Interview: Greg Lawson’s tribute to Martyn Bennett lead to Grit Orchestra

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Greg Lawson’s tribute to his friend Martyn Bennett was supposed to be a one-off. But instead it has inspired a whole new model 
for making music, he tells Susan Mansfield

January 2015. Greg Lawson is drinking coffee in a café in Glasgow and telling me that he isn’t sleeping. He’s being kept awake at night by the sheer immensity of the project he has undertaken: to score Martyn Bennett’s seminal last album, Grit, for an orchestra of more than 80 musicians and singers, and perform it at the opening of Celtic
Connections later that month.

Grit is an orchestra arrangement by Greg Lawson

Grit is an orchestra arrangement by Greg Lawson

It was, by his own admission, “a crazy thing to do”. Grit was made entirely on a mixing desk, laying throbbing beats behind the voices of Gaelic singers, sampling music of all types, from Edith Piaf to Led Zeppelin. He had to design the orchestra from first principles, beefing up the lower registers and percussion section, bringing in musicians from folk and jazz backgrounds, and then create the finished performance with just six hours of rehearsal time.

It was intended to be a glorious one-off, a tribute to Bennett, who had been a friend, ten years after his death, after which Lawson would go back to his day job as a violinist with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. But this July, we were back in another cafe, talking about Grit again. Not only was it about to be performed twice more – at the WOMAD Festival in July, and now at the Edinburgh International Festival – he is talking about forming the Grit Orchestra as a permanent entity, a group drawn from across musical forms who can work and learn together.

It all stems from that moment on the podium at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall when the musicians finished the last track on Grit, and Lawson “felt compressed between two walls of sound – the sound of an orchestra giving as much as they had to give, and the audience responding. I was in the middle being compressd by emotion and feeling. It changed me, fundamentally, and I’m still trying to work out how.”

He had planned nothing else past that moment. “I got a lot of attention after the concert, I got asked to do things. I couldn’t handle it, really, I backed away from everything. I hid in the orchestra for a while, and to be honest I didn’t enjoy it, it was as if, accidentally, I’d used all my brain for the first time in my life. My ears had expanded, I was fascinated by things I’d never been fascinated by before, colours and sounds and timbres, thinking –how would you write that?”

At the back of his mind was the thought that this project wasn’t finished, but he managed to ignore it, until one afternoon in a local supermarket. “In the first few months afterwards, every time I walked up Byres Road, people would stop me and say: ‘Did you do the Grit concert?’ and often burst into tears. Then one day, nearly a year after, a guy came up to me in Waitrose and said: ‘Are you Grit man?’ It was so silly, I felt like I should be wearing a pair of underpants or something. I walked home from that giggling, and thought – I have to do this, I have to get over this now, I have to stop being afraid of it. I am Grit man – that’s so silly it’s a mantle I’m prepared to wear.”

He started to look for other opportunities for the orchestra to play, and secured funding to write the score for an earlier Bennett album, Bothy Culture. He plans to set up an administrative structure for the organisation, The Community of Musicians, and to perform works by Bennett and others, but ultimately commission new music. The model will be collegiate, the emphasis on collaboration, bringing musicians together from different backgrounds to learn from one another.

“The symphony orchestra is a 19th-century model, it hasn’t changed since then. I’m not saying that it should change – you don’t change the model to play Tchaikovsky, you play Tchaikovsky and you play it as well as you can. But if you want to play different kinds of music you have to change. I’ve been playing contemporary music for 30 years now, and contemporary composers are trying to write a new language for an old model.

“I realised that, accidentally, I’d formed something that I wanted to see my entire life, an environment where musicians could come together from different places and learn from each other and enhance each other’s abilities. All my life, I’ve believed, fundamentally, that a musician is a musician. You get put into boxes, you get streamed into directions, but the fundamental source of music is the same spring. I can’t stand it any longer, the separation of musical forms. They need to have a home together so they can actually grow and enhance, and then we can all evolve.

“The whole thing about Grit for me, is that it’s about representing what constitutes real music. The classical world often views other forms of music as being not quite as real, in my experience, and that’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life. Martyn’s Grit was an embryo for change. He made this album which is beyond its form, which brings in music from every single tradition. This is the response to Martyn’s embryonic idea, that’s the direction it goes in, an orchestra which is made up of all the different forms, can represent all the different forms and disciplines but also meld them together in a way no other group is able to do.”

It’s important that, although Bennett’s music has been the starting point, the Grit Orchestra will go on to be independent of that. “It will never lose that association, but it has to evolve beyond the point of playing Martyn. We can play Martyn for a while, we can explore his music, give that music to other people, and use it to bind ourselves as a group and hone our skills, and then we have to move on, otherwise you just become a nostalgia exercise, and that’s not the point.

“Instead of it being the end of a thing, for me, about saying goodbye to Martyn, it’s the beginning of a thing.” He grins. “I wasn’t really prepared for that.”