a “Gathering Diary” – (BIG 3)

a true story !!!

on Piping Today

After three long days of rain, a very unusual event in Italy, the sun shines upon the 3rd  BIG Gathering during the 3 days of work from the 23rd to the 25th of September.

This time the appointment is in Umbria and it is this small medieval village of Cannara that welcomes us..

In the not too distant valley, you can clearly distinguish the cupola of the  Basilica of Saint Mary of Angels that within it’s walls holds the tiny church – called the “Porziuncola” – from where St. Francis’ great adventure begins.

Across from us, gently placed on the side of a hill, shine the old white lights of the city of Assisi, with it’s fortress and large basilicas – also dedicated to the saint  – that guard the tomb of the “poor man” from Assisi and hold Giotto’s priceless frescoes, that always impress in spite of their wounds and scars left by the earthquake a few years back.

It’s 4 p.m. when I arrive in Cannara and  I can distinctly hear the sounds of the first bagpipes in the distance marking their arrival;  aside from the street signs that indicate the right direction to follow, these sounds are an excellent compass which at that moment indicate our true “north”.

With me is  Bill Livingstone and his kind wife, Lillian; they have followed me to  Cannara along with my  entire family complete with a dear friend who, aside from helping with my uncertain translation, wanted to share this new experience with us all.

Since April, the interest surrounding this Gathering, had become uncontrollable.  Even more so since  the announcement  of the participation of P.M. Bill Livingstone. In the end the situation had become even more agitated when news that Allan MacDonald, Barnaby Brown and  the Breton  Bruno LeRouzic were also joining the group.

You can imagine the satisfaction and challenge for the  piper leaders of BIG,  Alberto Massi and Franco Calanca !

I had barely enough time to prepare the secretary’s table when the flow of pipers began.

Among which appeared the unmistakeable figure of  Allan MacDonald.

The flow continued among the greetings of new arrivals and the hugs of those who hadn’t seen each other in over a year, practically since Gathering n.2; you can already feel the party spirit in the air!

Unfortunately a series of last minute unlucky and unforeseeable events made the participation of Barnaby Brown and Bruno LeRouzic impossible – two great friends of BIG – and Franco Calanca was also missing; their absence is barely compensated by the enthusiasm of those present

There are some people from Sicily, others instead from the Aosta valley and from the Venetian region ….practically all of Italy was represented in the small city of Cannara but, among many dialectal inflexions, the language spoken was only one: that of GHB.

After getting settled in the beautiful and very clean “hostel” that graciously welcomes us, the first day ends with a dinner during which souvenir-plaques are offered to our grand guests.

By this time it is  2 a.m. Saturday  the 24th but, in a small closed hall, some are still resisting and insist on blowing into their bagpipes.

Saturday morning the activities begin, a little late but at 10:00 a.m we are all ready for the first Workshop held by Alberto Massi who entertains us with the theme of “piping interpretation during the last century”. 

There are 50 of us listening  and Bill Livingstone and Allan MacDonald have also joined us and are following with interest and participate actively.

I take a look around and take a few photographs …. it’s absolutely incredible ! Only a few years ago no one could have imagined that such a thing could be possible in Italy.

Alberto, with the help of tapings of performances back from even the 1930’s, clearly make us understand  how and how much the sound of this instrument has changed in terms of “pitch” and in the interpretation of musical pieces in terms of speed and expressiveness.

At the end of this very interesting workshop, the pipers divide  into 3 groups : the beginners start a lesson specifically organised for them by Alberto, the others are directed by Bill Livingstone and Allan MacDonald  who, with great humility and spirit of participation, mind the work for the massed band for the next day.

I take a look around  … in the sun-filled courtyard I see dozens of Italian pipers of all ages, sitting in a circle holding their practice chanter in their hands, musical scores in front of their eyes and in the middle of them two world renowned piping giants that explain, listen and correct them…it doesn’t seem real.

After the lunch break (and what a lunch !) we proceed to the presentation of the  CD-Rom Tutor n.3 written by Alberto Massi, Duilio Vigliotti, Franco Calanca and Mario Tomasone, which concludes the series dedicated to the “light music” and its technique.  By this time we only need to prepare  vol. n.4, entirely dedicated to pibroch.

It is truly a great work and is applauded by all of the participants that have obviously  understood the importance of such a didactic support both for having been done in Italian and for the enormity of the information it contains.

Bill Livingstone himself, who already had the chance to see vol. n.2 in Canada during an encounter with the Secretary of B.I.G. Duilio Vigliotti, was so  impressed with the quality of the CD  that he proposed the translation into English and the commercialisation of it in the whole world offering his help and personal interest in it. 

After presenting the CD-Rom we go back to practise but this time not with the practice chanter.

Yet again everyone in a circle, first to tune the bagpipes and then to try the pieces for the massed band.

In this case  again, we watch the great work of  Bill and Allan!

After 2 hours of music we return to the hall where we are to take part in one of the most magic moments of the Gathering.

The  workshop is titled “the Pibroch and its musical interpretation”  and it is here that our two great guests “rise to the podium” and give us an excellent lesson and sensations that are absolutely not repeatable.

Everyone knows the work done by these two great pipers and everyone knows what their respective positions are regarding their way of interpreting pibroch  but no one could have foreseen what was about to happen.

P.M. Livingstone starts with the analysis of a great pibroch “ MacIntosh Lament “, he enters into the depths of the musical score allowing us to capture the sense and beauty of it.

We are still fascinated by what we have just heard when we are transported by the music and voice of Allan MacDonald who , armed with his smallpipes, offers us “his”  version of things.

We all get goose bumps and would like to delve into the depths of emotion when suddenly the voice of Bill Livingstone joins that of Allan to enrich the already extraordinary beauty of “chanting”.

You can’t even hear anyone breathe, many have their eyes closed and the applause that brings the  song to an end  cannot even being to compensate for the gift that we have just been given.

A lot of us look around astounded and some say that the Gathering could end at that moment and it would be fine.

The same happens on “Struan Robertson” and, few minutes later, on “The Glengarry’s March” played by Allan MacDonald .

A few more minutes and we get a grip on our emotions again thanks to the contribution of a great dinner and many bottles of good local wine.

It is already 9:00pm and time is running out, it is time for the concert.

Our friends of City of Rome Pipe Band and those of Cannara Pipe Band are already ready with their uniforms.

The square of this small town is already brimming with people waiting.

At the signal the drums roll and from  afar comes the sound of  the pipe band that has integrated  Alberto Massi, Bill Livingstone and Allan MacDonald for the occasion.

The public applaud and is visibly surprised and happy about what is happening.

The  Pipe Band goes up onto the wide stage and does some sets from their own  repertoire.

And now it is Alberto Massi’s moment to entertain the audience with his usual pleasantness and offers us a rare example of his musical ability and his ability to broadcast using a type of exhibition that is particularly congenial: the concert-conference.

With exceptional ability he performs  “ Monte Catarelto, Banjo Breakdown, Glasgow City Police Pipers, Hector the Hero, Highland Brigade at Anzio, Lady Loudon, Smith of Chillichassie and A Call from Afar”

During the interval some souvenir-plaques are presented to the Mayor of Cannara, the President of Cannara’s “pro loco” association and to the members of the Cannara Pipe Band – four friendly men with big hearts, and with noteworthy musical capabilities demonstrated to us since they are also members of the Musical “Morlacchi” Band.

Received with  grand applause, P.M Livingstone goes onstage and, in general silence which heightens the suspense, he carefully tunes his bagpipes.

A great interpretation of some classics “ Ashes on the Afton, Duchess of Edinburg, Delvinside, The Grey Bob, Fair Maid of Barra, Lucy’s Frolics and Old Wife of the Mill Dust”.

Superb technique that really honours the greatness of this man who has marked historical moments especially in North American piping.

Most likely the greater part of the audience is not capable of capturing the beauty and depth of this difficult and cultured music but this doesn’t seem to matter ….. everyone seems to be in seventh heaven and honour Master Livingstone with a proper ovation.

The job to conclude the evening is given to Allan MacDonald; it doesn’t seem like an easy task after all that we have seen and heard until that moment!

But the last of the pipers has not gone up on stage ! Allan starts playing “Willie Gray’s Farewell to Glasgow Police” and “Cameron Quickstep” and continues with some his own untitled waltzes and reels that become faster and more intricate.

A “beginner” sitting next to me with his eyes incredulous and wide open, points to Allan who was playing and asks me “ How many fingers does he have..18 ?”

This question, clearly rhetoric, however perfectly expresses the sense of what is going on onstage.

Applause brings the house down for Allan. But things aren’t over yet, after having pleasured us also  with his version for GHB of the aria “libiamo nei lieti calici” from Verdi’s “La Traviata”, Allan gives us again a piece composed by himself “The Lament for Gael” that he declares to have composed to underline the pain that he feels in seeing the slow disappearance and death of his great culture, the “Gaelic” culture. 

Notes and sounds never heard before, vibrations that come straight from the heart.

It’s the end  …. when the sounds evaporate in the night, the audience happily applauds but we pipers are left with an incredible sense of emptiness.

I go back to my hotel with the clear understanding that I have taken part in an event that will not repeat itself.

It is already very late but it doesn’t seem to matter to most ! Only a few in fact actually go back to their rooms.

Most of the people present close themselves in the same hall as the night before and not to be outdone, among a reel and a strathspey, a bottle of Chianti and a grappa,  continue until about 4:30 in the morning!

I must admit that waking up Sunday morning was really difficult !

At 9:00 a.m. we are ready for breakfast and after a few coffees we are again “on the road”.

Everyone in the hall to listen to P/M Livingstone  who introduces his latest “a Piobaireachd Diary” also talking about himself, his childhood, his teachers and his experiences.

We also have time to listen carefully to some of his pieces taken from his  4 CDs.

Bill closes his live intervention with his bagpipes anticipating part of a pibroch that will be included in one of his next CD’s the famous “War or Peace” following the setting of MacLeod of Gesto.

We are all very attentive to this exhibition and to the music that this great “maestro” offers but we feel a certain excitement in the air……

We are getting closer to the time for the  massed band !

It is about 12 and there are about 50 of us! The Bagpipes aren’t perfectly tuned but time is getting short and the people of Cannara are waiting for us in the square and in the streets of the town.

Alberto shouts and tries to convince us to wait a few more minutes to try to get our instruments ready but he is stampeded by mutineers who, at this point, don’t want anything else but to vent their desire to play, desire that until that moment had been repressed.

It is an indescribable spectacle: 50 pipers in massed band on the crowded streets of a town with medieval  architecture.

Surely the sound wasn’t the most limpid but we had one heck of a great time.

The people had made friends with us all and  Bill and Allan were the victims of many glasses of “prosecco” (white sparkling wine) offered by total strangers.

At 12,30 everyone in the great hall of  Cannara’s municipal building where the Mayor thanked us for our presence and offered us a final “toast” ( yet another glass of fresh, fizzy white wine).

The gathering was coming to an end.

There was only one difficult and extreme test: the goodbye lunch.

And on this subject it is better to lay a shroud of silence.

A bit of relaxation, not for me of course, because I had to take care of the final payments for the hostel, more chatting and some people were already saying goodbye and leaving.

 When the time came to say goodbye to Allan, Bill and Lillian I think I saw a few teary eyes, but not because of the wine!

The phrase that I heard the most and that I still hear in my head and in my heart was….

 “It was magnificent …. next year all together here again for the BIG Gathering 4” !