Review: Book of Irish Music for the D pipes by Dave Rowlands

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For those of you leading busy lives who might not have the time or inclination to read a thousand words of text without checking your email or social networking feed here is the “executive summary” in 140 characters:

“This is a good book for £12 with good tunes in it. If you have an interest in playing Irish music on the border bagpipes, you should buy it.”

Having thus satisfied the Twitterati and their ilk, we can afford to adopt a slightly more discursive style and go into a bit more detail. The book contains 186 traditional Irish tunes selected by long time society member Dave Rowlands as being suitable for the border bagpipes in D. In some cases he has adapted the tune to make it easier (or, perhaps, even possible) to play on the pipes. I think in merely claiming suitability, Dave has been too modest and has undersold the collection; for these are indeed very good tunes and I enjoyed playing through them. Although review deadlines meant that I couldn’t study all of them, I played somewhere between a third and a half of the material and gazed at the rest. Of the tunes I played, I honestly didn’t find a single tune that I thought wasn’t up to much. Dave has also been refreshingly restrained in the inclusion of non-traditional material: there is a single tune that is written by the author (thus making 187 tunes in all).

Clearly, he has a good eye/ear for a tune — I’m not a specialist in Irish music by any means, so almost all of the tunes were new to me. An alternative explanation for the high quality of the selection is that the corpus of traditional Irish music is stuffed to the gunnels with great material (and any compiler of a collection like this is bound to come up with loads of really good stuff). Maybe. Another possibility is that I wouldn’t really know a good Irish tune if it bit me in the bum and I’m too easily satisfied. Maybe. But, on balance, I prefer my first, “good eye/ear”, theory.

I’m told that many of the tunes in this book are fairly well known, which may mean that there is not enough new material in it for specialists to find it attractive. But for the piper dipping his toes into the sea of traditional Irish music or who (like me) doesn’t play very many Irish tunes, this book looks like a very good introduction. It also contains some sensible advice about pace and gracing. It isn’t free of faults however. Happily, the criticisms I have are cosmetic, rather than relating to the musical material, but I feel that the presentation could have been better. The choice of Roman Uncial Modern font, whilst fine for titles, is poor when used to set slabs of text. To illustrate my point this is what Roman Uncial Modern looks like.

It isn’t free of faults however. Happily, the criticisms I have are cosmetic, rather than relating to the musical material, but I feel that the presentation could have been better.

My other main criticism is about the quality of the musical typesetting (or engraving). The book is littered with instances where note stems have collided with bar repeat marks or accidentals. Another very common irritation is that there is a cautionary key change or time signature change at the end of the first tune on a page when the succeeding tune on the page has a different key or time signature. The software used to engrave the material clearly does not understand, or has not been told, that the tunes are not part of a single piece of music. There are usually two tunes per page, but the font used for the time signature of the second tune is, more often than not, different to the font used for the first tune. In some cases I would have preferred slightly more space allocated to crotchets than quavers, in order to reflect their longer duration (it is only after using a high quality engraver, that one becomes aware of how subtle the effects are, but how much easier the result is to read). I feel that more time should have been spent removing these cosmetic defects or, if Music Time delux — the engraving software used — doesn’t permit their removal, using an engraver that produces better results.

The final alteration I would have liked to have seen is a wider gutter: The book has to be pressed quite flat in order to see all the music and, given its construction —the spine is glued, not stapled— I wonder if it might fall apart if used extensively on a music stand.

But, in the end, these criticisms are minor: one can probably learn to read the Uncial font and ignore the blemishes in the engraving. The main point to take home is that it is a good collection of good tunes, well worth the playing and well worth the £12 that the Society is asking. Buy two or three so that you aren’t stuck for an emergency Christmas present for Aunt Edna. Doesn’t everyone have an Aunt Edna who plays bagpipes? It’s as well to be prepared.

Copies of the book can be obtained from the Society by sending a cheque for £12.00 (includes p&p) made payable to The Bagpipe Society to 6 Greyfriars Road, Daventry, NN1 4RS.

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