Greg Lawson has re-assembled the mighty GRIT Orchestra for the opening concert of this year’s Celtic Connections, and commissioned some of its members to compose pieces to mark the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. Interview by Jim Gilchrist
Greg Lawson, violinist, composer and conductor, is contemplating weighty issues of freedom, diversity and score deadlines as he prepares to conduct the GRIT Orchestra in The Declaration next Thursday night [16 January], in the opening concert of Glasgow’s ever-expanding Celtic Connections festival.
Inspired by this year’s 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, the event will see Lawson re-assemble the orchestra, a mightily protean beast combining folk, jazz and classical musicians, which he formed to play his audacious arrangements of the late Martyn Bennett’s final album GRIT. A bewilderingly inventive splicing of archived traditional song recordings with electronic samples and beats, GRIT had been hitherto deemed unperformable live.
The orchestra’s premiere at Celtic Connections in 2015 was a memorable one and it returned in 2018 to perform Lawson’s treatments of a further Bennett album, Bothy Culture. For The Declaration, however, he has delved into the orchestra itself to commission compositions from some of its members – fiddlers Stout and Patsy Reid, cellist Rudy de Groote, saxophonist Paul Towndrow, harpist Catriona McKay and piper-saxophonist Fraser Fifield.
All have form as players and composers in their particular fields, folk, classical or jazz, and Lawson is enthusiastic about the results, despite owning to no little stress in the run-up to an event which will see the 80-strong outfit emerge as a unique entity – what he describes as “a self-composing orchestra, writing from its own cultural landscape.
“For GRIT and Bothy Culture I was writing everything so was in control of the whole process. This time, other people are writing things and I’m steering the process and working out how to how to manage the music to fit into my idea of a kind of continuous musical landscape,” he says. “The scores are good and I’m heartened,” he continues. “This orchestra came about because I built it to represent the diversity of Martyn’s musical language.”
The diverse nature of the orchestra’s members, all with their own busy schedules, has meant the process hasn’t been quite as collaborative as he would have liked. “But we’ve managed to establish enough so it feels like it is the group’s project, which is a lovely thing. So I’m looking forward to it.” He laughs: “I mean, there’s one score still not ready… but the whole thing will come together right towards the end of its process, over two days’ rehearsal.”
Even though, he points out, as well as restricted rehearsal time, they’re working on a budget far less than that of any conventional full-time orchestra.
The Declaration of Arbroath’s most famous passage rings across seven centuries: “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
Celtic Connections’ creative producer Donald Shaw describes the concert as “a declaration of intent to grasp the thistle and give a sense of confidence to orchestral works from Scottish composers.”
For his part, Lawson sees the orchestra’s response as essentially “a celebration of difference. At its heart lies identity with Scottish traditional music through musicians of multiple genres performing together on equal terms.
Asked about his thoughts on this iconic Scottish document at a time of political turbulence on a national and international scale, Lawson responds: “It makes a statement about identity, and the very existence of this orchestra is a statement about identity, challenging the norm.”
In commissioning, he stressed to each composer that “you write about who you are and also with the idea that the most evocative word in that declaration is ‘freedom’. That’s a fascinating word, because freedom is a thing that everyone fights over, therefore we have to associate this declaration with the idea of what freedom actually is, ethically, as opposed to how you pursue it.
“I’m looking to create a narrative that is about an open embrace rather than a closed fist. We’re declaring our intent as an orchestra to be free, but also to understand what that means in that you have to respect one another, you have to look for difference, you have to embrace diversity.”
The opening night isn’t the orchestra’s only Celtic Connections appearance: it appears at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom on 18 January to revisit GRIT, plus 2018’s treatment of Bennett’s Bothy Culture album.
“We wanted to take Bothy Culture and GRIT to Barrowland because Martyn did a lot of amazing gigs there. It’s where he connected across cultures, where his dance culture and his traditional music found a place where both were accepted equally.”
Lawson’s own background is appropriately diverse, merging Durham mining stock and German Jewry. Now 55, as a youngster he started playing Northumbrian pipes before switching to fiddle, absorbing traditional and other styles before studying classical violin. Having played in various orchestras for some three decades, notably the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and its left-field offshoot, Mr McFall’s Chamber, he hasn’t played in a classical line-up for two years. He continues, however, to compose for orchestral forces. Last year saw him arrange contemporary English folk songs for The Ballads of the Great War with Michael Morpurgo and the London Philharmonic, and he’s been commissioned to write a piece for the SCO with its current featured artist, the Finnish conductor-violinist Pekka Kuusisto. The commission relates to the COP26 climate change summit being held in Glasgow in November and Lawson hopes that the GRIT Orchestra may also get involved in associated projects.
The spring will see him recording and touring with the exuberantly eclectic Moishe’s Bagel, while continuing to work with other Scottish musicians. He also teaches at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, an involvement he loves, “because I’m in the trad department and the classical department, and also Moishe’s Bagel is in there as associate artists. So I’m wearing three different hats, although it’s really the same hat for all three – which is the point.
“You have to learn something old as well as something new and realise the value of what already exists. That’s how Martyn was different: he didn’t abandon his roots, in fact he went further into his roots than just about anyone else and discovered a way of expressing himself that was, ironically, completely new.”
The GRIT Orchestra performs The Declaration at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 16 January and GRIT and Bothy Culture at Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, on 18 January. See www.celticconnections.com