Scottish folk farewell to a mercurial spirit

HOW DO you capture the mercurial spirit of someone like Martyn Bennett, the formidably musical piper, fiddler, composer and mixing magician, who died of cancer at a tragically early age at the beginning of the year?

Next week’s memorial concert in the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, will have a fair crack at meeting the challenge, with a suitably eclectic programme encompassing traditional singing and electronica, jazz and ceilidh music, Highland piping and a large-scale orchestral work.

It will be a celebration of the man rather than a memorial, insists Bennett’s wife and fellow musician, Kirsten. She is currently in the throes of organising the event, which will feature performers who influenced or were influenced by Bennett. There are no shortage of these - Bennett’s extrovert marriage of fiery piping and fiddling with the electronic beats and samples of clubland was widely hailed as the first truly Scottish hardcore dance music. He also created lush soundscapes for the spoken word, as well some characterful works for orchestral forces.

Bennett died at the end of January, less than three weeks before his 34th birthday, following a long battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The loss was widely felt throughout the Scottish music community. Next Friday, a spectacularly wide-ranging programme will reflect the musical adventurousness and sheer zest of the man, with proceeds going to the Marie Curie Hospice in Edinburgh, the Bethesda Hospice on the Isle of Lewis and the Martyn Bennett Trust, a new commemorative fund aimed at helping young musicians who share Bennett’s vision of music as a vital cross-cultural medium.

Guests will include Fred Morrison, an extrovert performer who was one of Bennett’s favourite pipers, singer Karen Matheson and Donald Shaw of Capercaillie, the energetic folk-fusion outfit Croft No 5 and the powerfully voiced traditional singer Sheila Stewart, who featured on Bennett’s last album, Grit. Also singing will be his mother, folklorist and Gaelic singer Margaret Bennett, with whom he made the album Glen Lyon.

Kirsten Bennett herself, who was a member of her husband’s Cuillin touring project, will be playing alongside Martin Swan and Michaela Rowan of Mouth Music, while from the vibrant Edinburgh jazz scene come Trio AAB, joined by singer Gina Rae and flautist Brian Finnegan for Tom Bancroft’s Multistorey Karma Park (Bennett guested in its premiere in 1997).

The concert will open in grand style as young musicians of Bennett’s alma mater, the City of Edinburgh Music School at Broughton High, perform Mackay’s Memoirs, a spectacular work for strings, clarsach, pipes and percussion which Bennett composed for Broughton’s centenary and which also helped fuel 1999’s celebrations for the opening of the Scottish Parliament (a newly recorded CD of it should be available on the night, including an additional re-mix by DJ Dolphin Boy).

Jillian Thomson of Dance Base will perform her interpretation of Nae Regrets, from Grit, which featured in last year’s acclaimed ballet, Off Kilter, while, in a Bennett-ish collision of styles and cultures, Greg Lawson, violinist with McFall’s Chamber, and piper Rory Campbell, accompanied by sundry percussionists and electronic samples, will perform Karabakh, a piece which Bennett wove around a recording of a young girl from the beleaguered Armenian enclave of Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

"That piece says so much about what Martyn was all about," says Kirsten. "We wanted to have as much of his own music as possible, so we’re delighted to have Mackay’s Memoirs and Karabakh. Unfortunately Su-a Lee [cellist with McFall’s Chamber] can’t be there, so we can’t do the string quartet with small pipes and percussion, although it will be on a later recording."

The musician’s untimely death left surprisingly little unfinished musical business, given his creative output, although, says Kirsten, there were certain things he entrusted Martin Swan, with whom he had worked in the past, to finish for him, such as the recording of Mackay’s Memoirs to which Swan has indeed been giving the final re-mix, and the quartet.

There are a few other things pending, she adds: Bennett was thinking about a new album, setting old recordings of traditional music to DJ dance beats, and she is currently sifting through all that. There remain a few other unrecorded items, and she is hoping that Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label, which released Grit, might include them in a possible anthology.

In the meantime, her first preoccupation is next Friday’s concert, which will be MC’d by the Gaelic singer and BBC broadcaster Mary Ann Kennedy - on whose Celtic Connections programme Bennett was much in demand - and Annie Reed from RealWorld.

"I just wanted to get the spirit of Martin across," continues Kirsten. "We didn’t want it just to be a night of famous people, but musicians who were connected with Martyn and understood what he was about. He was so ill, and there were so few people in contact with him for the last year or two of his life... I wanted them to be involved."

Further guests are bound to swell the list, and Kirsten’s only regret is that she’s been unable to enlist anyone to play the ney - the Middle-Eastern flute which, as played by Omar Faruk, was a big influence on Bennet’s music. However, the evening’s musical horizons seem mind-bogglingly, if appropriately, broad as it is.

• The memorial concert is on 15 April at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, tel: 0131-668 2019). Donations to the Martyn Bennett Trust can be sent to: c/o Active Events, 60 Love Street, Paisley, PA3 2EQ.