Bagpiping in Scotland

Hello SFGC-ers, from back in the US,

Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, Photograph by Liz Linder

My time in Scotland contained several more musical adventures since last I wrote, not the least of which was my initiation into the world of Highland Piping (i.e. bagpiping!), by virtue of the fact that the National Piping Centre of Scotland was conveniently around the corner from my hotel—The National Piping Center—where you can try piping yourself! browse through the Piping Museum! hear rehearsals of the National Youth Pipe Band! and—here's where I indulged myself—you can buy books of "Piobaireachd." I must admit that I didn't know until I was there in the shop that I was looking for Piobaireachd, but now I can't imagine how my library could have been complete without it. Pibroch

It turns out that Scottish Highland Piping—like our own classical music—has a "high" form (the bagpipe equivalent of, say, Mahler or Shostakovich) and a "low" form (the bagpipe equivalent of, say, lighter holiday concerts or film music by John Williams or waltzes by Strauss) - "light" fare and more "serious" music. Piobaireachd (pronounced PEE-bo-RAHD) is the "high" piping music, mostly composed by individual masters of the form, according to rules of structure (much like, say, Sonata form in the music of Mozart), usually dedicated to some great personage at his/her death or some other important rite of passage, resulting in long solo works that unfold with great solemnity and ritual energy. The "low" forms include various dances (reels and jigs and "strathspeys"), many of which come down through generations as folk melodies.

No matter what stripe of bagpiper you are, high or low, it seems that the annual Highland competitions are the place to show your skill. Here is an entire piping band demonstrating the 'low' dance forms:


And,  here is a master prizewinning Piobaireachd player Roddy MacLeod:


Do you hear the difference between "high" and "low"? Both of these types of bagpipe music use similar musical materials - three kinds of notes: melodic notes, tiny quick "grace" notes that ornament the melodic notes, and the ever-present Drone underneath (those of you girls who sang with me at the Salon Rex concert a couple of weeks ago, or down in Carmel in January, know what a Drone is!). So what are the differences? When you hear and see the band, do you have a similar response as when you hear "light" classical music? When you hear Roddy MacLeod, do you have a similar response as when you listen to Mahler? Which kind of experience do you prefer? If you value both kinds of experiences, is it for different reasons?

What about when you hear our young singers? So far this season we've heard the older girls sing both "high" and "low" music. As an audience member, what did you take away from both of these experiences? How about the girls, what about performers: how is our experience of music-making different when we are performing more "serious" music and when we are delivering "lighter" fare?

Some composers and musicians claim that, in our current cultural climate, the boundary between "high" and "low" music is no longer relevant. Do you agree? Some also make new work by bringing ideas or sounds from "low" culture and bringing them into "high" culture contexts. This is something that has been done for centuries, actually - even the great Classical composers were sometimes borrowing street dance tunes or folk melodies and bringing them into the ballrooms of the nobility. Is this a noble exercise? Was it then? Is it now? My sense from talking to the Piobaireachd enthusiasts at the National Piping Centre was that the true Piobaireachd must be unsullied by lower forms!

Until next week, Lisa