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Beer Tent The general discussion forum, and the place to start a new "beer-tent-like" Piping Related discussion...

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Old 06-27-2013, 04:52 PM   #1
R. Lawson
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R. Lawson
Default Cybernetic and technological contributions to the World standard of golden age piping

I will speak specifically here more about Pipe Bands rather than solo Pipers, as I believe Band progress is documentably much better than the 60's - for Individual players any improvements in standard seems less so, but generally sound is at a more consistently high level.

Technological advances have clearly had tremendous cybernetic influences (that aim towards a specific target of improvement based on external feedback, hence cybernetic or steering) - first in bringing people and knowledge/experience bases together but also in furthering that knowledge and experience based on the feedback of the insight provided by instrumentation and technological advances.

A rough chart of these decades' progression with interweaving elements could go like this:

1. Recordings had started much earlier in the century but many serious GHB + Band LPs of the later 50s and 60s began reaching into homes around the world, extending "live" experiences to a much wider range of potential "players", as well as BBC broadcasts of live Bands and soloists.

2. Increased air travel - The City of Toronto (2nd in Piping behind 5 in-a-row Muirheads, and 5th overall) + Clan MacFarlane began visits to the "World" Championships starting mid 60's simultaneous to an era when notable piping experts like Seumas and John MacFadyen began visiting the Colonies with their influential and consequential piping summer schools etc. Ontario was able to expand on its imported Scottish expertise like Master player John Wilson and George Duncan etc. A lot of serious seminar + schools' instruction goes on around the planet now.

3. Concurrent with this was the broadening scope and reach of media embracing varied musical influences and ethnic roots which reached wider into world consciousness. This allowed pan-Celtic influences to enter further into the mix, with kitchen piping such as Hornpipes (originally of Irish persuasion) in the new Medley Contest idiom altering the Scottish based trads of Pipe Bands. Robert Mathieson and Mark Saul in recent decades attempted to bring in other Breton, Galician, Bulgarian influences etc into the Pipe Band fold with varied reception. An ongoing melding of cultural influences in an increasingly interconnected world. More recently, percussional directions have been leaning on outside idioms and may progress further, where conga + kettle drum type things etc are increasingly seen in the Concert arena. There is a great latitude for continued experimentation here, all severely influenced by conservative judging and audience comfort levels. None of this necessarily affects the accuracy of playing (ensemble via Mid-sections in large Bands, maybe), but it certainly improves and broadens the musicality dimension.

4. Further to the "time-honoured" metronomes which provided an honest, objective gauge of rhythmical sticking to the beat, were accessible cassette home recorders etc lending immediate playing feedback + Tuning meters that began appearing on the scene over 3 decades ago using them as a somewhat final arbiter in the polished, last minute tuneups for Contests. There remain disparities between what even the best meters are measuring and what highly experienced pipers can detect, but most will lean on this device as a conveniently quick, accurate and tireless addition to their overall sensing + indicator of others' playing. This is a purely cybernetic feedback process lending a fine target to aim towards steadier blowing for example, and fiddling with pitch possibilities. I believe this has had a massive effect within those decades, requiring top level Band corps players to measure and step up. One could include music writing software programs in this that allow rudimentary and metronomic play feedback of written notes, that still needs a fair bit of tweaking to simulate human styles of playing in gracenoting. Latterly manometers are coming into play for less experienced players to gauge what strength of reeds they might acquire, and improve basic blowing technique. The gauges importantly show up that volume requirements markedly change between lo A and hi A but pressure not nearly so much (try fully inflating and squeezing a tuned bagpipe - without adding more air - until the air is gone, to see this effect between the top and bottom of the scale). Perhaps finer gauging will soon allow cyborgs to excel humanly puny efforts to modulate this tricky interface between the micro-managing of "even" pressure but varied volume output. I still suspect bigger reeds allow corps Band players to more smoothly and deftly negotiate through this constant weaving of the 2 important and somewhat conflicting physical demands – relatively constant pressure vs widely varying volume. A very tall order that takes good players many years of intense practice to master, and even more so to blend well in large groups of 25+ pipers.

5. The increasing GHB market has spurred technological innovations to surface and spread. Polypenco chanters expedited the uniformity of a Band chanter for homogeneity and quality control with plastic injection moulding improvements. CNC can arguably add to or enhance this. Such things as blowpipe and bag shape alternatives add to the mix but mostly the synthetics - bags initially, and increasingly drone reeds. This has been a veritable competitive explosion that continues to push the boundaries. It is remarkable how the learning curve has already been lost in a short generation (somewhat) for tying in sheepskin bags and employing cane drone reeds effectively, but a new knowledge base has been gained and propagated - allowing much greater consistencies in combatting the notorious vagaries of ambient conditions for the De'il's instrument. Grade 3 Bands have drone sounds today that Grade 1 Bands would envy decades ago - a remarkable game changer. Along with this are the sheer size and competitiveness of chanter reed and chanter markets - with seemingly much smaller widespread, theoretical gains in understanding, that have allowed the makers to promote further excellence in world pipe sound.

6. The real shaker and mover recently has been the explosion of the world-wide web itself in this past 2 decades. It has effectively entered all hobbies, past-times and workplace environments to irretrievably alter approaches and mindsets. But specifically for the pipe band world it has: allowed a rapid sharing of traditional knowledge bases and varied experiences around the world - meaning the learning curve of hanging out with fine teachers and class players, leaning on orally transmitted nuggets in my youth can be much dispensed with as a lot of this becomes available online in websites and such Forums as here; Skype allows long distance, teleported teachers into one's own den; Youtubes and BBC recordings become rapidly available for very current Contests around the globe; interaction via email etc expedite all sorts of commercial and learning interaction, facilitating rapid changes and inevitable improvements of playing possibilities - all this is improved communication and soups up the speed of shifting fads and style in the piping world.

7. Competition. A focusing element of all this has been the World's Championships themselves. As noted, Ontario Bands began in earnest in the mid 60's and Triumph Street/City of Victoria enjoyed their own mixed successes and frustrations in 1979 at Nottingham. In 1982 the newly formed SFU challenged the brand new outfit of the 78th Fraser Highlanders + Clan and wrested the North American title in MSRs only to be trounced the next day in Montreal by a disappointedly ambitious 78ths Band sporting a GM Band medley with varied Irish influences. This Canadian rivalry helped perk up international interest through the 80’s and beyond. Vic Police started disappointingly in 1990 at Glasgow (I believe), were 10th at the World's in 1991 and continued to improve until they won in 1998 but immediately lost their sanction to expensively (time-wise, Adrian Melvin reminded me) leave their "day job" for a self-financed Scotland trip due to the peculiar politics that haunt Police sponsored Pipe Bands, such as the one I played in. The Qualifiers throughout the 2000's have been an extra hurdle and level that competition has driven the standard up with.

I have heard many players over the decades (including Forumite testimonials) that have been profoundly inspired by the World's recordings thx to BBC etc. This has become a massive focus and cash cow for Glasgow each August as the best in the idiom have their yearly week's Convention all capped by the Big 'Un on the Green. A peculiar mix of type A, driven attempts to improve technique thrown in a bacchanalic mixed week of ethnically musical and creative celebration with great craic. Varied ceilidh type influences affect the mix, and styles of notable innovators like the mentioned 78ths, TnD's rock n roll approach also with their own notable composers, the late 80's Duncan brothers' Vale, Australasian Vic Police and many others had their cult status and, of course, influence on the direction and practice of musical fads. There will be much more to come so it remains exciting to ‘live in interesting times’ in the Pipe Band world, where standards are measurably improving so quickly – cybernetically. Good learning proceeds “markedly” with testing, lending internal re-evaluation that allows tweaking of weak points, based on varied feedbacks AND results. – cheers - robin
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Old 06-28-2013, 04:47 AM   #2
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Default Re: Cybernetic and technological contributions to the World standard of golden age pi

Getting through some of the verbosity, I can agree with most everything you say here. The standard of playing has been affected by the technology. Having been like you the generation dealing with cane drone reeds and hide/skin bags only, to all of the innovations. It is quite mind blowing to say the least. When it will slow down or level off who knows. But in the mean time, we can just enjoy and wonder at how much better some of these bands can get, sound wise and playing wise.
I have some of the very early BBC LP recordings of the worlds, and if you listen to some of them today, I doubt that some of the bands then could win a good grade 2 contest today.
That is not to say that these bands weren't good, in their day, it just shows the advancments of the idiom.
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Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.
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