Review for “An Ift of Efts”:

Much like the revered Antipodes Collection and Philharmonic by Messers Mark Saul and Murray Blair respectively, An Ift of Efts, a new set of compositions by Timothy Cummings, stretches the boundaries of bagpipe music as we know it.

I can remember the first time I cracked the spine of those two iconic collections as a youngster playing in the Juvenile band. My eyes widened as I saw unfold a copious amount of strange time signatures mixed in with very well known melodies made famous by the Victoria Police Pipe Band. Great melodies were heard for the pipe band idiom, 7/16 time was played with a lot whereas suites such as the Hellbound Train and the Steam Train to Mallaig captivated audiences and opened piping up to new spheres of public performance.

Recently with the advent of looking at old tunes in new lights, a shining example being Mrs MacLeod of Raasay played straight-line and in different keys by Simon Fraser University Pipe Band (and many others), I have found myself looking back into the old light music books such as the Donald MacLeod and William Gunn collections for some old melodies to spice up. This book now, for me at least, represents the return of looking at a brand new book of compositions and feeling that they are not the same fare served over and over in a differing manner, such has unfortunately been the case with a bevy of publications of late. This realisation that we may have something exciting here is shared by Murray Blair himself, who pens the Foreword to this new collection.

Timothy Cummings is a well travelled New World piper and as such has a very wide cultural angle at which to approach bagpiping. Having studied at the RSAMD there is little doubt that his piping and musicianship are of an excellent standard. Add to that the fact that he has on numerous occasions played with the Manawatu Scottish Pipe Band in the competition circle and you can start to get a little excited about what this book contains. It is at this point that I should explain my own bias. I myself currently ply my trade with Manawatu Scottish Pipe Band; however Timothy and I have never crossed paths. I have, however, had the good fortune to sample some of his music via P/M Stewart McKenzie and indeed some of the bands repertoire is included here.

It is to Tim’s credit that chord symbols and key signatures have been included with every piece for the benefit of chordal accompaniment -- he recommends experimenting with piano, guitar, double bass etc. The only drawback being that these chords will need further transposition if you intend to play in B-flat like we pipers mostly do. The chords will only suffice as written if the bagpipe piece is played as written i.e. low A = A 440Hz. As it stands these pieces will sit well with the resurgence in the uptake of Lowland and Borders piping - the revival aptly described by Gillian Chalmers in these pages in issue 40. This is still a considerable and fantastic effort though and if he had provided us with chords for both A and B flat the score may have looked confused and cluttered, not to mention giving Tim a significant amount of extra work above and beyond the call!

From the demo recordings I have been supplied for this review it is evident that some of these tunes aren’t for faint fingers and Timothy certainly pulls out some stops with excellent playing; the recordings demonstrating an fantastic flair for arrangement.

The tunes within the book are arranged into their genres and range from marches, strathspeys and reels to an abundance of beautiful airs (Slower Fare as titled by the composer) and jigs. Along the way there is room for a few polkas, hornpipes and some waltzes.

If that weren’t interesting enough there are two Rounds which I always find fascinating, with both voices playing the same melodic line, albeit at different timings, meaning that the two voices link together seamlessly while not in unison. I feel that the name Round explains this concept completely as both parts of the same melody can go round and round interlinking ad nauseum! The result is always interesting and I feel these pieces help us to greater understand the space where music theory and great melody meet.

Of all of the Slower Fare on show, All You Shining Stars sticks out as an achingly-beautiful version of a melody taught to the composer by Agus Supriawan on the Indonesian suling bamboo flute at the School of Music at Victoria University, Wellington. This further emphasises Tim’s cultural diversity in music. There are numerous stories like this to accompany the pieces and it would be a spoiler to go into too many of these in depth.

Other notable mentions in the Slower Fare area are The Angels Share and Breton Air.

The hornpipes featured, The Calling and The Road to Lipetsk, are also part of the Manawatu repertoire and have both featured as openers in the final at the World Pipe Band Championships. Both penned by P/M Stewart McKenzie, they add an interest for pipe band aficionados.

I for one can hear the pipe band idiom loud and clear here and it is very obvious these tunes have so many hooks for the overall listener and the snare drummer alike. It is almost impossible for me to listen to these tunes without hearing pipe band snare drum accompaniment.

Out of the jigs on display, Hit the Skunk with the Sewing Machine is one of my favourite pieces from the book as well as having a fantastic title! The worded accompaniment to this sounds very much like a Gaelic chant or waulking song, however the lyric is tied in with the title of the tune to hilarious effect.

The reels are many, and my pick of the bunch has to be Mhorags Fury -- written by James Houston MacMillan.

The book also features two sections called Left Field and Beyond Left Field. The Left Field pieces are not catering for the pipe band masses, however they are there to be enjoyed and played around with. A song (Misirlou) and hoedown (The Warbler) are included here and I encourage any musician to further themselves by having a go.

Out of Beyond Left Field comes the piece Grones, a play on words describing a piece full of groaning drones. This is possibly my favourite piece from this book, in a very strange way. It isn’t the nicest piece you will ever hear melodically but rather displays Tim’s work at its convention breaking best. Described as a Duet for two sets of Highland drones in B flat, here he uses different pitches of drone on and off in a morse-code like composition that has very unusual notation. There are signals for strike-ins of varied different varieties, from full drone to single drones at varied lengths and pitches creating a soundscape like which I have only ever heard a snippet on one recording, track one of John Mulhearn’s The Extraordinary Little Cough. I have no doubt John would approve.

There are over [70] pieces within the covers of this publication with 18 composers from all over the globe contributing pieces here and there. Some of the composers include Dougie MacLean, the late Scott MacAulay and Thomas Zoeller. There are so many gems in this book that it would be impossible to describe them all in detail. All I can do is encourage pipers and indeed other musicians to get involved with this book. The solo piper may find that it stretches the ability as an overall musician as well as being technically stretching whereas the pipe band masses may find an original slow air, jig or reel that will sympathise with the constraints of the pipe band medley. What would be really satisfying would be to see some of Tim’s weightier pieces used in concert style performance and I look forward to the day a band will play some of the more Left Field pieces on the big stage.

~ Greig Canning, “Piping Today”

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