The restorative power of music

Obituary: The Telegraph

Martyn Bennett, who has died aged 34, was a musician responsible for mixing traditional Scottish folk with techno; his albums Bothy Culture and Hardland demonstrated the possibilities of combining his own virtuoso performances on the pipes and fiddle with the thumping beats of club rhythms.

Debilitated by cancer in recent years, he was unable to play on his recently completed album Grit, but it showed a continuing interest in the combination of diverse styles, mixing hardbeats with samples drawn from the songs and stories of Romanies and Gaelic singers which Bennett had recorded. He also, in Glen Lyon, released a gentler collection of music featuring his mother Margaret's singing, in a song cycle exploring his family history.

Martyn Bennett was born on February 17 1971 at St John's, Newfoundland, to a family from Scotland and Wales, and grew up amidst Gaelic-speaking farmers in the Cordroy Valley in the west of the province before his parents moved to Quebec.

When Martyn was six, his parents separated and he moved back to Scotland, settling on Mull and then, when he was 10, at Kingussie on Speyside. There, under the tutelage of David Taylor, he took up the chanter, and by 12 was winning piping contests around Scotland.

Young Martyn was always as interested in the folk festivals he attended as the Ceol Mor – and especially in being smuggled into pubs, where he soaked up the oral tradition of Romany gipsies, Gaelic bards and storytellers. When he was 15, his mother moved to Edinburgh and he enrolled in the City School of Music attached to Broughton High School.

These he thought the most important three years of his life, and he added a classical training to his traditional background. In 1990, Bennett went on to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, where he studied violin (under Miles Baster) and piano, and met his wife Kirsten, a harpsichordist. But he kept up his folk music (he thought violin and fiddle techniques incompatible, for the most part) by playing sessions in pubs.

Before he graduated in 1994, Bennett was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and he was to be troubled by illness for much of his remaining years. But he seemed at first to have made a good recovery, and became interested in experimenting with free-form jazz and fusion; he also bought his first electronic keyboard (an Ensoniq SQ1).

The explosion of dance music in the summer of 1994 made Bennett a regular at clubs such as Squid, Sativa and Slam in Edinburgh, and he began to experiment with samplers and a small mixing desk. He thought his classical training a great advantage – "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."

His first album, Martyn Bennett, was recorded in the spring of 1995 in seven days and released by Eclectic Records. Its impact on Scottish music was dramatic:traditionalists were in awe of his technical mastery of the pipes and fiddle, while the fusion of folk melodies with hardbeats and samples from odd sources (the sound of a river flowing occupies a good portion of the record) impressed fans of "roots" and "world" music.

Bennett also began to compose for stage productions, including Tom McGrath's adaptation of Kidnapped, and to produce scores for television. He continued to play live, and spent three months touring America supporting Wolfstone before, in 1995, and again the following year, appearing at Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations, before a crowd of 90,000.

When the Tanzanian president visited Scotland, Bennett operated as his personal piper during his stay.

In 1997, he released Bothy Culture and followed it with Hardland: both records had something in common with Moby's Play, in their use of loops and samples, but they remained defiantly edgier, and more closely grounded in the syntax of traditional song.

Glen Lyon, which was released after he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, set five generations' worth of Gaelic song against samples drawn from the natural world. But with Grit, his final recording, Bennett returned to more aggressive beats, sampling speech and song from travellers and Highlanders with a sophistication which bears comparison with such established pieces as Steve Reich's Different Trains.

A gentle and generous figure with a ready sense of humour, Bennett was unfailingly interested in developments in roots music. He continued to attend gigs and to work with other musicians throughout his illness, though he destroyed his instruments in a fit of temper – which he later regretted.

He died on Monday, and is survived by his wife Kirsten.