We are discussing, in no particular order, Gaelic song, mock-Celticness and cancer. Martyn Bennett, the fearsomely inventive piper and multi-instrumentalist who brought Gaelic music to the club dance floor, is about to release his fourth album, Glen Lyon - with a fifth well under way. Both reflect a preoccupation with ancestral voices, prompted by an enforced confinement due to severe illness.
Off the road and unable to play the pipes - for the time being at least - Bennett has been working at his home studio, tapping into his family’s musical heritage and archive recordings. Glen Lyon turns out to be a song cycle, pure and simple - traditional Gaelic songs eloquently sung by his mother, the singer and folklorist Margaret Bennett. The songs are sparsely and sometimes starkly couched in a soundscape of minimal instrumentation - the odd wallop of percussion and the elemental sounds of wind and water, agricultural machinery and moorland birdcalls. As suggested by the album’s opening sound - the grainy strains of his great-great-grandfather, Peter Stewart, recorded on wax cylinder in 1910 - Bennett has been drawing from the wellsprings of a rich family heritage. It’s a heritage passed down to his Skye-born mother through generations, and encompassing both Gaelic singers and the tradition-bearers of the travelling folk.
It is hard, however, not to regard the album as an act of touching base in the face of serious illness. Bennett, scarcely into his thirties, has had to cancel all gigs, having been battling a form of cancer of the lymphomes, for two years. The beginning of this year saw a relapse and a major operation to remove a tumour, along with his spleen. Since then, he has been recovering at home in Mull with co-musician Kirsten Thomson, whom he wed earlier this month. He is now embarking on a daunting programme of radical chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation.
He doesn’t really want to talk about it. He’d much rather talk about the work, which includes Glen Lyon and another project, Grit, which wraps up his current preoccupation with ancestral voices with what he warns will be "probably the hardest and beatiest thing I’ve done yet".
So far as Glen Lyon is concerned, those expecting the familiar Bennett sound may be disappointed. There is none of the frenetic barrage of electronic beats and samples, underpinning piping and fiddling of demonic intensity, which has typified previous albums, such as Bothy Culture, which remained a fixture in the world music top ten for a year, or the hardcore-dance-trad fusion of Hardland. "I’ll be interested to see what people make of it," he says. "If they’re expecting more beats, it’s not about that. There’s lots of levels to it, corporeal and surreal, but also a cerebral aspect which people can take or leave as they wish."
Bennett had recorded his mother singing a couple of years back: "I said to her that she should really record some of these songs now, while her voice was still good. I didn’t intend doing anything with it; but then I realised there was such a nice amount of material there, I just started working on them, using the songs like a skeleton for what goes on round about them. I haven’t tried to swamp them."
Margaret Bennett’s repertoire includes some of the big, big songs of Gaeldom. On Glen Lyon you hear her answering the echoes of her own voice in Uamh an Oir, "The Cave of Gold", a song so elemental that the poet Sorley MacLean regarded it as an allegory for Everyman confronting the very mystery of life itself. The magisterial Griogal Cridhe, "Glen Lyon’s Lament" - a cornerstone of the Gaelic song repertoire - features in all its stark poignancy, Margaret’s voice sounding above violin and cello. It is, says her son, "simply the main song, for me, when I think about my mother and what she has".
Grit, now 70 per cent complete, is the result of Bennett’s forced confinement. He has spent this time returning to his vinyl collection of pre-1970s Scottish folk recordings, many of them gleaned in the field by notable collectors such as Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson, Thorkild Knudsen and Peter Cooke. He may have gone for West Highland Gaelic music and travellers’ Lowland Scots balladry as "by far the strongest links to past culture in Scotland", but he has couched them, he says, in "some fairly huge arrangements, pretty heavy stuff".
It might appeal to connoisseurs of "the more obscure drum and bass stuff", he thinks, but also to anyone who has an appreciation of what Alan Lomax use to call "cultural equity" - the need for all cultures to be validated by their fair share of air time and media exposure. It’s about putting his own tradition on a bigger, global stage. "And some of the travellers I’ve let hear it, like Sheila Stewart, think it’s fantastic. The power of what they’re doing comes through strongly."
The title he regards as an expression of cultural determination, reflecting the contrasts of coarse and fine inherent in his music. However, the making of Grit seemed almost to grind to a halt recently when Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, from whose copious archives some of the album material had been gleaned, refused permission for them to be used, despite the fact that Bennett had cleared their use with the families of performers. Two of the field recordings concerned were, in fact, of distant and now dead relatives of the musician, Calum Ruadh, bard of Skye, and traveller singer Davie "the Galoot" Stewart.
The school has since relented, saying in a letter to Bennett that his "grounding in, knowledge of and respect for the tradition and tradition bearers ... has never been in doubt".
"The school wasn’t happy because it thought I was going to use the recordings as sounds rather than actual performances," says Bennett, bemused by the episode, although he says he appreciates that some have used material from the archive without crediting it. He points out that every performer will be credited; also that he is trying to unravel a complicated situation in wishing to pay any due royalties to relatives of the largely deceased performers.
"I’m trying to be honest and fair about the whole thing. If anything, I’ll ram it down people’s throats to make sure they understand what it’s all about. The whole point with Grit will be to say: ‘This is where these things came from.’"
Bennett spent the first six years of his life in a Gaelic-speaking community in Newfoundland’s Cordroy Valley, before moving back to Scotland with his mother. Traditionally schooled as a piper, RSAMD-trained on violin, the young Bennett developed what some regard as the first truly Scottish hardcore dance music. It may have had sent purists gibbering and squeaking out of earshot, but nobody would deny the virtuosity of his playing, the ingenuity of the arrangements.
Some dubbed it "skirl ’n’ bass"; others seemed lost for words: "Scots music has never sounded like this before. No music has ever sounded like this before. Half the audience fled in fear of their lives," wrote a breathless Mojo reviewer after Bennett’s spot at the 2000 Cambridge Festival.
There is, in fact, another, less publicised, side to Bennett’s creativity - assorted quintets for brass or for strings and small pipes, or the superb piece for chamber orchestra, Highland pipes and clarsach, MacKay’s Memoirs, commissioned to mark the centenary of Edinburgh’s Broughton High School (he is a former pupil of its unique music unit), and given another, jubilant performance in Princes Street Gardens during the opening of the Scottish Parliament. All of this has yet to be recorded.
Dazzled by the sonic fireworks which have made his reputation, enthusiasts and critics alike have tended to forget that the slight, dreadlocked figure (currently sporting a near-shaven crop) who became known as "the techno piper" was functioning, quite consciously, within a powerful ongoing flow of tradition.
"I do see myself as a tradition-bearer, I guess, someone who can pass things on. There are maybe not so many people like myself who have been in the fortunate position to have grown up with a strong tradition, and I think Glen Lyon is an opportunity for people who are unfamiliar with the authentic sound of Gaelic traditional music.
"It’s free from the influence of the commercial, new-age, Celtic, tie-dyed fantasy, you know?" he adds, looking askance at some aspects of what has become known as the "Celtic music" scene. "I don’t really like the word ‘Celtic’ any more; it doesn’t mean very much these days."
While his integrity is without doubt, and his splicing of unadorned tradition with explosive electronic mixes free of any attempt at, or need for, gimmickry, does he not fear that something like Grit may fall between two stools, its folk content overlooked by the drum-and-bass aficionados, while folk enthusiasts look aghast at the big beats? "Perhaps - and I hope you don’t find this rude - for your generation, possibly it will be too challenging [hollow laugh from ageing reviewer]. But there is a new generation coming up who aren’t pigeonholed into any particular camp. With my audiences, I’ve found that there were a lot of young people up in front of the stage and they got older as they went further back. I think there’s a big cross-over."
Listening to Grit, the uninitiated, he reckons, may suffer from some cultural confusion - "I mean, some people might not even understand that it’s Scottish. They might think it’s Arabic or something, from the way that some of those travellers sing. And in this day and age, when everybody is generalising about people’s cultures … I mean, the 11 September thing was so appalling, but at the same time you heard so many people putting Islam into one big bag. If you hear the music of different cultures that, at the end of the day, sounds so similar, surely that’s a good healing point for everyone to realise?"
Glen Lyon is released on Foot Stompin’ Records on today.