Paying musical respects to the memory of Martyn Bennett

WHEN Martyn Bennett lost his battle with cancer early last year, it was a tragic loss for family and friends but also for the untold number of fans he touched throughout the Scottish music scene.

To celebrate his achievements a day has been set aside in Glasgow to honour Bennett through an exciting set of two concerts designed to showcase diverse aspects of his music. Bennett was an innovator of the first order, and it is entirely appropriate that the special celebration should reflect the range as well as the originality of his work.

Martyn Bennett Day on 14 January will feature an afternoon performance at the Concert Hall, showcasing some of Bennett's orchestral and chamber music, and followed by a Club Night bash at the Old Fruitmarket with his band Cuillin Music, various guest musicians and DJ sets.

The idea was devised by Colin Hynd, director of Celtic Connections, a two-week programme of vibrant music that takes place this month in Glasgow. Musicians Martin Swan and Kirsten Bennett, Martyn's wife, added the artistic touch to the idea.

The afternoon concert will include MacKay's Memoirs, the orchestral piece he composed for the opening of the Scottish Parliament, and newly commissioned arrangements of some of his music by violinist Greg Lawson.

The late-night event will feature the first live performances of four of the songs included on Martyn's final album, Grit (2004), culled from the traditional repertoire of the travelling people and sung in this context by Michael Marra and Karen Casey. Guests taking Martyn's own role with Cuillin Music will include pipers Rory Campbell, Fraser Fifield and Ross Ainslie and fiddlers Adam Sutherland and Greg Lawson.

Martyn was born in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1971. By age six, he was living in Scotland with his mother, the Skye-born Gaelic singer and folklorist Margaret Bennett. He made his initial impact as a virtuoso piper and fiddler – he won a junior piping competition at age 12 - but by the time he came to record Grit, he had largely given up playing and saw the recording studio as his instrument.

Not long before his death last January at age 33, Martyn said that frustration with his illness drove him to do the unthinkable and destroy his precious instruments.

"I had been getting increasingly frustrated at not being able to play these instruments as I had always played them and one day I smashed everything in a blind fit of rage. I did it very coldly at the time, but afterwards I went into shock for days and days – I was so horrified at what I had done that I couldn’t even speak to anybody. It was like murdering my family."

His explorations continued, however, and by the time he made Grit, the fusion of traditional music with club culture that he began on his first album, Bothy Culture (1997), had developed to new levels.

"When I look back on my first album, I feel that it's only now that I'm really getting to grips with it. I think there does need to be a separation between pure traditional music and this kind of crossover. What I'd like next is for someone to come along and do it better than me," Martyn said then.

"For me, the danger is that lots of people jump in and try to emulate what the likes of myself or Shooglenifty are doing, and make a mess of it. I know traditional musicians who are dabbling with this, but they haven't got the immersion in the club culture that would allow them to really understand what they are doing."

Those who knew and worked with Martyn Bennett recognised that he had little patience with those prepared to settle for less than the best. Martin Swan, who hired the teenage Bennett for his band Mouth Music after hearing him play on South Uist, acknowledged his gifts.

"I met him when he was about 17 and was really taken with his playing. I got him involved in the early version of Mouth Music and later mixed Bothy Culture for him, and I think what we were interested in musically was often very close," Swan recalls.

"As a person Martyn was very friendly and easy-going but he was very intolerant as a musician. His standards were so high and he was very open about expressing his opinions when it came to musical issues, even if it offended people."

Adds Swan: "He did things his own way and we felt that it was very important that these concerts were done as close as we could get to his way. Everyone that we asked to take part agreed without hesitation and everyone involved is very committed to that idea."

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