by Jay Close

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PART THREE: Discussion and Commentary:

What follows is a series of statements and observations about the Cameron style of ceol mor as I got it from my teachers and correspondents. I have arranged them with the broadest assumptions and attitudes first and more specific and detailed features later. Many will refer to the previous Overview section, but in other cases the discussion in the Overview is deemed sufficient. Be advised: even among my informants there were diverse interpretations of individual tunes and variety in how motifs were approached. I address not a monolithic style but a broad aesthetic. And, inevitably, comments are colored by my own instruction from William Connell.

The staff music provided below is, with occasional exception, of my contrivance. I have adapted many of the conventions I employed in re-setting the music of Connell’s instructional book and added an additional few. In each case, the goal has been to cast the music close to how it would be played and in such a way as to indicated the small units that make up the melody line. Diverse approaches are taken but the goal is consistent.


1. The lines of piobaireachd descent from the MacCrimmons, MacArthurs, Rankins et al. produced very similar music that differed only in detail. While there were differences in interpretation, setting and technique among pipers of the old school, at core the music was the same.
2. The goal of the piper is to make flowing, pulsing, liquid - like music.
3. From a music composed of parts, the piobaireachd player must create an integrated whole.
4. The piper serves the melody. The melody contains its own rhythm and flow. Interpreting a tune is a process of guided discovery working by analogy with other tunes in the canon.
5. The piper leads the audience through the maze of a tune so that nothing appears out of place, nothing is abrupt or startling and significant sign posts are noted along the journey.
6. The melody stands on its own. The key to playing a tune is found within the tune itself. Reference to tune histories, folklore, mythology etc. are distractions.


7. Expressing a tune demands recognition of small units into which the melody line can be divided. These small units must be identified and understood before an informed musical interpretation can be contemplated. Robert Reid, for example, distinguished two sorts of these smaller units.

The first Reid called passages. These are, for the most part, the familiar and stereotyped motifs that occur over and over in ceol mor, for example: the double echo movements, the hiharin, or the rhythmic couplets that make up the suibhal and dithis variations.

A passage is short, incomplete in itself and, to quote Reid, “...requires elaboration” (from recorded lecture on ceol mor; cf. Proceedings Piobaireachd Society Conference 1979, page 2).

The second category of small melodic unit Reid called phrases. He used the term in a distinct way. He was not concerned with the phrase structure of a tune. He did not look to bars or measures as his guide to interpretation. Staff notation and its trappings were a modern contrivance little known to the old master players and composers.

For Reid, a phrase is a musical idea, complete in itself, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Recognizing these units is critical: the performer must, in a sense, get out of their way and allow them to exist and be expressed in their elemental form.

As I interpret this, the passages require involvement of the performer to integrate them into the whole. The phrase is a whole. The performer best not inject needless elaboration into its fundamental integrity.

Reid used “MacGregors’ Gathering” to illustrate the distinction between the passage and the phrase.

Below is the ground of the tune in staff notation to suggest the way Reid described it in “passage and phrase form”.

Line One begins with two passages and concludes with two phrases.

MacGregors’ Gathering

The second line brackets two passages between phrases which begin and end the line.

And line Three is one long phrase.

Indicating the passages and phrases of a tune and integrating them in to the melody line is the piper’s challenge. And the only tool at his disposal is relative note duration.

From a practical interpretive point of view, a phrase needs a resolution to set it off from the surrounding melody ---NO NOTE WITHIN A PHRASE CAN BE HELD LONGER THAN THE LAST NOTE. Otherwise, the extended note defines the end of its own phrase. Once the phrases are identified the piper knows where to insert a major pause, i.e. at their conclusion. This is a baseline understanding modified with intent (see below).

The short passages, on the other hand, have less of a transparent beginning, middle and end. They demand, according to Reid, ‘ elaboration’, i.e. further thought or attention from the performer. One of the interpretive “tricks” Connell taught was to treat such small, repetitive groups as if they were one larger phrase.

In the tune “MacGregors’ Gathering”, the piper might construct or constitute a phrase from the first two passages. For example, accent the beginning of this constituted unit with a broadly held, initial C melody note. The end of the passage, the low A after the first birl, should not be dwelt upon but elided or blended into the next passage. The second passage would be played through to the last note which is lengthened to match the initial C of the line.

Connell would likely refer to this as an “umbrella phrase” made up of two “mini-phrases”. I refer to it here as a “constituted phrase” to imply that it is a product of musician’s interpretation rather than something with an inherent beginning, middle and end.

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