Martyn Bennett award honours acclaimed piper

The award has been named after piper Martyn Bennett. Picture: TSPL
The award has been named after piper Martyn Bennett. Picture: TSPL
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HE is revered as one of the most influential musicians of his generation - despite his life being tragically cut short at the age of just 33.

Now a flagship new competition aimed at showcasing both emerging and established talent is to be set up to honour the celebrated piper, fiddler and composer Martyn Bennett.

Creative Scotland has put £16,000 into the new annual venture, which is hoped to become the nation’s most prestigious prize for new music composition.

Brand new pieces of music between five and 10 minutes long are being sought from today, with work only eligible if it has not previously been performed live.

Although the pieces should have their “roots in traditional music”, the competition is open to any musician currently based in Scotland, leaving the door open to jazz, world, pop, rock and even classical composers and performers.

The annual Martyn Bennett Prize will reach a climax with a gala concert at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, the city which had a huge influence on his career.

The six shortlisted composers will have around half a day to work in rehearsal with one of Scotland’s leading modern-day musicians, the multi-instrumentalist Anna Massie, a former BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year, before she leads a live performance.

The winner - who will get £2000 - will be judged on the night by an expert panel led by Jim Sutherland, the leading Edinburgh-based composer, who has worked on films like Brave, Festival and Gaelic feature film Seachd, and will also include Sally Beamish, the London-born composer - renowned for her chamber, vocal, choral and orchestral music - who created the music for a major concert at the Celtic Connections music festival last year.

Although born in Newfoundland, Canada, and raised in Kingussie, in the Highlands, Bennett lived in Edinburgh from the age of 15 and attended the prestigious city music school, based at Broughton High. Although he went on to study at the RSAMD in Glasgow, Bennett returned to Edinburgh in the mid-1990s, where he immersed himself in the city’s thriving live music and clubbing scenes, and made his first groundbreaking album on the outskirts of the city.

A piece Bennett wrote for his former school was famously performed at the celebrations in Princes Street Gardens to herald the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

The Queen’s Hall, one of the city’s main performance spaces for traditional, folk and roots music in the capital, has joined forces with the Traditional Music Forum, a network of groups across Scotland, to run the new award, which also has the backing of a trust set up in Bennett’s memory by his family and close friends.

Adrian Harris, chief executive of the Queen’s Hall, said: “It was the idea of a composition prize for traditional music that came first. It is a strand of music we are really committed to here and feature a lot of it in our programme.

“We were talking about how we could make a bigger contribution and the idea of a composition prize up. We began to think about what we wanted the prize to be and we began talking about musicians who we felt embodied that. In a funny sort of way Martyn’s name was just staring us in the face.

“He was that embodiment of somebody whose music was rooted in Scottish traditional music, but was so outward looking and so connected to other styles and forms of music.”

News of the award has emerged a year after the release of a new album of work by Bennett, who lost his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in January 2005.

His widow, Kirsten, said: “Martyn was a forward-thinking musician who paved the way with new and groundbreaking work.

“This prize acknowledges his immense talent and influence in music and the Martyn Bennett Trust are delighted to be associated with it”.

Entries for the competition - open to composers of 16 years and over - will be judged anonymously, with the names only being revealed once a final shortlist has been chosen.

Mr Harris added: “We could be hearing new work from experienced professional musicians or a teenager sitting in their bedroom writing fantastic music that nobody has ever heard.”

Dave Francis, head of the Traditional Music Forum, said: “This prize will encourage Scottish composers to produce their best work and expose it to a wider audience”

Bennett had been the first traditional musician to win a place at the City of Edinburgh Music School and he reflected later that the time spent there was “the most important three years of my life.

Ian Smith, head of music at Creative Scotland, said: “Creative Scotland is delighted to support the inaugural Martyn Bennett Prize, which will highlight traditional music and its role in contemporary music as well as celebrating the music traditions of Scotland, of which we are so proud.

“Martyn would have been honoured to be associated with such a prestigious award.”

Bennett studied violin and piano in Glasgow, where he secretly played in pub sessions, and was heavily influenced by Miles Baster, first violinist of the Edinburgh Quartet.

On returning to Edinburgh, he began to mix traditional music with the drum and beat sounds that were packing out the pubs and clubs in the city’s underground scene and Bennett’s live performances at La Belle Angele venue led to him securing slots at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations and Celtic Connections, as well as critical acclaim for albums like Bothy Culture and Hardland.

He performed before Mel Gibson at the Braveheart premiere after-party in Stirling Castle, and appeared on stage with Sir Sean Connery and Ewan McGregor at the 1998 World Cup curtain-raiser before Scotland faced Brazil. Later that year he also won the music category in the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards and he own support slots with Peter Gabriel.

Bennett was one of the headline acts at Edinburgh’s Millennium celebrations, appearing with Texas at the castle. But just months later Bennett, who had by then moved to the isle of Mull, had been diagnosed with cancer and was forced to cancel all future appearances, although he did go on to release further critically-acclaimed albums. He is repeatedly cited as a major influence on current festival favourites like Treacherous Orchestra.