How bagpipes' AC/DC connection inspired new play
David Colvin remembers the time when, as a teenager, he first heard Gordon Duncan playing the pipes.
“I’d been playing the pipes since I was twelve,” says the Fife-born actor who appeared in the National Theatre of Scotland’s acclaimed production of Black Watch. “I’d been trained in the pipe band tradition and I still absolutely value that upbringing, but when I heard Gordon Duncan I just thought, what is he doing? And I didn’t mean that in a bad way. I just couldn’t work out how he was getting an effect that I eventually had to slow down the recording to decipher.”
The moment stayed with Colvin. At the age of nineteen he went into acting. He’s worked with Communicado, among other companies as well as the National Theatre of Scotland, and at various points he shared the story that he kept in his head about the greatest piper who ever lived, hoping that someone would take up the idea and turn it into a play.
Then, two years ago, he and a fellow actor were having a drink in the Globe Theatre bar in London. When his colleague found out that Colvin played the pipes he produced his mobile phone and showed him a YouTube clip of a bagpiper playing Thunderstruck by AC/DC with flames coming out of the top of the drones.
“As wonderful as the plumbing on the clip was, this chap wasn’t playing Thunderstruck anywhere near the way Gordon Duncan, whom he was trying to copy, had originally arranged it,” says Colvin. “So with the bravery of a few beers I proceeded to school this other actor, John, in the guy who first decided that the bagpipes could be turned into a heavy metal guitar, and John said, you should write that story.”
Colvin took up the challenge and this weekend at Piping Live! in Glasgow his play, Thunderstruck receives its third performance, having been previewed at the Outwith Festival in Dunfermline last September and then given a run-through for Edinburgh Fringe companies in London. The Fringe booking he was hoping for didn’t come off but Piping Live’s representative’s response to the London performance has in fact brought the play to very venue, the Piping Centre, where its story takes place.
“It’s not biographical because I didn’t know Gordon Duncan personally and I wouldn’t presume to play him or to try and fill his shoes as a musician because I’m not that piper,” he says. “What I really wanted to do was show people the impact he had on my generation and on Scottish music in general because young pipers coming up today might think that people have always played that way – I didn’t, I couldn’t – and when you listen to the music he composed, it’s just so musical. I hear a lot of modern bagpipe music and it’s incredibly technical and its own way very impressive but it’s not necessarily musical, whereas no matter how complicated Gordon’s compositions get they’re still, at heart, wonderful tunes.”
Gordon Duncan died in 2005 in tragic circumstances and while the play has a lot of humour – the Gordon Duncan tales are legion – it tells his story sensitively and respectfully. It contains much bagpiping lore, since in order to show how Duncan broke all the rules, Colvin felt he needed to show people what the rules were in the first place.
“I didn’t want to create something that would only interest pipers because the piping world knows all about Gordon Duncan,” says Colvin. “I wanted to create something that everyone could take something from. It’s a homage to someone who is obviously a hero to me and to a lot of people but his genius goes beyond the bagpipes and goes beyond Scotland. He’s someone who should be celebrated globally.”
Thunderstruck is at the Piping Centre, Glasgow on Sunday, August 19. Piping Live! runs until Sunday 19th; for further information, log onto pipinglive.co.uk
Canada's SymphRONica prepare to land at Pianodrome
Canadian pianist Ron Davis will be one of the first musicians to appear in what is being described as the world’s first playable amphitheatre when his band SymphRONica returns to the Edinburgh Fringe in August ahead of a new album release this autumn.
The Pianodrome, which is made from more than sixty disused pianos, has been constructed on the Pyrus Lawn in the Scottish capital’s Royal Botanic Gardens especially for the world’s largest arts festival, and Davis is excited to be playing there during a run of twelve concerts in Edinburgh.
“The Fringe is crazy, with so many shows all vying for the audience’s attention, but at the same time, there’s an energy about Edinburgh in August that makes you want to be part of this mad, fantastic festival,” says Davis, who has the distinction of having studied piano with a teacher who was taught by both Oscar Peterson and George Gershwin’s brother-in-law, David Saperton. “Just being around so much talent and creativity at the Fringe can inspire you to try and take your music onto a new level but this new venue, where we’re playing a lunchtime concert as a trio on August 15 as a kind of taster to what we’re doing in Edinburgh generally, just makes the whole trip all the more intriguing.”
Toronto-based Davis formed SymphRONica in 2003, initially using diverse line-ups including jazz trio and full symphony orchestra. Then, following a series of symphony orchestra concerts, he decided to create a band that would allow him to blend the classical music he trained in with the jazz that was, and is, his passion without requiring a massive budget.
“I chose an octet comprising a string quartet with an electro-acoustic jazz quartet – piano, guitar, bass and drums – because I wanted to give all the players an input, and this configuration allows that,” he says. “I also liked the idea that, as an octet, we could include different styles of music and switch from a jazz standard or something based on I Got Rhythm to a folk tune more naturally than with an orchestra and yet still have a certain richness of sound.”
For their Scottish dates, which include concerts in North Berwick and Glasgow as well as Edinburgh, SymphRONica will be joined by Seonaid Aitken, the singer and BBC Radio Scotland jazz presenter who plays violin with the hot club styled Rose Room, winners of the Best Band title at this year’s Scottish Jazz Awards. The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s drummer, Alyn Cosker, who has worked with SymphRONica on the band’s two previous Edinburgh Fringe visits, will also be in the line-up.
“Generally we travel with a core of Kevin Barrett, who is one of Canada’s finest guitarists, violinist Aline Homzy and myself and pick up musicians locally,” says Davis, who releases SymphRONica’s new album, UpfRONt, in October. “We’ve always been lucky to get players with the vision to make the music happen but Alyn Cosker went beyond that. When we played the first number in rehearsal, Kevin and I looked at each other and mouthed ‘Wow.’ We didn’t have to tell Alyn what we wanted because he just made it his own. We’re looking forward to working with Seonaid, too, because as well as playing mostly viola in the string quartet, she’ll also sing, which gives us another dimension.”
Ron Davis’ SymphRONica plays the Jazz Bar, Edinburgh on Thursday 2 August; Stockbridge Church, Edinburgh (3- 4 and 17 August); Marwick Spiegeltent, North Berwick (7 August); Scottish Arts Club, Edinburgh 8, 10, 16, 18 August); Leith Depot, Edinburgh (13, 14, 15 August); Pianodrome, Edinburgh (15 August - lunchtime); and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow (19 August).
From Jazz in Europe, July 2018
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