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Sunday 17 February 2013

Songs on Sunday: Martyn Bennett

Martyn Bennett (1971 - 2005)

1. An introduction

As I've mentioned before, Martyn Bennett is a musician that has a deeply personal impact upon me. His music was introduced to me in the same year that Bennett died and at the time I felt that I'd missed something, it had passed me by without my awareness and, as someone who grew up in Scotland and purported to like folk music and electronica, I felt a wee bit ashamed of myself for not knowing of him while he lived. The friend who introduced me to Bennett's music was also a multi-talented individual and also died at a young age. It is he that I keep referring to obliquely in my recent posts. That Bennett also died of the same type of cancer that killed my dad is another connection, albeit a tenuous one, but yet I feel a connection for these reasons to the music of Martyn. It also helps that I really like the music and the ethos behind the music.

However, this isn't just going to be a piece about the personal nature of my relationship to Bennett's music. His music also represents, for me, something important for the future of Scotland. Often an artist can offer a mirror upon the culture they are part of and thus display something of a commentary. Bennett's attempt to fuse the old traditional sounds with the new modern techno scene, and incorporate world music in a different manner, offers something like a description of a more liberal, but rooted, sense of Scottishness.

2. A short biography

Bennett was born in a Gaelic-speaking community in Newfoundland, Canada. He moved to Scotland aged six with his mother, when his parents separated. He moved several times while growing up in Scotland,  seeing all types of communities, from the remote small towns to the busy cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow (where he eventually went to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama). He was a young talent with the bagpipes winning various prizes in junior piping competitions around Scotland. As well as the Great Highland Bagpipes, Bennett was also trained in classical violin and piano, something he immersed himself in the study of during his teenage years (in the Edinburgh City School of Music).After leaving the RSAMD in Glasgow (since 2011 it is now known as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), Bennett decided to leave the world of classical music behind, primarily because of the lack of freedom such a living would entail. Around this time he began experimenting with free-jazz and fusion, as well as learning the DJ skills of recording, sampling, looping, in short using the new technology.

Here is his obituary from the Guardian newspaper.

3. The music (foreground)

Martyn Bennett made five albums and contributed to several more during his music career. Here are my own impressions of those five main works and some sample videos lifted from Youtube. 

His first album, the self-titled 'Martyn Bennett' was released in 1996.

Martyn Bennett describes his own album, "Recorded and mixed in just seven days, I listen to this album now with a hidden smile. Yes, I can hear the limitations of my knowledge of electronics and the small amount of equipment I had at my disposal, but this album, for me, is like a child. It’s full of fun and abandon. It does not care about the 'correctness' of the sounds or complexity of arrangement, it only cares about energy and light." (Link here)

Like many artists he has a obvious attachment to this fledgling work, as it possesses an energy and free play that his illness would later damage and make creating music much harder. Indeed, illness or no, this is a common complaint of artists, were one's initial projects seem to come much easier, but as time progresses one loses touch with what motivated you in the early days. 

As an early work it is obviously less crafted and more ragged than all his later productions, but it does carry and air of excited experimentation and an enthusiasm for the sound that is infectious. Also, it's easy to spot Bennett as someone with a background in the traditional, but with a love for all the new technology in music.

In his second album, 'Bothy Culture', Martyn Bennett was able to craft a much more professional work and this only a short time later. 'Bothy Culture' was released on Rykodisc records in 1998. It is quite possibly his best critically received work, certainly in Scotland, and remains one of his best selling albums (either first or second to 'Grit' based on sales on Amazon and iTunes). 

It's actually my least favourite album of Bennett's, but that isn't to say I dislike it, I just find myself less likely to listen to this album. Perhaps it's because out of all his albums, this seems the most categorisable as 'Celtic Fusion' and sounds very much like other bands of a similar nature, that is; Peatbog Faeries, Shooglenifty, and so forth. There's still a recognisable element of Martyn here though, his use of certain samples and his sense of humour that runs through all his work. It also allows him to reference the variety of Scottish and World influences, which includes the excellent track 'Hallaig' that features the verse of the Scottish poet Sorley MacLean.

For all that, perhaps the thing that I do find objectionable about Bothy Culture and why I consider it the least 'like Martyn', is the lack of risk, the safety and almost ordinariness of the sounds he creates. Don't get me wrong they are still an enjoyable listen and worthy of the album's attention that it gathered at the time.It's still quality Celtic Fusion and the equal of all other World music. It is liable to be the most accessible album for people coming from the folk music side and except for perhaps the later album Grit it is also probably the best known. 

It is with his third album, the excellent 'Hardland', that really sees Martyn Bennett setting out to create his unique and personal statement. Hardland was recorded in collaboration with Martin Low in 2000, when Martyn and his wife had moved out to a more remote part of Scotland.

The move of location is something that I'd suggest helped with the creation of this more personal statement. Unlike his previous two albums, Hardland is not an album meant to be played quietly, nor is it comtemplative or introspective, it takes its influence directly from the underground party scene and fuses it with traditional Scottish music. It wasn't overly well received at the time, as the folkies didn't like the hard abrasive techno sounds and the clubbers couldn't really get on with the traditional sounds of the bagpipes and so forth. It probably would have found more of a home in underground dance venues, but it's also hard to break into this scene as it's very faddish, led by group fashion, and word of mouth. Indeed, none of this would translate into anything like mainstream success. Additionally those critics that lauded the previous album (who were many) now were also the sort who were unlikely to appreciate this sort of musical experimentalism. It is however, for my tastes, the best album Martyn Bennett made. The ceilidh need not be a place of maintaining ancient traditions, but it is simply a mega dance party, albeit a Scottish one. This is what the album Hardland is, an exuberant celebration of modern Scottish culture with all its flaws and problems.

The vocal seemingly saying, "Evil, evil..." is actually "Eubhal," which is Gaelic for a small hill on a remote Hebridean island.

Bennett's fourth album, 'Glen Lyon: A Song Cycle', is quite a radical departure from Hardland but counter-balances it well. Glen Lyon seems like something of a personal project, while this is true of the majority of Martyn's work, this is especially true about this album.

It is a series of songs sung almost entirely by Martyn's mother Margaret in Gaelic, indeed, the only other vocals come from Bennett's great-great-grandfather Peter Stewart on the opening track. It is quite a spare, minimal album, but it is very beautiful, and it is a work that feels to be harking back to the past. Not just Scotland's, but Martyn Bennett's as well. Musical nostalgia might be an appropriate description.

As a companion piece to Hardland, Glen Lyon works extremely well. Whereas one highlights the vibrancy, energy, and 'hardness' of a new Scotland, the other tells us of remoteness, closeness with nature (the excellent gentle mixing of ambient natural noises throughout the album), historical connections with old traditions, and lyrical beauty. It's the ambient 'come down' album after a hard partying to Hardland.. Absolutely love it.

GRIT is Martyn Bennett's final album (although he did write a piece of music that was recorded shortly after his death, 'Mackays Memoirs', which is counted as his last work).

At the time of recording GRIT (in 2003) Martyn Bennett was very ill with cancer and no longer able to play, or rather he was no longer able to play and get the sound from the instruments in the way he had before. Thus GRIT utilises many samples from Scottish folk singers from the 1950's, as well as more contemporary sounds. In describing the title of the album Bennett has said several things, first from his own blog:
The obscure title means many things to me personally, however it is tied up in my ideas of where Scottish culture lies: GRIT can be seen on road signs anywhere in the world, it is an expression of determination, an onomatopoeic word: it reflects the contrasts found in its music both course and fine. There is an old intonation (tuning) throughout the album that I hope the listener can appreciate, because far from being 'out-of-tune', this flavour not only touches true grit in terms of tradition, but also exposes technique born of passion.
Secondly, and more pointedly, from his obituary:

"Cancer is a piece of grit inside your soul which you can't get out, so you have to try and make something of it. But grit is also rock salt, an old medicine. I also see it as representative of cultures trying to survive."

GRIT was the first album of Bennett's that I heard and as someone coming more from dance music than folk music, I found it easier to get along with. Not that I don't appreciate Scottish folk music, I certainly do, it's just that I feel more comfortable with, I have more knowledge of, electronic music. So, upon hearing GRIT it reminded me of Moby's album Play (something Bennett acknowledges) and other musicians who have sampled older musical styles and fused them with contemporary electronic sounds.