New show celebrates fusion pioneer Martyn Bennett

THE man on the trapeze whirls and glides with effortless grace. Below him, three dancers roll and lift like waves on an ocean, while Tramway 2 is filled with the haunting Celtic-classical fusion of Mackay’s Memoirs, by Martyn Bennett.

Grit was made with the support of Bennett's widow Kristen. Picture: Contributed
Grit was made with the support of Bennett's widow Kristen. Picture: Contributed

For a moment, everyone in the rehearsal room is transported.

Grit: The Martyn Bennett Story, directed by Cora Bissett and opening at Tramway on Tuesday, aims to capture the spirit of a musical legend: a high-energy dreadlocked virtuoso who fused traditional music with electronic beats, excelled at playing multiple instruments and penned elegant contemporary compositions. The show is an ambitious fusion of acting, dance and acrobatics, and of talent from Canada and Scotland. But the devil is in the detail. For Bissett and choreographer Dana Gingras, as the dancers whirl and a trapeze artist flies above them, the concern is about blocking and distances: how far exactly is that foot from that hand?

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The show is named after Bennett’s final, hugely acclaimed album, which he made while he battled Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and was released in 2003 on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label just over a year before he died. It is re-released in a “gold” edition to coincide with the show. Grit is an album unlike any other, taking sampled voices from traditional Scottish music and mixing them, at times with visceral electronic beats, at times with delicate string arrangements.

Bissett says the form of the show has been dictated by the music. “When I listen to Martyn’s music, it just shrieks of physicality and visuals, I see big, big visual canvases in my head. I think if you tried to make a straight drama about Martyn’s life with little interjections of the music, it wouldn’t serve his purpose, which was to create these great events.”

The show has been made with the support of Bennett’s widow, Kirsten, his mother, the Gaelic singer and folklorist Margaret Bennett, and his friends, who were interviewed by Bissett and playwright Kieran Hurley. “They felt very strongly that they didn’t want us to tell a story that focused on a man dying of cancer, because that’s not the Martyn that they knew. Of course, that’s a part of his life, but that’s not what he wants to be remembered for. That was the tragedy, but what he did in that short space of time was fabulous so let’s focus on that and celebrate that.”

It was decided not to try to create Bennett’s music with a live band, but to use his own original recordings. “Martyn was a perfectionist to the insanest level,” says Bissett. “He produced a lot of his own work, so the recording that you hear has layers and layers of sound going on, which you couldn’t recreate live. Martin’s friends all felt that we should play the music as he composed it, and play it big.” After a run in Glasgow, the show – part of the Commonwealth Games Cultural Programme, – will transfer to Mull, where Bennett lived, where it will be accompanied by a mini-music festival over midsummer weekend.

Bissett says the dancers and trapeze artist are physical expressions of Bennett’s creativity. “They’re all a part of Martyn. We were watching Sandy [Grierson] play Martyn at work in the studio, but a man at work at a mixing desk is not a terribly dramatic thing, so we thought: what if we go right into his brain and see the cogs working, and these flashes of inspiration are embodied through the dance and trapeze? So you get the hard-working perfectionist guy in the studio just chipping away at it, and then the explosive creativity that is in his brain.”

Grierson says he nearly missed out of the role as rehearsals clashed with the final three weeks of Vanishing Point’s The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, but he pulled out all the stops to do it. “I couldn’t turn this down because I knew Martyn when I was growing up. We were about seven years apart, so I spent a lot of time looking up to him. He was a bit of an idol, he was such a phenomenal mix of Scottish and cool.”

He says his job is to remember Bennett as accurately as possible: those early gigs where he picked up instrument after instrument while the beats throbbed in the background, a man absolutely engaged with every conversation, who embodied a kind of zest for life. “You’d be sitting chatting with him and his friends, and then he’d be dragging us all off to climb Arthur’s Seat or Salisbury Crags – the absolute gusto and vitality of him.”

Bennett was born in Canada and came to live in Scotland with his mother after his parents split when he was six. He started playing the bagpipes at ten, and by 12 was winning piping competitions. At 15 he was the first student to be accepted for the City of Edinburgh Music School on a traditional instrument. He studied classical violin at the RSAMD in Glasgow, occasionally slipping out to play in folk sessions in pubs. After he graduated in 1993, he sought to re-engage with traditional music, and began to experiment with ways of fusing traditional instruments with the vibrant beats coming out of 1990s club culture.

His creative development can be tracked through his albums, from his debut Martyn Bennett – bagpipe tunes with beats underneath, through further experiments with beats and electronica on Bothy Culture and Hardland, moving into Gaelic song and sound sampling on Glen Lyon, and reaching a kind of completion in Grit. “On it you can hear his classical knowledge, his electronic knowledge, you can see the respect with which he has treated each sample,” says Bissett. “Grit, for me, is the triumph, it’s the bringing together of all the strands that he’d been working on.”

The power of Bennett’s music has also been the guiding light for Montreal-based choreographer Dana Gingras, whom Bissett met when she went looking for Canadian partners to reflect the country of Bennett’s birth. In one section, the three dancers fuse club-style moves with traditional Highland dancing in a throbbing whirl of energy. “I call it Highland House,” says Gingras, grinning. “It’s music that comes from a kind of fire in the guts. I’m trying to respond to the music as honestly as I can, it’s very instinctive because it is so powerful.”

Gingras, who danced with Canada’s Holy Body Tattoo and now has her own company, Animals of Distinction, says dance can help bring music to life. “It can reveal all these textures and layers and dynamics inherent in the music, it can underscore the energy in it. This was music coming out of his guts and his heart, it’s an immediate, visceral thing. I have the sense that that drive got stronger the more time was running out, you can feel the urgency in the music, particularly in Grit, but being expressed in this incredibly positive way.”

Bissett believes Bennett is also an important figure for our time. “Martyn really reflects the moment we are in, philosophically and artistically. He was a modern Scottish visionary talent who was looking at the heritage of his own culture, who appreciated that heritage so acutely and so deeply, but also pulled it forward into the present day. He was absolutely ancient and absolutely modern at the same time, and for me right now that’s a great metaphor for Scotland.

“He’s a really key figure that hasn’t dated a jot. If you listen to Grit it still blows your mind, and I have no doubt that if he was still around he would be making phenomenal, groundbreaking records.”

• Grit: The Martyn Bennett Story is at Tramway Glasgow from 3-7 June (preview today) and at Druimfin on the Isle of Mull, 20-22 June. A mini-music festival on Mull from 19-22 June will accompany the show, featuring LAU, Mr McFall’s Chamber and the Mischa MacPherson Trio