Highland Games

Jack Lee warming up with the SFU Pipe Band at the 2005 Bellingham Highland Games


The following is a transcript of a video interview with world class solo bagpiper Jack Lee, pipe sergeant of the multiple World Champion Simon Fraser University pipe band. Jack has won many prestigious honors during his piping career, including: Northern Meeting Gold Medal in 1981; Gold and Senior Piobaireachd at Oban in 2001; the Clasp, Gold Medal, Silver Star (Twice) at Inverness; Senior Piobaireachd, and Gold Medal at Oban the MacCrimmon Memorial Cairn for Piobaireachd at the BC Pipers Annual Gathering (11 Times) and numerous other awards. In 2003, he became the first North American piper to win the Glenfiddich.

In spite of a very busy schedule, Mr. Lee graciously agreed to sit for this interview at the 2004 Pacific Northwest Highland Games.

The Interview[]

Highland Games: To begin with, could you tell us what exactly is piobaireachd (pronounced PEE-b'rukh) and in what way does it fit into the entire range of bagpipe music?

Jack Lee: Piobaireachd is the classical music of the bagpipe. The word "piobaireachd" means "pipe music". It is not the oldest form of bagpipe music. We're not quite sure what that is because the documentation is a little bit sketchy way back in history. But we do know that the MacCrimmon family appeared in Skye around 1570 and between the period from 1570 to 1825, pipers called that the piobaireachd era because piobaireachd was composed, taught, and played to such an extent. Even today, our greatest tunes are still typically from the MacCrimmon era. Pipers in 1570 were so overwhelmed by the magnificence of the music that they just simply named it "pipe music" as if to say that everything else was somewhat second rate to piobaireachd. So today, in the year 2004, pipers around the world still regard piobaireachd as our greatest, most complicated, most challenging and enjoyable form of pipe music.

Highland Games: Do pipers today generally consider piobaireachd to be superior to other forms of pipe music, such as the stirring "war horses" which are the staple of pipe bands?

Jack Lee: I think the jury is out on that. Some pipers regard other forms of music as maybe superior to piobaireachd. But I just contend that the top players, the ones who are most dedicated to piping, do for the most part regard piobaireachd as our greatest form of pipe music. That is not to say that pipe band music, and march, strathspeys, and reels, and all the rest isn't great as well. It's just that piobaireachd really stands on its own.

Highland Games: Classical western music typically conforms to certain musical "rules" and has a defiined structure. Is the same true of piobaireachd and, is so, could you tell us something about this structure?

Jack Lee: Piobaireachd most definitely does have a structure. All piobaireachd have a ground or an "urlar". What that is is a musical theme - the theme of the tune which is played first and that typically would take two to three minutes to play. After the urlar is done, pipers play variations on the urlar. These can range from one to seven or eight variations. But the variations, as you go through the tune, they get slightly more complicated, and trickier in the fingering, but they still retain the general melody of the urlar. After the variations are complete, pipers usually go back and play just a wee bit of the urlar one more time, so the first line of the urlar, just to bring it to a nice conclusion.

Highland Games: How is piobaireachd judged in competition? What are the judges looking for?

Jack Lee: The judging of piobaireachd depends upon the level of play. For younger players, there are a lot of technical requirements to play piobaireachd - the blowing of the pipes steadily, keeping the bagpipe nicely in tune. The actual technique is complicated. So the judges are largely listening for that type of stuff to make sure that it is well played. But as the pipers get better, the judge is looking for more musicality, more of your own personal expression in the piobaireachd playing. The top players are all masters of the bagpipe in that they can produce an excellent tone and to master the fingering. But the trick at the higher levels is to put the expression of the music into it.

Highland Games: By comparison to some of the warhorses of the bagpipe, piobaireachd seems almost meditative or contemplative, perhaps even spiritual. Is this effect deliberate/ Is it an inherent feature of the form?

Jack Lee: I would say that piobaireachd is meditative. The more you get into piobaireachd, the more you realize that when you play it, or listen to it well-played, it takes you to another place, into the soul of the music, much more so than the faster, trickier, light music. Piobaireachd is - I do not describe it as a spiritual experience - I try to describe is as just a musical experience. It takes me to a place where I am able to just express and feel the tune as I'm playing it.

Highland Games: I have read that piobaireachd is fundamentally associated with the Gaelic language. Could you tell us something about that connection, how it came about, what consequences it has for the art form . . . ?

Jack Lee: This is not an area that I'm an expert on. Not that I'm an expert in any area, but I'm certainly not an expert on this. It's being studied actively at the Piping Center in Scotland. The early connection between Gaelic music and piobaireachd. There was a connection in that piobaireachd originated in the north of Scotland on the Isle of Skye where the Gaelic was the primary language. You can trace many of these tunes to Gaelic songs. I couldn't tell you what those songs are because I don't speak the Gaelic. I just know that people are actively looking at that and trying to put that piece of the puzzle together.

Highland Games: Is piobaireachd still composed today? Is it an evolving art form? How active is its development and extension? Is it a fixed form or is there an evelutionary development going on today?

Jack Lee: I believe that piobaireachd is a completed form in that pipers today are really dabbling with the piobaireachd. What we are trying to do is play them well. Find old tunes that haven't been played much before, publish them, play them. And we're even composing piobaireachd. There have been quite a number of piobaireachd composed in that last 50 years. Pipe Major Donald McLeod, and Captain McClellan, for example, are two famous pipers from Scotland who did a super job of writing some tremendously good piobaireachd. So the piobaireachd is very much alive and well in that we are actively playing it, composing it, studying it, but we are not really tinkering with the core structuer of piobaireachd much.

Highland Games: Is piobaireachd a specialists' art? That is, do some pipers specialize in piobaireachd while others specialize in pipe band or other group playing?

Jack Lee: Piobaireachd is quite specialized. Only a small - I would say a minority of pipers in the world are piobaireachd players. There are more pipers that are pipe band players. I believe its very possible to do both well. The bagpipe is such a great instrument to play. It is a comittment. Piobaireachd is a lifetime study. And for a lot of pipers, its just too much. it takes a great deal of time to learn it well. But for many its just a challenge and an opportunity. That's how I view it. I like to do both, but I especially love to play piobaireachd.

The above interview is copyright © 2004 by James F. Perry and is hereby released under the terms of the Gnu Free Documentation License. Please note, however, that while the GFDL concerns the copyrights to the above material, the subject of this interview may enjoy, and in fact should be presumed to enjoy, certain rights to privacy and publicity associated with his name and image and that these rights are rooted in public law. Users of this material bear the sole responsibility of determining whether or not such privacy/publicity rights are implicated and of conforming to whatever public policy regulations exist regarding same.