GENIUS is a much overused term these days, but it's not overstating the case to say that, in his fearlessly innovative approach to playing the bagpipes and in his ability to compose memorable music, Gordon Duncan was a genius.
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An unassuming country lad at heart, he was sometimes illat-ease in the company of the people with whom music brought him into contact, artists including classical percussionist Evelyn Glennie whose reputations went before them. Once it got down to playing music, however, Duncan was the equal of anyone.
His lasting legacy lies in a series of brilliant recordings and a catalogue of more than 100 compositions, which have been recorded by folk groups, pipe bands, fiddle orchestras and Scottish country dance bands.
Yet for those who heard him play and the many pipers all over the world whom he influenced and inspired, he will be remembered perhaps above all for his unbelievably exhilarating piping which defied musical boundaries and treated any perceived limitations the instrument might once have had with a kind of gleeful contempt.
Duncan was born into a Pitlochry family steeped in Scotland's musical traditions. His father, Jock, is one of the great ballad singers and his older brother, Ian, also a leading figure on the piping scene, has masterminded the musical progression and competition successes of three of Scotland's leading pipe bands, The Vale of Atholl, Scottish Power and the Drambuie Kirkliston PB, in all of which Gordon served, too.
It was Ian who started Gordon on the chanter at the age of 10. This was love at first blow. Before he set off for school every morning, Gordon would practice, developing his finger strength and the fingering skill that would later have fellow pipers scratching their heads in bewilderment.
In his teens he competed in junior piping competitions, bringing home shelf-fuls of trophies. But when he turned 18, competing lost much of its attraction. By this time he was serving his apprenticeship as a joiner and beginning to attract the attention of folk bands including the Tannahill Weavers, with whom he toured the US for the first time.
He also began a lasting association with singer-songwriter Dougie Maclean, playing pipes and lovely lowwhistle on many of Maclean's albums and concerts, and played with groups including Wolfstone and Ceolbeg.
Travelling across Europe exposed him to other traditions and he became fascinated with Breton music, developing a taste for musical adventure that would help to win him the coveted Macallan solo piping trophy in Lorient, Brittany, twice in consecutive years. Breton pipers returned the fascination manifold. So revered is Gordon in these parts that young pipers there have learned the tunes on his three CDs grace note for grace note, and in Galicia and Asturias, as well as Brittany, Ian Duncan is known and introduced as Gordon Duncan's brother.
As Ian Green, of Greentrax Recordings who issued Duncan's CDs, recalls, Duncan was a perfectionist. This was true in everything he did, be it cooking, gardening, joinery work, turning out in ceremonial dress with the Duke of Atholl's private army, the Atholl Highlanders, or latterly, in his day job with the refuse department, keeping Pitlochry tidy. No matter how well he had played, he would often respond to compliments by self-effacingly shaking his head and saying, "Aye but if it's no' a' right for me, it's no' good enough."
At the same time, criticism - although he couldn't have heard much of this - stung. After one particular competition, the chief judge, the staunch upholder of army piping values, Seumas McNeil opined along the lines that, if what Duncan played was indicative of where piping was headed, then he was going to take up the fiddle. Duncan was devastated but retaliated by dedicating his 1994 release, One for Seumas, to his detractor, the quality of piping on the CD putting any negative comments into stark perspective.
Duncan was nothing if not a character. Over the years, as his catalogue of tunes built up - the popular Andy Renwick's Ferret has been recorded more than 100 times - so too did the fund of Gordon Duncan stories, some of them possibly apocryphal. There was the one that depicted him playing the pipes while riding, standing up on the pillion seat of a motorbike that woke up Lorient just before breakfast one morning. Another has a slightly wobbly Gordon, always a stickler for properly tuned pipes, appearing behind a busker in Princes Street and fine-tuning the busker's drones as he played on.
One tale I can vouch for happened at the Piping Centre in Glasgow, not long after it opened, when Gordon and Jock played a concert together. Sweating profusely after playing yet another virtuosic set of tunes, Gordon looked around for a towel and found none. So being either practical or mischievous, or possibly both, he wiped his face on the centre's new stage curtains.
The musical memories are the best ones, though. There was the concert during Edinburgh International Festival's Piping Series in 1999 when Gordon unleashed his bagpipe arrangement of AC/DC's heavy rock anthem Thunderstruck. Seldom has a tune been more appropriately named for the audience reaction it caused, as Gordon produced what sounded for all the world like feedback and guitar hero hammering-on effects.
He created a similar sensation at Celtic Connections 2003's piping concert when, accompanied by his son, Gordon Jr on djembe drum and bouzouki player Neil Ferguson, he took the Scottish bagpipes through a repertoire spanning blistering reels and outrageous improvisations to the brilliantly exotic conclusion, The Belly Dancer, Moroccan quarter tones and glissandos flying in an astonishing display of chanter sorcery.
Ian Green, who proudly displays the framed sheet music to Duncan's dedication to a mentor and friend, Ian Green of Greentrax, on his office wall, rightly describes Duncan's premature death as a grievous loss to Scottish music, as well as his family, and there are many around the world who will echo his feelings. As fellow piper - and someone not given to bandying words lightly - Hamish Moore proclaimed in his liner note for One For Seumas, the man was precious and a national treasure. We're unlikely to see his like again.
Gordon Duncan, musician and composer; born May 14, 1964, died December 14, 2005.