Musician and composer
Born: 17 February, 1971, in St John’s, Newfoundland.
Died: 30 January, 2005, in Edinburgh, aged 33.
SCOTLAND’S musical landscape is a sadder, less colourful and vastly poorer place following the death on Sunday night of Martyn Bennett, the formidably inventive piper, violinist, composer and producer. Steeped in traditional piping yet conservatory-educated, he was gifted with a musical vision which knew no bounds but remained potently thirled to his roots in Gaelic and Scots traveller culture.
Bennett, who died three weeks before his 34th birthday, following a long battle with the cancer Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, became known as "the techno piper" for his flamboyant merging of fiery piping and fiddling with electronic beats which many regarded as the first truly Scottish hardcore dance music.
However, he not only powered up the obligatory jigs ‘n’ reels but created colourful soundscapes in which he set the poetry of Hamish Henderson and Sorley MacLean. Even the patron saint of tartanalia, Sir Harry Lauder, wasn’t immune from irreverently raunchy Bennett treatment. Less well-known was other work for instrumental combinations such as strings and small pipes.
He was born Martyn Bennett-Knight in St John’s, Newfoundland, and his earliest memories were of the Gaelic-speaking farming communities of Newfoundland’s Codroy Valley as well as in Quebec. At the age of six he moved to Scotland with his mother, the Skye-born Gaelic singer and folklorist Margaret Bennett. It was while growing up in Kingussie that he became acquainted with his first instrument, and the one with which he is most widely identified, the great Highland bagpipe. By the time he was 12, he was winning junior piping competitions, although he was more inclined towards the less formalised folk scene (this writer’s earliest memory of him is of a diminutive figure at Newcastleton Folk Festival, playing terrifyingly dexterous music on a set of pipes which seemed several sizes too large).
After moving to Edinburgh, at 15 he became the first traditional musician to enter the hitherto classically orientated City of Edinburgh Music School, based at Broughton High School, to spend what he later described as the most important three years of his life, learning to read and write music, as well as taking on board violin and piano.
He went on to further his studies at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, where he met Kirsten Thomson, later to join him as fellow band-member and, ultimately, to become his wife. At the RSAMD he thrived on violin tuition with Miles Baster, first violinist of the Edinburgh Quartet - while sneaking out for extra-curricular pub music sessions.
After graduating in 1993, Bennett "relearned" traditional fiddle, purchased a keyboard sequencer and, fortified by his classical training, got to grips with the burgeoning club scene. "I think for the classically trained composer, the dance world is such an attractive place as it encapsulates the same musical ethos," he later wrote. "It is principally about sound and scale, tension and release, power and detail - much like the classical canvas."
In 1996, after immuring himself with his home studio, he went into Castle Sound in Pencaitland and emerged with his first, eponymous album. Martyn Bennett was an immediate success and as his reputation spread (prompting an appearance before Mel Gibson at the Stirling Castle premiere of Braveheart), the albums Bothy Culture and Hardland followed.
The slight, dreadlocked figure’s barnstorming approach didn’t always go down well with dyed-in-the-wool folkies. "No-one has ever sounded like this before. Half the audience fled in fear of their lives," wrote one reviewer, following Bennett’s high-energy set at the 2000 Cambridge Folk Festival.
Yet amid the electronic fireworks, Bennett was functioning, quite consciously, within a powerful stream of tradition. "I do see myself as a tradition bearer, I guess, someone who can pass things on," he told me in an interview. "There are maybe not so many people like myself who have been in the fortunate position to have grown up in a strong tradition."
That was three years ago, by which time Bennett, living on Mull with Kirsten, was engaged in a serious struggle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and had to pull out of all engagements as he endured chemo and radiotherapy as well as major surgery. Perhaps prompted by his enforced confinement, his next two recordings suggested a preoccupation with ancestral voices. In 2002, Glen Lyon was, in effect, a cycle of traditional Gaelic songs, sung by his mother and accompanied by minimal beats and instrumentation - and featuring briefly the singing of his great-great-grandfather, recorded on a wax cylinder in 1910.
Then came Grit - its title an expression of cultural resilience which could have been applied just as equally to his ongoing battle with illness. Unable to play and driven to field recordings, he spliced unadorned traditional singing by the likes of Calum Ruadh of Skye, and traveller singers Sheila Stewart and Davie "the Galoot" Stewart in uncompromisingly muscular electronic settings. He remarked that it might appeal to "connoisseurs of the more obscure drum and bass stuff", but also stressed that he saw it in terms of what the folk music collector Alan Lomax called "cultural equity". He was determined to put his tradition on a wider, global stage. In the event, The Scotsman’s review commented that Bennett’s beats and textures "reveal the old songs in a new light, but without losing their integral feeling and authenticity".
This inspired musical innovator died in the Marie Curie Hospice, Edinburgh, with his father, Iain Knight, mother and wife around him. Ironically, the next morning, pupils from the City of Edinburgh Music School were in a Glasgow studio, recording MacKay’s Memoirs, a stirring piece for chamber orchestra, Highland pipes and harp which Bennett, as a former pupil, wrote for the school’s centenary in 1999. It was given a jubilant reprise in Princes Street Gardens during the celebrations marking the opening of the Scottish Parliament that summer.
As the late poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson said when Bennett played him an early copy of Grit: "What brave new music."