Which version of a tune is the "right" version?
This topic sort of came up in another thread, in a discussion of differing versions of The Atholl Highlanders.
It has personal meaning and application to me, as I’ve spent over 30 years with one foot in the Highland piping scene and one foot in the ITM session scene.
I’ll state what I gather to be the attitude of what constitutes the "right" version of a tune in each genre:
-In the ITM session world the "right" version of a tune is the session version. This is a living thing and can vary from session to session and even within the same session can evolve over time. The way a tune might appear written in a book somewhere, or the way a tune might appear on an album somewhere, is irrelevant. This is the very core of the music being "traditional".
The intersect between the world of written music and ITM is random, irrelevant, and suspect, as few ITM players learn music from the page and even when they do they change the tune so learned to match the way it’s played at session. The written version is in no way an authority. Most written collections have been notated by people who don’t understand the music anyway.
-In the GHB (Great Highland Bagpipe) world the publishing of tunes has been going on for centuries, and tune-collections written by the top performers themselves has been the norm.
The tunes appearing in these printed collections are of two types:
1) traditional tunes, In this case the printed collection only puts forward the version which is played by a leading player, which is no more "correct" than the version played by any other good player.
It’s these tunes which vary so much in the GHB world.
Where you mostly hear this traditional repertoire is in the Strathspey and the Reel of the MSRs (March, Strathspey, and Reel) played in solo and Pipe Band competition.
Every player, every band, will play these tunes a bit differently but there usually is a version which is the most commonly heard.
Many of these tunes appear in mid-19th-century collections as two-part tunes, expand to four-part tunes by around 1900, and today might be played as six-part or even eight-part tunes. (In competiton tunes are usually only played once through, so an MSR is one march once through, one strathspey once through, one reel once through. So the only way to present the music in a larger format is for the tunes themselves to get longer. )
2) newly composed tunes. It’s very common for leading peformers, in the 19th century, 20th, and today, to publish collections of their own compositions.
GS MacLennan at the start of the 20th century, and Donald MacLeod in the mid-20th century, were staggeringly prolific composers and hundreds of their tunes are still widely played today. Since they published their compositions within their own lifetimes, their own published versions of their tunes are rightly considered the "correct" versions.
People outwith the GHB world may not realise the quantity of newly-composed tunes. In the "Medley" or "Selection" portion of the Pipe Band competition, some bands play an entirely new medley, made up of new tunes composed expressly for it, each competition season (each year).
These tunes are composed, played for a year, then tossed.
The idea is for the judges to be hit with new music each season.
These tunes are often published by the composers and several new books of these tunes come out every year.
There are many thousands of these tunes.
Now the "problem" arises when a GHB tune, from a known composer, and published by the composer, is taken into the ITM session world.
It then is unhinged from its written origin and becomes a living thing and immediately begins the process of mutation through being poorly learnt, poorly heard, or simply changed due to whim.
An example is the tune The Clumsy Lover. It was written by the Canadian piper and Pipe Major (pipe band leader) Neil Dickie around 1980.
He published it in his own Neil Dickie Collection.
His pipe band (Edmonton) peformed the tune in competition when the tune was brand new. I heard Edmonton play the tune its debut season.
So, there should be little mystery as to how The Clumsy Lover should be played.
But only a couple years later I began hearing a horribly mutated version being played at ITM sessions. Half of the parts were left out, the remaining parts were scrambled around in a different order, the parts themselves were a mess with fragments of one part appearing in a different part etc etc etc. How could a tune get so scrambled up in a couple years?
When I heard this at a session (this was in the early 80’s) I said "this tune was just written a couple years ago by Neil Dickie in Edmonton. I heard his band play it. I have his sheetmusic for it. It goes like THIS" and I played the "real" tune.
This, as you might expect, had zero impact on the session people, who of course considered the session version the "right" version.
What complicates matters in this instance is that the original tune The Clumsy Lover had a ton of parts, eight as I recall (I haven’t played the tune in ages), but shortly after it was composed and performed by Edmonton, a shortened arrangement (four part or six part, I don’t remember) was recordeded by a leading band at the time, the 78th Fraser Highlanders, the first pipe band outwith Scotland to win the World Pipe Band Championship.
It was this version, and not the original Neil Dickie published/Edmonton Pipe Band version, which ended up being learnt by a lot of GHB players. The tune became so overplayed in the GHB world that after a few years nobody wanted to hear it.
So, the tune mutated in the GHB world also. However the 78th Fraser version actually flowed better, made more musical sense perhaps, than the overly long original, which is why it became sort of the standard in the GHB world.
The ITM session version just sounded like a mess to anybody familiar with either GHB version.