Interview: Behind the scenes at Piping Live!

  • The List
  • 25 August 2013
Piping Live interview

Programmer and piper Finlay MacDonald on the origins of Glasgow's annual celebration of bagpipe music

Every August the sounds of bagpipes can be heard up and down the streets of Glasgow. Piping Live! hosts a series on indoor and outdoor concerts as a celebration of pipe music from across the globe (including Canada, America, New Zealand, Australia, India and Europe) that leads up to the annual World Pipe Band Championships. Programmer (and piper) Finlay MacDonald explains more.

What exactly is Piping Live!?
It's a celebration of pipe music. There's a lot of competition in bagpipe music, but our festival isn't about the competition, but instead about celebrating all different kinds of piping – indigenous European piping from Spain, Brittany in France, Eastern Europe, Hungary and Macedonia – and bringing all these different musicians to Glasgow and creating a really nice atmosphere for listening to the music, making friends, socialising and giving you a chance to hear something you might not have heard before.

With things like Piping Live! and the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, I think we're doing our bit in helping people explore this type of music. But even for pipers who have been playing for years, there's a lot of stuff they'll hear here that they've never heard before.

How did the festival first get started?
It's been going for 10 years now. Basically the World Pipe Band Championships, which is the biggest pipe band competition in the world, has been in Glasgow for the last 50 years. Ten years ago at the National Piping Centre, which promotes all different sorts of bagpipe music, we got together and thought we should put on something in the week leading up to the Pipe Band Championships because there are tens of thousands of people coming to Glasgow for the Saturday. So we thought we could put on a festival celebrating piping.

What is your role at the festival?
I'm one of the organisers and programming is my thing. I'm involved with the production side of it – getting the right sound, the right venues and the right artists.

How did you first get involved with Piping Live!?
I teach at the National Piping Centre and I play lots of gigs and travel a lot, so I have a lot of performance experience and understand that side of the festival. So when we first started talking about the festival, I could bring my experience of that side to it, and being at the Piping Centre, I've been involved right from the start.

What were your highlights from this year's festival?
Julie Fowlis, the singer, she's a great piper as well; the Friday Night Folk Session with Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson's big band and a great quartet that's a collaboration between two Scots guys [Angus MacKenzie and Ross Martin] and two Breton guys [Yann-Fanch Kemener and Arnaud Ciapolino] that should be a mix of great Highland and Breton music.

What has been your highlight from the festival over the years?
It's hard to pinpoint one thing, but for me the important thing is the social side – people meeting up informally, playing together, creating new music and new collaborations coming out of the festival. We're very keen on giving new bands a chance to play. That whole essence of the celebratory friendships that are made here are the most important things to me.

How much of your year is taken up planning the festival?
It's hard to quantify. We have a couple of weeks downtime after this, and we still do all the teaching at the Centre, but after a couple of weeks we start looking back, thinking what can we do better next year, making wee changes and improvements. It's not quite as intense for the first couple of months after the festival but it starts to build up again. There's a big infrastructure at Piping Live! – we do a big street café at the Piping Centre, so that's a big marquee with live music, we have music down at St Enoch Square, we've got parades – so there's a lot of planning that needs to happen.

What’s the biggest change from last year's festival?
The biggest change has been that our base in the city centre has always been George Square, but because of the renovations going on at the moment we had to move to the St Enoch Centre at the bottom of Buchanan Street, so that's the biggest physical change, but we can adapt to that. For us the main thing is to keep the essence of the festival and the international aspect the same.

Do you think there are any particular advantages or disadvantages to putting on a festival in Scotland?
For me there are only advantages. Glasgow, in terms of piping and traditional music, is the hub. You've got the Royal Conservatoire which has a degree course in Scottish music, there's a great sessions scene and of course the World Pipe Band Championships at the end of the week, so it just seems like the logical place. And, touch wood, we've been pretty lucky with the weather the last couple of years.

What do you think Piping Live! brings to the local community?
With lots of people coming here, using hotel rooms, buying meals and drinks there's definitely a financial impact. Culturally, it reinforces that idea of Glasgow being a great music city.

Are plans for 2014 already underway?
It's a big year for Glasgow with the Commonwealth Games, so we're already starting to think about potential things we can do with them, and hopefully try and work together on a few events.

Piping Live! Glasgow International Piping Festival

A week-long celebration of piping, including contemporary and traditional, solo and pipe bands. The World Pipe Band Championships take place on the second to last day at Glasgow Green, with free family displays in George Square.

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