Letter to Gordon:
A Decade Without You
Dear Mr. Duncan,
We’ve never met, but I feel like I know you the way kids in the 1960s who dreamt of outer space felt they knew John Glenn. I’d guess that countless other pipers and piping fans feel the same. I had the chance to hear your Piping Centre recital at Piping Live in Glasgow in 2003 but I succumbed to jet lag and took a nap instead – a decision which turned out to be the biggest musical regret of my life.
Now a decade has passed since you left the world and pipers play your music more than ever. Watching a documentary about your life, I was struck by the words of Alan MacDonald, another piper/composer/hero of mine who said of you, “He extended the boundaries of traditional music. He knew that this was the only way forward. There are only nine notes on the chanter but he was capable of composing a tune…and valued the importance of tunes.”
There have been many moments in my piping career where I have felt afraid. There’s only nine notes. What do I have to offer by playing this music? What if I make a mistake? Am I in tune? What if the tune I am writing has already been written? What if this tradition is not compelling, and should fail to grow with time?
Time and time again, the sound of your music and your spirit makes those fears disappear. If I had to pick one word to describe Gordon Duncan the man and the musician?
I’ve heard your tunes played by a top Grade 1 band at the Worlds on Glasgow Green. I’ve played them with a gang of fiddlers, guitarists, and percussionists at the Ben Nevis Pub. I’ve watched YouTube videos of Breton teenagers playing your music like it is second nature to them. Even the BadPiper, the “punk-rock” piper who rode to fame on the back of your musical legacy, knows in his heart that you managed to banish fear from our music and allowed us to continue the tradition with vigor and wild abandon.
Every time your tunes are played, the edge that distinguishes Scottish music gets sharper. The fire burning in the souls of Celtic musicians the world over gets hotter. The chains of stagnation and staleness which threaten to bind our music are broken.
Thank you Gordon. You will never be forgotten as long as wind fills a bag and causes reeds to vibrate somewhere. My musical world owes you a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid.