The restorative power of music

Martyn Bennett as a young inspired musician
Martyn Bennett as a young inspired musician
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THE widow of Scottish music innovator Martyn Bennett could hardly bear to listen to his work again. But releasing a posthumous album has proved a liberation, she tells Peter Ross

When her husband Martyn Bennett died in 2005 at the age of 33, Kirsten Bennett felt she might never be able to listen to his songs again. The late musician – acclaimed for his powerful synthesis of electronic dance music and traditional Scots instrumentation – released his final album, Grit, in 2003, before succumbing to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer. Kirsten found herself a widow at 34. “I was left with a feeling of just devastation,” she says.

Since his passing, Bennett has come to be regarded as a hugely important and progressive talent in Scottish culture, a view confirmed by a new compilation, Aye – a word chosen by Kirsten for its double meaning of affirmation and endurance. She has spent the past few years putting the album together. Though the process was hard on her, she believes in these songs and wants them out there in the world.

“Until about a year ago, I found it too painful to even listen to his music,” she says. “But I wanted to give one last push to help Martyn’s music reach people who might not have heard it before.”

Kirsten, 41, is a petite woman with a choppy bob cut. She speaks with calm, warmth and eloquence about her late husband, but you don’t doubt, meeting her, that there’s a grinding grief somewhere beneath the surface. We are talking in the house on Mull she and Bennett shared, an old steading close to a promontory on which stands an ancient ruined castle. Kirsten lives there now with her partner Richard Kellett and their four-year-old daughter Evie.

It was to this house, among others they shared on Mull, that Martyn would return from the studio in Tobermory with early versions of his songs. He would play them for Kirsten and seek her opinion. “Though I had nothing at all to do with the writing of the music, I did hear every single stage of every single track,” she says. “Sometimes I felt like a bit of a muse. We’d talk about different mixes and sounds. I had a really strong involvement in the music. But when Martyn died, I felt there was this expectation that I carry his music forward, and for a long time I felt really angry about that. That was the last thing I was thinking of.”

During the last two years of his illness, Bennett didn’t make music and didn’t even like to talk about it, feeling unsatisfied with what he had been able to achieve. The husband Kirsten knew in those years was not the radical genius of public legend, the studio perfectionist who felt a need to be in control of every note and beat; he was full of anger and fear at losing control of his own body.

“When someone dies, everyone focuses on the great thing that they did,” she says. “But when you’re there in it, that isn’t what you’re left with. By the last point of contact I had with Martyn, the music part of his life was very far away.”

As time has passed, however, she has felt better able to listen to the songs. She has come to feel that this is her music, too; that her own life is bound up with its creation. It is, for the most part, a joyful, beautiful and rousing record. The stand-out track, perhaps, is Liberation – a setting of Psalm 118 intoned sternly yet with great compassion by the singer Michael Marra over a dynamic backdrop of euphoric strings, colossal beats and Gaelic keening. Driving across Mull, past ruined churches and skeletal boats rotting on shingle, it seems the perfect soundtrack to Kirsten and Martyn’s story of suffering, faith and redemption. “Liberation” is carved on Bennett’s gravestone in Calgary on the west coast of the island.

“That word for me just says everything about Martyn and what happened to him at the end,” Kirsten says. “The journey had been so arduous and so physically painful and mentally torturing that I guess he was liberated from that. He was a very free person. When you spoke to Martyn you often got the feeling that anything was possible, because that’s what he thought. He was one of life’s boundary-pushers. That piece of music is so powerful. It was played at his funeral, actually. I hardly remember it. I wasn’t in a very good way. But, yeah, it was played extremely loudly.”

Martyn Bennett was born in Newfoundland in 1971. He and his mother, the singer and folklorist Margaret Bennett, moved to Mull when Martyn was six. He became a bagpipe prodigy. At the end of the 1980s he won a place at the RSAMD in Glasgow. It was here that he met Kirsten, a Glaswegian, who was in the year above and studying piano. She remembers him turning up at the academy in his cycling gear, and how excited he was about the sounds of the nascent club scene. He would busk on Sauchiehall Street with his pipes and ghetto-blaster.

They became a couple and eventually formed a band, Cuillin. Kirsten played keyboards and also controlled the beats, bass and samples. They toured the world. She remembers lightning striking the stage during a gig in Toronto.

Then there was the legendary performance at the Buddha Bar in Paris, before Scotland played Brazil in the opening match of the 1998 World Cup, attended by what seemed like every Scottish celebrity. “Sean Connery was really quite drunk,” Kirsten recalls. “He grabbed the microphone from Martyn and shouted ‘Get up and dance! This is bloody brilliant!’ ”

Martyn and Kirsten married in 2002. He had gone into hospital for keyhole surgery and woke to find that his spleen had been found to be cancerous and removed. “It was totally shocking. I think he felt out of control. So he said, ‘I think we should get married.’ We got married in my mum’s kitchen. It was an act of defiance and hope.”

The following year came an incident which has become part of the Bennett legend – his deliberate smashing of his collection of instruments, some of them very old. Kirsten is wary of romanticising what happened. “He felt utter frustration and rage and was in a great deal of pain, and that really is the not very exciting reality of what happened that day. I was in the house when I heard this unbelievable noise. There was nothing artistic about it. It was just hellish. He couldn’t even speak for two days afterwards.”

Martyn Bennett died in Edinburgh in January, 2005. In March, Kirsten returned to Mull. “I spent four months crewing on a boat that goes out to Staffa and Lunga to see the puffins and Fingal’s Cave. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I thought I’d never do anything ever again. Dying was the only thing Martyn did on his own, without me, for years. And so I felt like something had just been severed. It was as though he had died suddenly. The emptiness felt permanent and I couldn’t handle it at all.

“But there was something about being on that bit of sea every day. I thought, ‘I’ll just not speak to anyone. It’ll be fine.’ And it was. Eventually, after a few months, I got better. Being on the water and seeing whales and dolphins was amazingly grounding. I hadn’t felt so peaceful for years. And then I met Richard again.”

Kirsten and Martyn had become friendly with Richard Kellett in Edinburgh when they were living across from the cafe where he worked. She lost touch with him when he joined the army and was serving in Iraq, but re-established contact following Martyn’s death. “Richard has this great capability that I was grateful for. There’s no drama. I ended up finding him a bit of an anchor.”

Their daughter, Evie, now coming up to five years old, has been a delight and consolation. “There isn’t much time, with a baby, to think about the past or the future,” she says. “It made me get on with life.”

Evie is still very young. Has Kirsten spoken to her yet about her late husband? By way of reply, she tells a story. “I was playing the album in here before it was mastered and she was dancing around loads. She got to know the name and said to me one day, ‘Who’s Martyn?’ I told her he was a special person and that he wrote music and that I used to know him, but that he was not here any more. She thinks she knows where people go when they die. So she said, ‘Is Martyn a star?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he’ll be a star now.’ Her favourite song is Crackcorn. She likes it up very loud and she dances.”

Kirsten shows me a film on her phone of Evie, a burl and blur of blonde hair, a wee liberation, dancing to that tune.

“Martyn,” she laughs, “would have absolutely loved it.”

• Aye by Martyn Bennett is released tomorrow

A Martyn Bennett playlist

1 SWALLOWTAIL

A sign of things to come. The opening track of Bennett’s eponymous debut from 1996. Pipes, beats, an Irish reel and a whole lot of fun. Hamish Henderson is sampled later in the album. Upon hearing Bennett’s creations Henderson said: “What brave new music.”

2 UD THE DUDOUK

From 1998’s groundbreaking Bothy Culture. The hypnotic energy of Bennett’s mixing of the middle eastern woodwind instrument – the dudouk – with techno club and Scottish folk beats is thrilling as the listener is as likely to feel transported to some Bedouin tent as they are a Hebridean hoolie.

3 GLEN LYON

A cycle of Gaelic laments known as Griogal Cridhe sung by Martyn’s mother, Margaret Bennett, for the 2001 album. Even the powerfully haunting strings pale against the voice of folklorist Margaret, who when teamed with her son produced this essential document of Scotland’s musical past and present.

4 CHANTER

If Scottish folk purists hadn’t woken up by now, then this had them bolt upright. From 2003’s Grit, a cheeky, short, sharp mix of techno beats that wouldn’t be out of place at a Leftfield gig, teamed with the whirl and burl of the pipes themselves. Infectious to this day.

5 MACKAY’S MEMOIRS

Bennett’s final recorded work. Commissioned for the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and performed at it by pupils from Broughton High School who then recorded this in 2005, the morning after Martyn’s death, the news kept back from them until afterwards. Modern pipe music as ultimately euphoric, rousing and steeped in Scottish sensibilities as those facts combined would suggest. «