Piping Today on Martyn Bennett

Martyn Bennett: Piping Today July/August 2012

Let’s be clear. Martyn Bennett was an outstanding piper. Indeed, such an outstanding piper that when the histories of piping in the late 20th century are written, he will stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best and be in the very rarefied company of Duncan, Morrison, Mathieson et al whose playing revolutionised the music of the bagpipe.

Yet Martyn did not have a string of gold medals from the big meetings to hang on his wall or a stack of World Championship trophies from the pipe band scene clogging up his sideboard. No. Martyn was the dreadlocked scruff who wandered on to the stage in Doc Martens and combats (or jeans so shredded they looked like they had been put on by Edward Scissorhands) and then launched into tunes where rhythms and melody wove in and out of each other like the threads in a length of Harris tweed.

At the big setpiece piping concert (Celtic Connections etc.), his playing frequently challenged those hidebound by their narrow view of the way piping ‘should be’, yet even they were frequently won over by his fervent passion and enthusiasm, not to mention his superb technique and musicality. (Even those not moved by the music would admit - ‘the boy can play’).

It is both a great pity and absolutely correct that Martyn never recorded a solo piping CD in the grand tradition. It would, of course, have been  an anathema to him but what a great piping CD it would have been. Martyn Bennett, the eponymous first CD, was as close as he got and it, of course, has more going on than a Monty Python film.

While most would settle for proficiency in one instrument, this was not the path for Martyn, as he was an accomplished musician, in the broadest sense, highly skilled on a number of instruments and with a deep understanding - and love - of music in all its diverse manifestations. He saw no boundaries, and was happy to meld traveller singers, poetry recitations, psalmody, canntaireachd, Gaelic song and much, much more, with urban rhythms and dance beats to create that distinctive Martyn Bennett sound. That sound was always rooted in the tradition (he often sampled tracks recorded in the 50s) yet it was bent, with smithy-like skill, into something pertinent and relevant to today.

It was that deep love and understanding of the authentic sounds of Scotland (he had little time for the Celtic Mist brigade) that allowed him to be so creative and where others might take the path of least resistance, he took the longer road home to get the sound he was looking for.

Born in 1971 in St John’s, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, to Margaret Bennett and Ian Knight, Martyn Bennett-Knight (he would later drop the hyphenated Knight) may only have had 33 years on this planet but what good use he made of them. With a Gaelic singer and folklorist for a mother, a father who played lots of Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes to him when he was young, and an extended family that revelled in the traditional sounds, it is no surprise that Martyn loved music, it was clearly in his genes.

It was after he had returned to Scotland with his mother that Martyn came into contact with David Taylor, history teacher at Kingussie High School and the man who taught him to play the pipes. As David later stated in Margaret Bennett book on Martyn, ‘It’s not the time you have...’, ‘He was the most natural learner I’ve ever encountered - even making a practice chanter musical’.

However the admiration was not just one way with Martyn saying ‘Although I have had many lessons from great teachers I still consider David as my most important mentor’. When you consider the institutions Martyn attended and the people that taught him (including Captain John MacLellan), that is praise indeed for David’s musical nurturing talents. Martyn’s musical ability was thus evident from a very early age yet despite taking to the pipes like a politian to expenses, he also had an affinity for classical music. At the age of 15, he started to attend the Edinburgh School of Music (attached to Broughton High School) where he focused on piano and violin, keeping the fact that he played the pipes or indeed traditional music very low key. So it was classical music by day and traditional by night. There seems little doubt that Martyn had the skills to go on and make an impact in the classical arena but he found the classical world impinged on the way he wanted to make music, as he put it, ‘It became more and more apparent that freedom in this environment was a rare thing’. Yet this stint and the subsequent spell at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, where he studied violin, were to arm him with the skills that he would put to such good use in his music, and it was a key factor in his collaborations with others as he helped them develop their music.

It is clear sign of the strength of character Martyn had, that despite his training, he was able to resist the push into the classical performance arena while at the same time resisting settling into a comfortable space in the traditional genre. Instead, he choose to give Scottish music a good shake by its lapels and forge a new path. A path many musicians in Scotland have since been happy to travel down, although few have scaled the heights that Martyn did.

Despite the relatively short time Martyn had to perform, he still managed to produce an impressive array of recordings. As you listen to the CDs it is the breadth of the imagination that strikes home. Whether it is gently underpinning Sorley MacLean as he reads Hallaig, his poem reflecting on the impact of the Highland clearances, turning Sheila Stewart’s recording of Ewan MacColl’s Moving On Song into a clubland dance track it, doing the same to Mairi Morrison’s canntaireachd version of Mrs MacLeod of Raasay or simply letting the heart rending melody of Criogal Cridhe (Glen Lyon Lament), sung by his mother, stand bare but for the sparest fiddle playing they all have the unmistakable stamp of Martyn Bennett on them.

Martyn had access to Alan Lomax’s recordings of Gaelic singing and was able to mine this rich seam for inspiration and many of his tracks feature singers from the early days of the fieldwork carried out into the traditional singing of the country. However, few are as early as the recording of his great great grandfather, Peter Stewart, recorded in 1910 on wax cylinder that is the basis for the opening track on Glen Lyon (A Song Cycle), his collaboration with his mother. That CD also features The Lament for John Macleod of Raasay with Martyn’s poignant pipe playing echoing Margaret’s plaintive voice as together they evoke the loss felt by John’s grieving sister. Elegant, simple and powerfully emotive or raucous tub- thumping music to strut your stuff to, take your pick, there is a Martyn Bennett track in his oeuvre to suit everyone.

Intense and driven as he was to create the music he wanted, he still retained a keen sense of humour, and that is evident throughout his music - who else would have the word ‘rubbish’ repeated throughout one of their own tracks (Deoch and Doris Pt2 on his first CD). Indeed, that sense of fun pervades Martyn’s music with even the hardest of his dance tracks having joy tattooed right through the middle of them. It is music to get up and dance to and Martyn was a master at slipping in the odd phrase or even just a word at precise the right time in the track to raise a smile. It also not everybody that would have 10 minutes of the sound of a stream running to close out their album.

That Martyn was able to be so prodigious in creating music over the few years he had speaks volumes for his energy and drive. He had already beaten testicular cancer when in 2000 he was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. Despite the rigours of the treatment, Martyn managed to continue working and it was in 2004 that he began working with Calum Martin on the recording of psalm in the Back Free church in Lewis. This work came out as Salm vols 1&2 and as the track Liberation on GRIT.

“he choose to give Scottish music a good shake by its lapels and forge a new path”

On the face of it, this just doesn’t seem possible. Here was arguably the most innovative person in the Scottish Music scene making music with a church so musically conservative it is still using a style of singing (precenting - singing out the line that is to be sung back by the congregation) that dates back centuries, but he understood psalmody and precenting and seamlessly integrated it into his musical tapestry.

With Michael Marra reading the English version of Psalm 118 along with Murdina and Effie MacDonald’s precenting it in Gaelic from a 1964 recording and a driving club beat weaving in and out, Liberation is Martyn at his best. Most people couldn’t even conceive the idea, let alone carry it out with the verve and panache that he did.

Remarkably, Martyn was usually composer, performer and producer on his albums with his talent allowing him to play several parts and mix them together, along with the sampled sounds, anyway he wanted. His last album, GRIT, saw him focus on the songs of travelling people and the sounds of the Gaelic songs of the west coast of Scotland to produce what he called ‘my hardest, most beatiest project yet’. It took grit to make, has grit by the bucketful in each track and is GRIT in name and nature. Martyn lost his fight with cancer on January 30, 2005. It was clear long before then that he had influenced a whole generation of musicians. His was music that didn’t just cross boundaries, it crisscrossed them several times over and as such gave carte blanche to those who choose to follow on. But it is no free ride, they need to know their stuff (really know their stuff) and have that grit that keeps it real and stops it running off into the Celtic Mists.

Aside from Croft No 5, and the Treacherous Orchestra (to name but two) additional evidence of Martyn’s enduring influence comes from the ScottishPower Pipe Band under pipe major Chris Armstrong when they performed Martyn’s piece Mackay’s Memoirs with an orchestra alongside on stage. The 14 or so minutes of the suite, loosely based on the piobaireachd Lament for Mary MacLeod, was a triumph for the band and one that not only beautifully showcased the consummate skills of all the musicians involved but also illustrated the genius of the composer.

Chris MacKenzie, Piping Today
Published July/August Edition 2012