Devotional intensity

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church, Oxford University, recently wrote:

quite apart from the propensity of human beings to become irrationaly tribal about the most obscure matters, we should remember that ordinary Christians experienced God through the Church’s liturgy and in the devotional intensity which seized them in holy places. Once they had met the divine in such settings, having absorbed one set of explanations about what the divine was, anything from outside which disrupted those explanations threatened their access to divine power. That would provide ample reason for rage and fear.

I was taken aback by the level of rage and fear which Allan MacDonald and I provoked in some quarters of the pibroch establishment; particularly by the deafening silence in the pages of the Piping Times when Dastirum was released in July 2007.  When I phoned the editor, a year after handing him a review copy, to ask why there had been no mention of our product, he explained, “I don’t have a good word to say about it. It would lead people astray”.

I admire his honesty. Nearly all 2000 copies of Dastirum have now been sold and, partly because I believe that a monopoly of interpretation is bad for any tradition’s health, and partly because Dastirum still sells steadily on zero marketing, I am about to publish a second edition. From the vigorous discussion of Dastirum at bobdunsire.com in 2007, here are two posts that round out the picture. The first is from Andrew Berthoff:

It never ceases to amaze me how people can feel so threatened by art that is different. I recognize that judging art requires some sort of basis, and piobaireachd competitions inevitably follow familiar guidelines for what’s “good” and what’s not.

In time, these guidelines change, but, as Allan notes, that does not happen overnight. It will happen incrementally, as judges have the courage to reward what moves them rather than what is “correct” based solely on 20th century styles.

But why should people not readily embrace and appreciate the sound research and conclusions from Allan, Willie Donaldson, and even Jimmy MacColl, who decades ago espoused heretical notions that piobaireachd should be played with passion and pace? Their findings have little if anything to do with piobaireachd competitions, so why put it down just because it goes against conventional contest-thinking?

The second is from Graineag:

When I was studying abroad in Glasgow about nine (gasp!) years ago, I had the great fortune of being able to get a few lessons from Allan, so I guess you could say I’m among the “converted.” The penny dropped that he was really on to something when one night at the Piping Centre, Allan was teaching me about different methods of playing cadences (as illustrated briefly on p.34 of the notes to “Dastirum”). As we sat playing our chanters, P/M Angus MacDonald walked in and said “Ach, that’s lovely. You know, I can remember my father used to put wee flourishes like that in his pibrochs when I was a wee boy… Only when he was playing for himself, of course. He never played that way in the competitions.”

A couple of years later, I was doing lessons by tape with Jimmy McColl and, curious about his own theories on ceòl mór, I asked him to put down a few of the same tunes that I had learned from Allan (such as “Mackintosh’s Lament”, “Salute to Donald”, etc.). When I compared the tapes, the interpretations were near-identical, the only substantial difference being that Jimmy played the urlar about 8-10 beats slower.

What Allan has done through his research and his undisputedly fine playing is to provide another angle from which to view this music and the social environment from which it arose. Nobody, least of all Allan himself, it seems, is advocating that everybody should play this way. If you’re satisfied with playing and listening to ceòl mór in the modern competition style, then that’s wonderful. If modern pibroch doesn’t satisfy you, then this is one possibility of an alternative. Is it exactly as the MacCrimmons would have played? Of course not. Is it perhaps closer to that than what is played at competitions the world over now? I think there’s a substantial body of evidence from Allan and several others to suggest that it is. Whether you like Allan’s style of playing or not, I think we can all agree that a bit of debate is a perfectly healthy thing.

I opened with a quote from ‘The Christian Background’ by Diarmaid MacCulloch, found in the National Theatre programme for Henrik Ibsen’s play, Emperor and Galilean (London, May 2011). Ibsen’s play “raises the question of whether human beings have the power to shape history, or whether history has a will of its own”. Either way, history is inevitable. When human beings sense the rigidity, or lack of spirituality, that results when any good thing gets organised, evolution is provoked.

Several parallels may be drawn between pibroch competitions and organized religion, but poisoning and slaughter are thankfully not among them! I wonder if the Piping Times will review the second edition of Dastirum

Explore posts in the same categories: Wider context

2 Comments on “Devotional intensity”

  1. Arvey Mcfarland Says:

    As soon as the 2nd edition of Dastirum is available, I shall be the first in line to purchase a copy!

    Thank you Barnaby Brown and Allan MacDonald, you’ve made pibroch interesting to ‘the rest of us’.

    Arvey Mcfarland
    Salt Lake City


  2. You and I both! To repeat the sentiments of the wee French lady quoted after the P’bd recital. “You have completely changed my appreciation/how I listen to Piobaireachd”. Even after 40 years a pipes, (25 years an Army piper) I had never felt ‘qualified’ to listen to or even entitled to understand the Big Music. This album made it ‘accessible’ and ever-increasingly enjoyable.

    If ever I felt that “some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken” stuff, it was and continues to be, when I listen to and think about this album.

    thank you.


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