perform. For example, the competition medley, launched as an event around 1970, is barely middle age in human terms, and in musical terms is still suckling at the teat. For the most part, what’s heard in pipe band contests today are really well thought-out arrangements and configurations of the main tune types common to bagpipe light music. And, with one main, notable exception: the “reelpipe intro” or “hornreel” or whatever you call it, there hasn’t been huge interest in shaking up the 25 year-old (plus) competition “medley” format.
This “reelpipe” is not heard in “class” solo piping environments – it was born and bred in pipe bands. This simple time composition style is roundishly phrased and heavily reliant on percussion to achieve impact. This style is rooted, I think, in bagpipe hornpipe compositions like Donald MacLeod’s “Duncan Johnstone” and, Duncan Johnstone’s, “The Streaker”. I’d peg its birth as a pipe band staple with the great Boghall & Bathgate Pipe Band’s signature tune, “The Big Road Brusher” – introduced over 20 years ago. I suggest, too, the big roundy pipe band intro “reelpipe” is a product of their composer’s musical environment: mostly pop music, common time beats and fast. And that makes sense to me. There’s not many in the pipe band world immersed in the culture of the Gael – the founding culture , I remind you, of the Great Highland Bagpipe, the melody-making section of our pipe band.
Knowing that the pipe band world has enabled the evolution and acceptance of a bona-fide artistic form (the “reelpipe”) in only a generation, makes me wonder all the more at those that are quick to make proclamations as to what is – and is not – part of the pipe band “idiom”.
Consider the phrase “pipe band idiom”: it’s thrown about with abandon like it somehow represents the Good Book of pipe bands. If idiom refers to a distinctive style or characteristic then a group of pipers and drummers playing together is idiomatic enough. Let’s be honest, to the world at large, pipe band music sounds mostly the same and our precious nuances are almost always lost. So, I say the “pipe band idiom” is simple: it stands for groups of Great Highland Bagpipers and percussionists playing together as one ensemble.
To suggest that the pipe band “idiom” is a prescribed set of tunes, or one musical style or one defined approach is wrong.
The idiom is the pipe band. The music made by the pipe band is the art. And art is indefinable.
That’s what makes what we do so much fun.
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