Musicians tune up for a tribute to Martyn Bennett
His death from cancer last January at the age of just 33 cast a shadow over last year's Celtic Connections festival. This Saturday, a day is dedicated to celebrating his legacy.
That's easier said than done, when you consider that Bennett loved to defy musical genres, working across a range of styles, and producing sounds impossible to categorise. He sampled traditional "source" singers and spliced them with electronic soundscapes, and fused furious piping with big clubland beats.
Friend and fellow musician Martin Swan, who is co-ordinating Martyn Bennett Day, says: "In a previous era he would have been either a live performer or he would have sat in a summer house on a lake all day writing scores. But he was great at the production side of things and also an amazing player. His legacy is really difficult to unpick."
Swan has decided on an afternoon concert in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, with the orchestra of Scottish Opera and Mr McFall's Chamber to celebrate the more formal part of the legacy, and a club night at the Old Fruitmarket which reforms Bennett's band Cuillin Music, adds DJs and a "worryingly big PA", building towards a raise-the-roof pipes and drums finale.
Bennett, a former student of the City of Edinburgh Music School and the RSAMD, made his first album in 1996. He is perhaps most remembered as the dreadlocked techno-piper who brought traditional and club music together.
Swan says he had a unique attitude to musical boundaries. "I think he deliberately drove a steamroller over them. He knew they were there and was massively irritated by them. In a way his personality and his upbringing and his own physical ability as a musician meant that a lot of the rules didn't apply to him."
The afternoon concert will focus on a performance of his orchestral suite Mackay's Memoirs, which was played at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and other compositions including Piece for Small Pipes and String Quartet. Previously unperformed works include Toccata for Small Hands, written by Bennett for his wife Kirsten, and played by pianist Graeme McNaught, and a new orchestral arrangement of songs from his 2003 album Grit.
"We're presenting a lot of material which exists in manuscript form, saying 'Here it is, take it away and play it'," says Swan. "Mackay's Memoirs is an incredible piece, but it is outside the norm, it involves a piper, it asks the orchestra to sing, it's in a very specific genre. We thought if we made other material which is vaguely similar, there was more chance of an orchestra taking it on and performing it." The concert will also launch the Martyn Bennett Tunebook.
The evening club night, which reforms Bennett's band Cuillin Music with members of his friends and family, has proved an even bigger challenge. "I think of it as a piece of re-enactment, apart from the glaring absence of Martyn," says Swan. "The idea is that it should be very much re-presenting to people what Martyn wanted people to hear and in the form that he wanted them to hear it. From my point of view it is an opportunity to show that Martyn was here before, that he was really the pioneer of a particular kind of sound.
"Martyn always imagined Cuillin Music happening without him. He talked about it like a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, with versions all over the place. The material is really good, it's still in its prime and I don't think it quite got the attention it deserved. It would be great if it could be performed for a year or two."
But "getting inside" Bennett's unique sound is harder than it looks. "I'm not just saying this because he's dead, but it's hilarious, there are about eight people standing around in a room trying to put Cuillin Music together, each one is a fantastic musician and, between us, we can't quite get up to the level that he did."
Swan planned the finale of the night as a "big, solemn, massive" moment, combining massed pipers playing Bennett's tunes with the Beltane drummers. "It struck me as a new thing to do with a pipe band," he says. "It should be a glorious racket."
Martyn Bennett Day is on 14 January; the concert at 1pm at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, the club night from 10pm at the Old Fruitmarket.