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."
Biography (Courtesy of Rykodisc Records, early)
Martyn Bennett was born in Newfoundland, Canada in 1971 to a family rooted in both the Island of Skye and Wales. He spent his formative years in the Cordroy Valley surrounded by Gaelic-speaking Scottish immigrants who had come from Canna and Moidart in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland in 1820. So it is ironic that the most concentrated source of his musical upbringing was absorbed some 2500 miles from its origin, which, for the most part, had become much diluted since the times of The Highland Clearances and the tragic aftermath of the Jacobite uprisings of 1690-1746.
When he was six years old, Martyn and his parents moved to Scotland where he heard first hand the music he had been exposed to in Newfoundland. At the age of 15, he enrolled in a specialist music school in Edinburgh, Scotland which led to his acceptance at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, where Martyn began formal classical training for violin and piano.
Having learned the language of a new musical territory, and already well versed in the traditional folk of his family, Martyn played both in the pub session and in the symphony orchestra, learned both the Ceol Mor for the solo bagpipe (the oldest form of bagpipe music) and Ysaye’s solo violin sonatas. Each world knew nothing of the other, and the prospect of taking either across the boundaries seemed equally possible and daunting. At age 19, he took to the peaking rave scene in Glasgow and began formulating what would become his signature hybrid of traditional Gaelic and modern house, hip-hop, and dance music.
Martyn fused rural and urban music (rurban, urbal?), mixing classical styles with contemporary rhythms and technologies, and emerged with a sound which was unique yet familiar, and in high demand throughout Glasgow. After finding his niche in the Gaelic/dance arena, Martyn began garnering attention by composing for European theatrical productions. Beginning with the score for The Haunting of Billy Marshall, Martyn composed for the Tom McGrath adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and David Harrower’s Knives in Hens. These works led to television and movie scores and eventually on to solo performances, highlights of which include performing as personal piper for the Tanzanian President on his visit to Edinburgh, a three month tour of the U.S. with Green Linnet recording artist Wolfstone, consecutive appearances (in 1995 and 1996) at the Edinburgh Hogmanay for crowds of over 90,000 people (and a couple of sheep), and a gig as entertainer for the Braveheart premiere at Stirling Castle.
He has appeared as a guest musician on numerous albums, and in 1996, the independent Scottish label, Eclectic Records released his first solo recording, a self-titled full length CD. The album brought the urban folk sounds of Martyn’s music to an ever widening European audience and now, just over a year later, Rykodisc’s release of BOTHY CULTURE extends Martyn’s musical reach across the pond and beyond.
In the meantime, Martyn is somewhere ever exploring in his cupboard studio, or nesting in among the others around a fire in a bothy high up in the mountains of Scotland...
Biography (Courtesy of the Artist’s site, later).
I was born on the 17th of February 1971 in St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. My earliest memories of music are from the Gaelic-speaking farm communities in Cordroy Valley, in Western Newfoundland, and Milan and Scotstown in Quebec where I spent my first six years.
At the age of six my parents split up and I moved back to Scotland with my mother. At the age of ten we settled in Kingussie, Speyside where I met with my first instrument - the Great Highland Bagpipe. I was introduced to this, most magnificent instrument, by a fantastic guy named David Taylor (who was also my history teacher). Although I have had many lessons from great teachers I still consider David as my most important mentor. I can remember my first lesson well - holding the chanter, I felt like I had come across an old friend - no pun intended, honest!
By the age of twelve I was winning prizes in many of the junior piping competitions around Scotland, however I was really more interested in playing the folk scene. Being a young prodigy meant that I got a lot of attention at the folk festivals, as there were very few young musicians around at that time. It was also a total gas being snuck into the pubs under someone’s coat and getting the pipes out before anyone had noticed the under-age drinker. By the time I’d got through the first tune and the place was jumping they were hardly going to chuck me out were they?
It was at these festivals that I met with 'real' people. People who came from an oral tradition that had been passed down; folk like the travellers (Romany Gypsies), Gaelic singers and bards - all great musicians, storytellers and tradition bearers, of whom many are sadly no more. I’m aware that this is an experience that very few people of my age will ever know and one that I feel has been a privilege to pass on - see GRIT.
As ever, my mother had the itchy feet, and in 1986 at the age of 15 we had moved again to Edinburgh where I decided I would try for a scholarship at the Edinburgh City School of Music which had a unit attached to Broughton High School. Being a conservatoire for Classical music, there had never been a traditional musician admitted before, and the next three years were, without doubt, the most important three years of my life. It was at Broughton that I received lessons in composition, violin and piano, learned to read and write music and immersed myself in the surrounded energy of other highly talented and motivated young musicians. The amount of knowledge I gained in those three years was absolutely vital to my future career and the route which I would follow.
In 1990 I gained a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama (RSAMD) to study performance on the violin and piano. There I met a gorgeous gal by the name of Kirsten who played harpsichord - she lives with me now and is called Mrs Bennett.
My new violin teacher, a great character by the name of Miles Baster was a true classical musician. He was the first violinist of the Edinburgh Quartet, which he founded in 1968, and very much of the ‘old school’. Educated at Kings College Cambridge, and trained at the Julliard in New York he had a superb, plummy accent, rich tastes in wine and clothing, and a scary pedigree behind him that could be traced right back through all the great violinists - Persinger, Ysaye, Wieniawski , Massart, etc. It was a joy to study under him and I worked hard at fulfilling a dream that perhaps I might find myself playing in a professional ensemble or Quartet. Although I enjoyed the sheer power of the bigger orchestra I hoped to avoid the bind of rank and file session work and be able to express myself more freely.
Although studying with Miles and meeting Kirsten my future wife was the highlight of my stay at the RSAMD, I can’t say that my experiences of the Classical world were altogether healthy. It became more and more apparent that freedom in this environment was a rare thing. I think that unfortunately the Classical world is not an altogether happy place - at least in the UK anyway. I won’t expand on this other than to point out that, like any pinnacle of high art and intellectual thinking, an intense nature is needed. In an academic sense this can often be quite suffocating and this inevitably transfers to the professional circle. Enjoyment of the music is one thing but I found it was out-weighed by the pressure to succeed. I would say that I got very stressed towards the end of four years and just before graduating in ’93 I was diagnosed with testicular cancer - ouch. Time to rethink...
During my time at the RSAMD I had worked hard on my technique as a violinist, but kept my traditional music going by way of the odd pub session. Nobody at the Academy knew that I played trad music (or the pipes for that matter) and it wasn’t until I left in 1994 that I began 'relearning' the fiddle. Techniques used in classical and trad music are, to the most part, incompatible, however it was useful to have unlimited recourses under the fingers and I began experimenting in the field of free-jazz and fusion. I bought a very basic keyboard (Ensoniq SQ1 for the techy-heads) with an on-board sequencer and began writing bits and pieces. However, it was not until I had saved up enough dosh to purchase a sampler and a small mixing desk that things started to get interesting.
In 1994 the ‘Summer of Love’ was in full swing. There were some fantastic sessions and underground stuff going on (anyone in Edinburgh at that time will remember Friday nights at Squid, Sativa, Slam or Club Latino and Mondays at Black Bo’s and Legends). I was really blown away by some of the DJ sets I heard and started to think about how I could get involved with that kind of music. I think for a classically trained composer, the dance world is such an attractive place as it encapsulates the same musical ethos. It is principally about sound and scale, tension and release, power and detail - much like the orchestral canvas perhaps. It is no wonder that many of us end up composing using technology. Drums and beats became the focus of my days and I spent a lot of time with my Atari and Roland S760 sampling Bull-dog Breaks and incorporating my first tunes.
In the spring of 1995, with backing from a small independent label in Edinburgh, I took my tiny home studio into Castlesound Studios in Pencaitland. I can’t believe now, when I listen to it, that Stuart Hamilton, the engineer, and I managed to record and mix an entire album in just seven days. Even though the limitations of my knowledge of technology and the equipment itself can be heard in that first album I think it has a spirit of the moment that I still love to this day.
Well the rest is history, as they say...
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