Young pipers heading off in new directions

NOBODY has yet stuck a label on the phenomenon, but any observers of the folk scene over the past decade and more can hardly have failed to notice that a new generation of young pipers have been hard at work pushing the instrument in directions that their more conservatively-minded seniors could hardly have conceived.

While military and competition piping remained locked into a formally 'correct' view of pipe playing and pipe music, long-established folk bands like the Battlefield Band and the Tannahill Weavers featured pipers in their line-ups from the early 1970s, and the instrument is firmly established on the folk scene.

A trickle of less hidebound but staggeringly virtuoso players began to emerge, and eventually grew into a wave that has taken on real momentum, and has brought a whole new mindset to bear on the noble art of piping.

The breakaway was neatly encapsulated in a dispute that arose over the playing of one of the pioneers of the new direction, Perthshire piper Gordon Duncan. A brilliant performer in traditional piping mode, Duncan (son of the great bothy ballad singer Jock Duncan) is also one of the original mavericks on the instrument, both in his style of playing and in his compositions, many of which have entered into the repertoire of contemporary folk bands, with and without pipes.

Duncan's unorthodox side incurred the wrath of the great Seumas MacNeil, a legendary teacher and former principal of the Glasgow College of Piping. Duncan's riposte came in the shape of a hair-raising reel, 'Just for Seumas', and an album of the same name (1994) that portrayed the piper in both traditional pipe-band regalia and jeans and T-shirt, a defiant assertion of his intention to play both styles.

That determination has seen him play with top-rank pipe bands like the Vale of Atholl and the Scottish Power, but also with groups like Capercaillie, Ceolbeg, Wolfstone and the Dougie MacLean Band. His dual-track approach to piping has operated as a model for many of the subsequent young pipers who have broken away from convention.

Fred Morrison is another of the pioneers in that respect, but differs from Duncan in not having played in pipe bands. Born and bred on Uist, Morrison learned to play from his father, and although he missed the pipe band upbringing, he took part in that other major plank of conventional piping, competition playing.

Morrison has won the prestigious MacCallan Award at the major piping festival in Lorient, Brittany, on seven occasions now, so he is well versed in the requirements of competition piping. However, his love of playing in less-conventional modes remains central to his inspiration.

"I got into performing through the junior piping competitions," he said, "and at that level I do think the competitions are a very good thing. It gives youngsters an outlet to play regularly and raise their standards of tuning and technique and so on. Later on, though, I miss both the spontaneity and the element of improvisation that I get when I play on the folk scene - in the competitions you are working completely by the book."

Like many contemporary players, Morrison plays both Highland pipes and the bellows-blown Border pipes, also known generically as cauld wind pipes. He composed and performed in the opening-night gala concert at Celtic Connections in Glasgow in January. His long suite, Paracas - Spirit of the Gael, combined a pipe ensemble with a percussion group, a Gaelic choir and a symphony orchestra.

His pipe ensemble that night featured a number of the even younger exponents of the new piping ethos, including Finlay MacDonald, Simon McKerrell and Rory Campbell. All three play regularly on the folk scene in a variety of bands, and have been involved in crossover projects with jazz and rock artists as well. Finlay MacDonald was taught by his father, Pipe Major Iain MacDonald of the Neilston Pipe Band, and described his attitude to the two styles of playing.

"I started in the pipe-band tradition with my father," he explained, "and that was the main thing I did until I was 15 or so, when I started to get into the folky stuff and so on. Playing with the pipe band is great fun - I see that as being my kind of hobby in the music, and my own band is the main focus.

"In the pipe bands what you play is pretty set, and everybody plays the same thing, so it's very strict. With my own band I have much more freedom to experiment with other things, bringing in a jazzy feel with [guitarist] Kevin [MacKenzie] and [drummer] John [Rae] or whatever, and adding my own touch to it. Playing with fiddles and guitar and so on requires a more flowing style of playing than when you play with the pipe band."

Fraser Fifield from Aberdeenshire has been another notable player who has taken the pipes in unaccustomed directions in his own jazz-influenced trio, and in his membership of the Edinburgh-based Salsa Celtica, a vibrant dance-floor fusion of Cuban and Celtic music. Fifield also plays saxophone as well as the piper's usual 'doubling instrument', the whistle.

Pipes were his first instrument, and he played in the junior competitions, and also did some competitions in classical music on saxophone, an instrument he took up when he was 14.

"My interests were beginning to stretch outside what conventional piping had to offer," he explained. "I wasn't looking to play jazz as such, I was interested in finding things that I could adapt to my own playing and my own music, which is definitely coming from a Scottish perspective most of the time.

"Scottish traditional music has been my strongest background influence, but on top of that it is taking in lots of different directions from everything I have played over the years, and also the music I have listened to. People hear lots of things in the music, and will say, oh that's jazzy or that's world music, but I don't really hear it in that way - I don't really differentiate it in that way within my own music."

Fusing pipes with jazz was explored even earlier by Hamish Moore, one of the most in-demand pipe makers in the world, and saxophonist and clarinettist Dick Lee in the late-1980s. Moore's fascination with reviving pre-military styles of Scottish piping have dominated much of his subsequent work.

The Battlefield Band has also provided fertile ground for experimentation, and the group has an impressive list of distinguished players in its history, including Dougie Pincock (now director of the National Centre for Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton High School), Dougie McGillivray, Iain MacDonald (one of three famous piping brothers from Glenuig) and Californian Mike Katz, all of whom have brought both individuality and experimentation to their music.

Perhaps the most iconoclastic of all the current pipe rebels was the late Martyn Bennett, whose fertile musical career was tragically ended by cancer earlier this year. Bennett brought together the diverse strands of traditional piping, classical violin and a deep grounding in contemporary club culture and dance music in a series of ground-breaking musical experiments.

When his illness prevented him from playing to his previous level, he smashed his valuable instruments in a moment of subsequently bitterly regretted despair, and turned to the recording studio as his working environment to produce his final CD, Grit (2004). Some months before his death, he recalled at his ground-breaking Bothy Culture album from 1997, a fusion of folk culture with dance beats.

"When I look back on it, I feel that it's only now that I'm really getting to grips with it," he said. "What I'd like now is for someone to come out and do it better than I did. I think there does need to be a separation between pure traditional music and that kind of crossover. The danger is that lots of people jump in and try to emulate it, and make a mess of it. I know traditional musicians who are dabbling with this, but haven't got the immersion in the club culture that would allow them to really understand what they are doing."

The de-conventionalising of piping is not purely a Scottish phenomenon, either. A player like Kathryn Tickell has brought a whole new vocabulary to her native Northumbrian pipes, another bellows-blown instrument with a long tradition, while Carlos Nunez from Galicia is an international star, and has collaborated with rock and classical artists in his projects.

An even younger wave of pipers are carrying the development forward, including the likes of Ross Ainsley, Angus MacKenzie and Fin Moore. Celtic rock band Wolfstone features the pipes of Stevie Saint as a central plank of their sound, and the winner of the Young Scots Traditional Musician 2005 in January was - for the first time - a piper, Stuart Cassells from Falkirk. Like Finlay MacDonald and others before him, he has just graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, where he completed a BA in Scottish music/piping.

More females are taking up the instrument as well now, reflected in the presence of players like Anna Murray, Annie Grace, and the twin pipes of Julie Fowlis and Carol-Anne MacKay in the highly regarded D˜chas.

Whatever the traditionalists think, the new approach is here to stay, and further exciting developments seem inevitable.

Most of these players have a firm grounding in conventional piping, and make use of that technical and musical foundation to expand the possibilities for making music on their chosen instrument, whether the full Highland set or one of the many variations on the bellows-blown instruments.

In the international world of pipe music, they offer an exhilarating alternative to the massed bands and competition pibrochs that have dominated Scottish piping since the 19th century, and in the process they are creating some of the most thrilling music on the Scottish folk scene.