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British march music parades into the Benedum

| Sunday, Jan. 12, 2003

Maj. Denis Burton and Cpl. Martin John MacDonald seem to have different beliefs on why British march music steps lively throughout the United States.

"Americans have a deep fascination with the history of the British military," says Burton, music director of the Band of the Grenadier Guards. "And the ties between the two countries have never been stronger."

His band will be joined by the bagpipe-wailing Scots Highlanders in a concert Downtown on Thursday. MacDonald says the Highlanders' appeal is a bit more transcendental.

"The pipes can be traced back to Egypt and Pakistan," the pipe instructor says. "It seems wherever you go, you get big attention."

And the sound almost doesn't require words.

"It makes the hair on your neck stand up," he says, with an obvious bit of pride in his voice. Even the Grenadiers band's Burton agrees to the deep roots of the Scots' instruments.

"Pipes are very tribal, very ancient," Burton says. In a separate phone conversation, MacDonald agrees with an "oh, yes, completely."

Whatever the root of the popularity, Thursday's concert — called "Hands Across the Sea" — will have strong patriotic ties.

The program will open with the march "Bond of Friendship" and include other songs such as "Alliance of Courage" to "reflect the close historic links between the countries," Burton says.

Although the attitude of Prime Minister Tony Blair would seem to hint at that, too, Burton avoids the discussion.

"That's getting into politics, and that's not really my field," he says.

The Grenadiers band will be doing some British rousers, but also will throw in some tunes by American march king John Philip Sousa, he says.

The band also will do a section that will reflect its history, in songs and uniforms.

Burton admits there is a large difference between British and American marches.

"I agree we're a little more complicated in our phrasing," he says. "We're not so blatant as marches, and we're a bit more pedestrian in our marching. Some people say we're always moving slowly."

Take a listen to classic American and British marches, and the difference is obvious. British march melodies chirp along happily, singing bright, optimistic tunes. American marches trod along with voices that tend to match the 4/4 of the rhythms.

His band's marching is slower, Burton says, because most of what it does is connected to ceremonial activities at Buckingham Palace, close to the Wellington Barracks, where the band is billeted.

That steady form of music is dictated by the regular rhythm of the bass drummer, known as the "time keeper."

Meanwhile, MacDonald talks about how his type of band historically has relied on sound to "bring the blood to boiling" when needed.

"The chiefs of the clans always had a piper at their command," he adds.

MacDonald says the sound of the pipes is popular — maybe even addictive — because of the vocal sound along with the drone that yields a tantalizing bit of harmonics.

The pipes can produce a haunting, mournful sound on sad songs, he says, which were once popular. But in the past 20 years, he adds, livelier tunes such as hornpipes and jigs have become more favored — as has the sound of ensembles rather than solo pipes.

The Scots Highlanders also feature eight dancers, all soldiers in the unit. who will perform traditional dancing.

That is another part of history — something the bands have plenty of — that will be in the show.

The Highlanders, headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland, were put together in 1778 to fight the revolutionaries in America. The current band is a 1994 jointure of the Queen's Own Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders.

The Grenadier Guards go back to 1656 and went though many changes in instrumentation and size until 1858, when the band became largely what it is today.

While the work of the bands obviously is centered on the culture of the United Kingdom, Burton and MacDonald appreciate the interest with which their music is seen throughout the world.

The U.S. tour, for instance, is 10 weeks long and has 54 dates, MacDonald says.

"There's a special quality in the music," Burton adds.

'Hands Across the Sea'


  • Featuring the Band of the Grenadier Guards and the Scots Highlanders.
  • 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
  • Tickets: $26, $36, $46.
  • (412) 456-6666

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