Music review: Piping Live!, National Piping Centre, Glasgow

This year’s 20th Piping Live! festival illustrates some of the many directions in which piping has expanded in recent years, writes Jim Gilchrist

Piping Live!, National Piping Centre, Glasgow ****

It is 11am, half-way through Glasgow’s week-long Piping Live! festival, and the first band of the day is tuning up at the top of Buchanan Street in a yell of gradually coalescing reed sound. A whump of bass drum and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo Pipes and Drums are underway, seemingly beamed down from Edinburgh Castle Esplanade and that other festival in the east. Other bands, from Australia, USA and New Zealand, will play during the day, drawn from the hundreds converging on the Dear Green Place for this weekend’s World Pipe Band Championships on Glasgow Green.

The band forms a sonic circle in front of Donald Dewar’s statue, the inaugural First Minister gazing fixedly beyond it all as this uncompromising music bounces about the streetscape, quelling the odd busker. Stunned babes in arms are dandled delightedly in strathspey time.

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inB PIC: Paul JenningsinB PIC: Paul Jennings
inB PIC: Paul Jennings

Then to the National Piping Centre, the festival’s bustling hub, and the lunchtime recital, combining top-level solo piping with, as presenter John Mulhearn suggested, the instrument acting as a conduit for inherited tradition. Here was a legend of the competition scene, Willie McCallum, discussing and playing pipes which belonged to his late uncle Hugh McCallum, himself a formidable competition player.

The instrument, made by Henderson in 1909, initially belonged to a player who never returned from the First World War and was passed to McCallum’s Campbeltown forebears. A hefty figure pacing the floor against projected images of the illustrious uncle, McCallum piped up family associations, shifting rock steadily through marches and hornpipes, a plaintive lament that gave way to crisply executed 9/8 jigs and, memorably, a piobaireachd Hugh had composed to mark the 250th anniversary of the raising of the Jacobite standard at Glenfinnan – a stately salute enfolding both family and national history.

Then we were into another piping world entirely, catching a closing set in the centre’s busy Street Café from the Estonian duo Cätlin and Marko Mägi, Cätlin’s nimbly chirping Estonian bagpipe, the torupill, with its dangling clutch of horizontal drones, deftly partnered by Marko’s soprano saxophone.

The afternoon saw heritage of more recent pedigree with the launch of The NPC Anniversary Collection, a compilation of more than 170 tunes contributed by the centre’s students and staff, many of them notable and innovative players.

Willie McCallum PIC: Piping Live!Willie McCallum PIC: Piping Live!
Willie McCallum PIC: Piping Live!

As the centre’s director of piping, Finlay MacDonald, pointed out, the book celebrated not only 25 years of the centre itself, but 20 of Piping Live! Some performances from contributors exemplified the increasingly eclectic nature of current piping: Stuart Samson MBE, for instance, the centre’s former lead tutor, played a straight and steady march, strathspey and hornpipe, while Malin Lewis generated a whirling Bulgarian inflected set and MacDonald himself took up Border pipes, accompanied by fellow-piper Ross Ainslie, here on cittern.

Perhaps a prime example of the directions in which piping has expanded since the centre opened – and, indeed, over the past 40 years since the formation of the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society – was the evening concert, sponsored by the LBPS, which has been a major influence in the vigorous revival of Scotland’s bellows-blown pipes. The succinctly titled InB is a quartet of respected pipers, two of them, Louise Mulcahy and Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn, toting Irish uilleann pipes, with two Scots, Bríghde Chaimbeul and Fin Moore, on Scottish smallpipes – all of them playing in that titular key of B.

This proved a wonderfully mellow-sounding colloquy of reeds. As Chaimbeul put it, she felt as if she was playing inside an organ. Also, much of their repertoire comprised tunes common to both Scotland and Ireland. To hear a strathspey artfully transmogrified into an Irish Reel, or the familiar Cabar Feidh take on its alter ego of Rakish Paddy, evoked visions of music being thrown to and from across the Auld Sheuch, as the Irish Sea used to be known, and of a culture more richly common than we tend to presume.

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