Celtic Connections preview: what do you get when you cross Danny MacAskill with a folk orchestra?

The Grit Orchestra, conducted by Greg Lawson
The Grit Orchestra, conducted by Greg Lawson
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Fiona Shepherd talks to stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill and Grit Orchestra conductor Greg Lawson about one of this year’s unlikeliest gigs, and why tearing up the rule book was the only way to make it work.

In total, the Grit Orchestra has spent about four hours on a public stage and, by its conductor Greg Lawson’s reckoning, about 12 hours in rehearsal. But this 75-piece cross-section of Scotland’s classical, jazz and folk fraternities has already made an indelible mark on the country’s cultural psyche since debuting Lawson’s stunning orchestral arrangement of trailblazing fusion piper Martyn Bennett’s final album, Grit, at the 2015 Celtic Connections opening concert, Nae Regrets.

Danny Macaskill riding the Cuillin ridge on Skye

Danny Macaskill riding the Cuillin ridge on Skye

Celtic Connections’ perennially adventurous artistic director Donald Shaw said: “Going back about 20 or 30 years ago, it felt like there was this tall fence between orchestral musicians and folk musicians.

“It really came down to fear more than anything else – fear from folk musicians that they didn’t understand some of the technical variations of orchestral music and fear from orchestral musicians who couldn’t really see how music could be played without sheet music.

“Thankfully that divide has got tighter and tighter until now everyone’s talking to each other.” Lawson’s commitment to blurring musical boundaries has played a key role in that conversation. Like his late friend and contemporary Bennett, he is a classically trained violinist who came up through folk and rock circles, playing with the varied likes of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and klezmer band Moishe’s Bagel. But he too felt the fear of responsibility in realising his vision of an organic collaboration between musical tribes.

“I’ve been part of so many embarrassing projects with orchestras,” he said. “The classical world is like a child trying to get out of a nursery, desperately trying to work out how it ingratiates itself with other aspects of culture, and the amount of times you get an orchestra used almost as a backing keyboard part while there’s a frontline of another act… there is no exchange of knowledge, one is a vehicle for another, and so it had to be done differently from that.”

The Grit Orchestra is a group like no other, grounded in groove and melody rather than classic harmonic structures. For Nae Regrets, Lawson tore up the conventional orchestral wind section, to create dynamic tension between low and high reeds, saxophones and contrabassoons versus pipes and whistles, and mixed the marshalled and improvisatory techniques of classical and jazz percussion to create a potent synergy which took Celtic Connections (and later WOMAD and the Edinburgh Festival) by storm.

“That first concert was extraordinary in so many ways,” says Lawson. “I had considered leaving the country if I f***ed up. But when I heard the orchestra for the first time in rehearsal, I knew this was not the end of something; this was potentially the beginning of something.

“An orchestra represents mostly untapped potential – you put the most amount of people on stage you possibly can and when all that energy is released into a room, its collective weight has a profound effect on people. That’s why an orchestra was invented and yet it’s become such a safe environment now and people are never really let off the leash.

“But you can’t control this orchestra, it’s like herding cats. There are no rules of engagement in this group – it was so beautifully anarchic with all these mental musicians who just played their hearts out because they were allowed to do that. They were representing themselves and their place in this culture.

“I think that’s why people responded, because they saw all these people onstage liberated within a structure. I spent the following year in a state of emotional confusion trying to deal with that response.”

Thankfully, Lawson and Shaw have now got the band back together for Celtic Connections’ biggest and boldest commission yet. Bothy Culture and Beyond, the sweeping centrepiece of this year’s festival, is an orchestral celebration of Bennett’s second album, to be staged in the Hydro, with additional thrills, spills, twirls and birls provided by aerial performers and stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill, whose YouTube hit The Ridge, filmed on his native Skye, made evocative use of Bennett’s Blackbird on its soundtrack.

“I always thought watching Danny in those films was like watching a dancer,” said Shaw. “He’s kind of just a kid who loves going out on his bike, but it’s so graceful and it felt like there was an obvious connection to music.”

“The Ridge ended up being quite a personal film for myself, relating to Skye,” said MacAskill, “so having the opportunity to ride alongside the Grit Orchestra playing Martyn’s music is a once-in-a-lifetime thing to get to do.”

MacAskill’s contribution is still at the planning stage, as he broke his kneecap in California nine weeks ago and is undergoing intense rehabilitation to optimise his agility on the night.

“It seems a bit surreal at this moment,” he said. “The thing about the Hydro is its size and I’m only wee on my bike. Luckily there’s going to be a big orchestra and lots of other things going on so I’m pretty confident we’re going to have something spectacular. The main thing is going to be the music.”

And what music… Bothy Culture became a landmark in Celtic fusion when it was released in 1998, with Bennett drawing inspiration from the clubs and raves of the era as much as traditional Celtic dance music. In place of the singers who brought Grit’s vocal samples to life, Lawson has curated a backline of eight fiddle players from around Scotland to lead the dance.

“If Grit is about the voice, then Bothy Culture is about the celebration,” he said. “That is an equally valid part of a cultural identity – to jump up and down about it, to go out and take drugs and have a great time about it. For all of us, Grit has become an album laden with sadness as it was Martyn’s last, whereas Bothy Culture is just laden with him and his bare chest dancing and loving life and so it seems to me that it’s the right way round to do it – start off with the pathos and the next stage we do is the celebration of life.”

And where does the Grit Orchestra go from there? For Shaw and Lawson, the obvious next step is to create an original repertoire for this most unique of musical beasts. Plans are already afoot to commission 12 musicians from the jazz, folk and classical communities, including some of those already in the orchestra, to produce what Shaw calls “the Holy Grail in orchestral music in this country, which is genuinely powerful and innovative and contemporary arrangements of folk music”.

The livewire Lawson is infectiously convinced “it will be attractive and beautiful and magnificent and diverse, and the audience will come because they know they like it, which means we are building an audience for taking this music forward, building on Martyn’s beautiful embryonic idea and developing a beautiful ethic about tolerance of difference – not just tolerance, but an actual embracing of difference, saying, ‘Don’t be afraid of the thing you don’t know, work with it and you’ll find that there’s less to be afraid of and so much more to be excited about’. Difference is the way we evolve.”

*Bothy Culture and Beyond is at the Hydro, Glasgow, on 27 January