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Western Academy of Pipe Music

James Watt, Founder of WAPM

Pipe Major James Watt, CD

As a boy, Pipe Major James Watt studied under John Gillies, Scots Guards and Seaforth Highlanders.  PM Watt was appointed Pipe Major HQ/ 1st Canadian Army, NW Europe in 1945 and consequently was the senior ranking pipe major (WO1) of the British Commonwealth.  He received instruction from Pipe Major William Ross at Edinburgh Castle.  In 1950-1951 he was the first Pacific International Champion and went on to found the Western Academy of Pipe Music in 1978.  He was an internationally known composer, with melodies on London Recordings.  James Watt was well loved by family, friends and pupils, and will be remembered through his legacy, the Western Academy of Pipe Music, with great fondness.  He was a man who shared his knowledge and love of pipe music with a sense of pride and a generous dose of humour.


History - James Watt started the Academy as a non-profit society in 1978 to foster pipes, drums and highland dance.  The summer school was originally held on the lower mainland and moved to Silver Star several years later.  A high standard of instruction was the rule, and an atmosphere of fun and cooperation was combined with a strong work ethic.  Students of all levels have always been encouraged to attend.  The success of the Academy can be seen by its longevity, and by the number of students who attend year after year.  James Watt began the Academy as a labour of love, and in his latter years expressed his wish that it be continued by James Barrie.  What began as a small school, which offered only bagpipe tuition, was expanded to include drumming in subsequent years. From its humble beginnings WAPM has become British Columbia's longest running pipe music school.


The following is reprinted with kind permission of Ron MacLeod. Vancouver, Canada.


To say that Pipe Major James Watt was well known from California to Alaska as well as overseas is an understatement. Jimmy, as he was known in the piping fraternity, had been there, done that, as a soldier, aviator, fisherman, piper, competitor, adjudicator and teacher.
Not only was he well known, he was highly respected as a consummate musician.
James took up the pipe in 1930 and continued to play until his last days. In the interval, many are the tunes he played and many are those he composed. His principle teacher was the late, great John Gillies, Scots Guards and later the Seaforth Highlanders, Canada. While overseas during World War II, he was fortunate enough to attend Edinburgh Castle under Pipe Major William Ross and to meet that master of piobaireachd, John MacDonald, Inverness. He never forgot John MacDonalds admonition, make a song of it, whatever you do.
For a time in the 1930s he followed the sea in the footsteps of his father. He left the coastal ships to work as a pipe fitters helper at Brittannia Beach so that he could get in a blow or two with the local Pipe Band under Angus Macaulay. He was called up by the Seaforths in 1939 he had served previously in the Seaforth Reserve Pipe Band along with Ed Esson, Danny Murray, Billy Armstrong and John Gibson among others. When the Seaforths went overseas that fall, Jim was left behind in what he referred to as The Diaper Platoon. Following many peregrinations that included a stint with the Irish Fusiliers Vancouver Regiment where he created the regiments Pipe Band, Jimmy eventually wound up in Europe. At that time, he was the Senior Pipe Major in the British Commonwealth.
Winner of many trophies for his piping, he took particular pride in winning the MacCrimmon Memorial Cairn and MacCrimmon Memorial Medal in 1941, 1948 and 1950.
He had a varied career after WW II. For a time he had a radio program that featured Gaelic music and song and frequent guest artists who would talk about piping and give a blow on the pipe. Later, he operated a commercial salmon troll vessel. This particular experience was to influence a number of his musical compositions in later years.
James Watt had the soul of a poet, a quality that found expression in both his music and his poetry. His three piobaireachd compositions, Dunvegans Galley, Cronan Boreraig and Dawning of Day are tone poems that capture the essence of a particular experience. His 50 or so other compositions were, for the most part, lyrical in quality - his well-known Gentle Days of Summer and Sailing Before the Wind exemplify his style. He composed his first tune of substance in 1939; he called it The Royal Welcome to Vancouver. It celebrated the arrival from Victoria of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the CNR vessel, the Prince Robert.
James had strong views on music. He believed that it is critical to have knowledge of the inspiration of the composer if one is to bring out the best in the music. Many of his own compositions were inspired by personal experience and others by inferred experience he had the ability to let his imagination revisit and capture an historic event or scene.
For example, he was visiting UBCs Nitobe Garden early one morning and was sitting alone, transfixed by the garden scene before him. A family with children arrived and the children began to play on a small bridge. The scene and the innocent play of the children inspired him to compose a tune then and there. He immediately wrote down the delightful tune, Nitobe Garden fully formed and complete, on the only paper he had -- the back of a cigarette package.
His piobaireachd, Dawning of Day, came from his experience as a commercial fisherman on the westcoast of Vancouver Island. For one who has been there, it is easy to empathize with James Watts inspiration. Imagine yourself 20 miles offshore in the time immediately before dawn. You are anchored on the Big Bank off Bamfield. The boat is gently rolling in a kindly swell and for once the air is clear, completely absent of fog. The distant mountains are black against the sky. But, as you haul up your anchor, the faintest hint of brightness appears behind the mountain peaks, and slowly, gradually, the brightness grows, light appears and finally, the golden rays of the sun burst forth in all their glory. The day has dawned -- once more, the day has dawned.
Cronan Boreraig, on the other hand, arose out of his mental image of an ancient scene: a MacCrimmon mother crooning a lullaby to a child cradled in her arms as she sat before a peat fire. His other piobaireachd, Dunvegans Galley speaks for itself. It is not hard to image a crew of hardy clansmen rowing their Chief, MacLeod of MacLeod, across a stretch of open water, singing a Gaelic air to mark time for the stroke of the oars.
His views on ceol mor, or piobaireachd as it is commonly referred to, are well known. He was a traditionalist because he believed that was the best way to bring out the music. Comments he made in 1957 about ceol mor give testimony to his view of the music:
Ceol mor possesses a flow of repetitious, but harmonic sound that soothes the senses in a most unusual [poetic] way. All this through, and because of, the simplicity of the thematic and tonic fabric of each developed melody. The flow is the key to playing and it is the true artists ability to use this correctly that invariably emerges. Cadences [weeping notes] and double echoes [bell notes] must always be built into the melody in which they are used. In this sense they are not embellishments as such.
Without the ability to bring forth harmonics [tone, tuning and control of pressure through the reeds] and inspired flow the player is not in fact performing the unique art of piobaireachd.
To put another slant on the matter, he believed that flow is crucial, otherwise a player is just playing the notes. Canntaireachd is how a player develops the emotional connection with the music, because vocables are the easiest way to produce the desired flow of sound. If the origin of the music is internal, that is, the player sings the tune, and the music flows from phrase to phrase, the music, he said, is like jewels floating on the air and you will hear pipes at their best.
James Watt took much from piping and gave much back. He was a respected adjudicator and a thoughtful teacher. He was particularly adept at introducing beginners to the music. He said that young players should not choose difficult, elaborate tunes to conquer early in their development. Learn with simple tunes, he said, like the 79ths Farewell to Gibraltar, for example. Learn to bring out the delightful music locked in those cold notes printed on a piece of paper. Once able to do that, the door to the world of elaborate and complex music is yours to open.
Lament for the Children was high on his personal list of ceol mor because of the remarkable mood it creates and sustains through the continuous flow of music. Another favorite was Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon. The Bells of Perth for its profound musicality within a complex structure was also high on his list of favorites. The beautiful Lament for Mary MacLeod was a tune that captured and vividly stimulated his imagination. I recall one night enroute to a Piobaireachd Club meeting I played a tape on which Hugh MacCallum was playing Mary MacLeod. Jim sat beside me listening intently. Every once in a while he would drop a remark, Yes Hugh, and, -- You have it right Hugh, and, --- Thats as it should be, and so forth. When the playing was over it was as if he were coming out of a trance, so deeply engrossed had he been. He was obviously as one with Hugh MacCallum on the interpretation of Mary MacLeod. The lyrical Corrienessans Salute, based on a tune composed by Ruairidh Morrison, the Blind Harper, friend of Iain Dall MacKay, was another favorite. It seemed to me that when James Watt listened to or played this tune, in his imagination he was participating in the event the tune celebrates a great deer hunt that took place in the Corrie about 1693.
He founded the Western Academy of Pipe Music and for 22 years presented a summer school in the Okanagan. A feature of the Academy was the annual award of the Seaforth Trophy to the winner of an Open Amateur competition [march, strathspey and reel of choice]. This trophy, dating back to 1912, was presented by the Seaforth Highlanders for perpetual use by the Western Academy of Pipe Music. James enjoyed each of those summer sessions enormously. It was only a month ago that he made a decision to close the Academy.
Until the very end, the music kept going round and round as the old song has it.

James Barrie

James Barrie has been associated with the Western Academy of Pipe Music since 1981.

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