Ten thousand musicians: nine notes between them. Viewed from the wider Scottish music scene – and internationally emblematic though massed pipers are – the pipe band world is often seen as a somewhat arcane enclave, complete with rules, rites, terminology and lore appreciated only by initiates.
It’s hard to think of another single instrument, however, that could bring together this many performers, from a dozen different countries, with an audience of up to 50,000 – that being Saturday’s estimated tally for the 66th annual World Pipe Band Championships, staged in Glasgow since 1986.
The full field of entrants comprised 235 bands, competing across seven main grade distinctions, with additional prizes for the drum corps and drum majors. And it was literally a full field at the climax of the contest, the justly famous march-past and muster of all contenders before the winners are announced, lining up 8,000 pipers and 2,000 drummers in a single vast arena on Glasgow Green – a vivid visual reminder of the Highland bagpipes’ history as an instrument of battle.
They came from American high schools, English universities, Canadian helicopter squadrons, remote Irish islands and Antipodean Highland societies, as well as every corner of Scotland and much of Northern Ireland. Even just the air-fares involved must represent a sizeable economic spin-off, with the event as a whole reckoned to inject some £10 million into the local economy each year.
Yet pipe band contests are an almost entirely amateur pursuit – the cash prize for 2012’s Grade 1 world champions was just £1,200 – and when you consider the amount of fundraising and other community support behind every band’s presence, all expensively equipped and turned out head to toe in matching kilted uniforms, that supposedly arcane enclave suddenly looks a lot bigger and more inclusive.
And being right in the thick of its biggest annual gathering, on a gloriously sunny day on Glasgow’s oldest expanse of common ground, is a somewhat overwhelming experience. You’re never within earshot of fewer than half a dozen pipe bands – practising, warming up, tuning up, performing for the judges or playing impromptu amidst the crowds – so that the massed swirl of those nine notes and three accompanying drones blends into a kind of massive, constant white noise, which continues to echo spectrally in your head for hours afterwards.
But when it resolves itself into the sound of individual bands, inside the competition arenas – and most particularly, of course, in the Grade 1 arena – the musical range, depth, artistry and complexity that can be achieved within this unforgiving instrument’s narrow parameters is nothing short of marvellous.
After their allotted time in the adjacent tuning area (where these days a nifty digital gizmo is pressed to the top of each player’s drones for unanimous exactitude), each band marches in rows to the starting line and, under orders from the pipe major, collectively hoists and inflates its instruments – a manoeuvre seemingly modelled on the raising of rifles or bayonets. They set forth with a traditional drum-roll to the actual performance circle, where, simultaneously with embarking on their chosen medley, they have to regroup neatly into a ring, facing inwards, pipers and drum corps each forming half the circumference.
Orbiting them in turn are the three adjudicators – one each for the piping, drumming and ensemble elements of the performance – scribbling intently on clipboards, assessing each band according to myriad technical and musical criteria, all in the maximum space of seven minutes. According to chief governing body, the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, factors to be considered should include, “quality of the introduction; tempo, phrasing and relative notes values; execution, style and interpretation, integration, technique and time signatures; rhythm, expression and dynamics; musical balance and musical effect; intonation and tonal balance, and the make-up of the actual selection of tunes”; ranging in detail from the “emotive theme” of a melody to the drummers’ “consistency of roll pulsations”. It was one of several contexts in which references to the “pipe band Olympics” seemed eminently apt.
Hackneyed though it might to describe judges’ tasks as unenviable, it can rarely be truer than for the Grade 1 final, where the countless hours of rigorous individual and group practice required simply to meet the qualifying standard shone magnificently through all 14 performances, an endlessly varied panoply of precision and creativity in elegant yet dynamic equilibrium. Eventual Grade 1 World Champions, for the second year running – and the eighth time since 1992 – were Northern Ireland’s Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band, but while their celebrations were deservedly loud and unrestrained, the day as a whole showed the “Worlds” to be an event, above all, where it’s the taking part that counts.
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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