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Matt Seattle continues his series

I should like to return to Structure (my subject in the fast Issue) in more detail later, but to achieve a rough overview of Border pipe music it is necessary to say something about Form. This is the hardest aspect of the music to write about. There are many contradictions in the records which stop one coming to any firm conclusions, so I shall try my best to be descriptive of what is rather than prescriptive of what should be, though I shall try to indicate what could be.

In the last Issue I mentioned that sometimes different tunes have variations which are very similar to each other, and that this can be a problem; it makes the tunes both less distinctive from each other and also harder to learn. If there is a solution to this problem it is in the overall form of the particular variation set - there is no evidence of an idealised form which all sets have to follow. My feeling is that one must treat each set as a little world of its own; certainly it belongs to a larger body of music with overall characteristics, but there is no   externally imposed formula which all sets have to adhere to.

One must never fall into the trap of describing music as logical. One can talk about balance, patterns, harmony or anarchy of form and so on, but logic, a two-term system, is too narrow a prison for the Muse. I want to look now at a tune which on its own small scale has great qualities of balance. Lord Drummore’s Rant is of particular interest to members of our     Society in that, according to George Emmerson (in his book Rantin’ Pipe and Tremblin’ String), Lord Drummore both played Border pipes and was also the patron of Geordy Sime, the Border piper whose portrait is the emblem of our Society. Who knows, perhaps Geordy is playing this very tune in that portrait?

What features does one notice about the tune? Begin with the obvious. It is a four-strain reel; it is built on the chords of A and G, where A is the tonic (‘X’) and G is the functional dominant (‘Y’); the structure is one I described in The Master Piper, XXXY, XXYY, giving each half bar one letter, or XXXY with only the first letter in each bar (ignoring for the   moment the subdominant substitution in strain 1). Regarding the Form, one can immediately hear how the odd and even strains are balanced: odds start low, evens start high. Strain 3 is an expansion variation of strain 1, and strain 4 is an expansion variation of strain 2.

Other melodic balances are built into the tune which can be explored at leisure.


Some or all of these features are common to many tunes, and these kinds of balances. are well understood and exploited by many of today’s composers and players of pipe music, of whatever persuasion.

This particular tune can be thought of as an example of the ‘tight’ end of the formal spectrum, where patterns and balances abound. This is relatively easy to achieve in a four-strain tune. In longer sets the Form is often much looser, and this is where contradictory notions present themselves: is tight better than loose? Or is an obsession with tightness of Form a symptom of deep-seated neurosis? What about the incomparably precious quality of spontaneity? If everything is always under control, where is the space for anything new to happen? Shouldn’t music be organic - even random - in its development rather than follow a predetermined pattern? I do not wish to answer these questions as I believe that they have   different answers according to circumstances, which may be expressed in the formula:     improvisation is instantaneous composition, composition is improvisation at leisure. What we must contemplate is the mutual relationship between Freedom and Order. Neither can be absolute in the existing world, but one pursued at the expense of the other can be relatively disastrous, in music no less than in life.

If one is in the throes of inspiration something more precious than formal niceties is         involved, but if one is taking the time to memorise a variation set then practical considerations come into play. If the strains just follow each other in any old order then one has to learn the tune in a very mechanical way, repeating it until one can automatically play the strains in the right order (if there is one). This is how we get the situation described in the last issue; with the tune presented there it is difficult (but not impossible) to see how one sequence is better than another, though repetition and rote-learning have ensured that there is not a huge difference between the sequence in each version.

If a tune has an overall pattern it is easier to memorise for those who can perceive the     pattern.

There are no final answers in matters of taste. This is one of the things which makes Border piping very interesting. There are great opportunities for working on the music once one   understands it, and the records which survive show us that this is undoubtedly what pipers did. The very variety of versions should encourage us to experiment, and even though I have a vested interest in selling books I recognise that our revival will only be real when we can leave the books behind and take off on our own.

Much of the work done for the Border Bagpipe Book grew out of an appreciation of the practical benefits to the player of formal patterns. 1 do not have all the variation sets in that book in my random access memory at any one time, but they have all been there and I am quite sure that a bit of mugging up would bring any of them back to the fore, though something else would have to be consigned to the wastebasket.

It is much easier to memorise something in a language that makes sense than in one that doesn’t, and if something - a poem, a song, a tune or a set of variations - has been deliberately constructed to make sense then the first step is to be sure one understands the verbal or musical language it is written in.

As someone who has spent time with rock music and jazz it continually distresses me that the chords which underpin bagpipe variations are not obvious to other pipers. They certainly must have been obvious to the pipers who wrote the variations for the patterns are there and could not have happened by chance. Whether or not the original Masters had names for the chords or understood them purely by ear and instinct is beside the point, but in writing about them one has to use names, and the conventional ones are as good as anything.

If we take a close look at John Peacock’s “The Peacock Follows the Hen” (here transposed for nominal A chanter, and with slight modifications in the light of Mr Dixon’s collection) we discern that the strains open with figures based respectively on the following chords: B minor, D major, B minor, D major, D major, B minor, D major. It does not take much to see that there is an almost regular alternation.

Other features confirm this balancing of strains, such as the opening of the last bar of each B minor strain with the note C# and the opening of the last bar of each D major strain with the note G. So, if the B minor strains are odd (1) and the D major strains even (2) we have 1212212. Strangely, this is exactly the same situation as in Peacock’s “Cuckold Come Out Of The Amrey”. The following questions arise:


  • - is the “incompleteness” deliberate in the first place, put there for some mysterious           unfathomable purpose?
  • - is it a simple case of Peacock or someone before him not quite remembering the whole sequence?
  • - or is it a meaningless accident brought about by the composer using minor and major figures in no particular order?

One conspiracy, one cock-up, and one search for meaning in a random universe. The cock-up theory is usually the safest bet, but the other two possibilities must be addressed. Taking them in turn:

Conspiracy - this seems far-fetched, but it has uncanny echoes of the ‘law-conformable   inexactitudes’ reputedly introduced into works of Objective Art by the Club of the Adherents of Legominism in ancient Babylon.

Cock-up - this is attractive because it encompasses the seductive idea of a Master Piper who knew what he was doing, while those who followed him failed to grasp the pattern. A           familiar story.

Random universe - there is so much order in the rest of the tune that this is doubtful.       However, the tune could have random elements, in which case one has the option of leaving it as it is or changing it to something less random. One is then in the same position as with the cock-up theory, though for a different reason.

If the cock-up theory is correct in this instance, what was the missing B minor strain which went between the two D major strains? If time travel is not an option then we have to come up with a new strain which does the required job. It must satisfy the requirements of order in referring both to the rest of the tune and the rest of the Tradition, but to be really satisfying it should have some element of originality - freedom - rather than be pure padding, only there to make up the number.

Answers to COMMON STOCK please.