Martyn Bennett’s anthology will be released in March. Martyn died 7 years ago – 30th January 2005. This piece was written by Sue Wilson and commissioned by the Martyn Bennett Trust. It is the sleevenotes of the album, written by Sue after long chats with Kirsten (Martyn’s widow) and lots of other people. It acts as an appropriate appreciation of Martyn and places him in the context of evolving Scottish music scene. For more got to Martyn Bennett here.
The sheer, breathtaking brilliance of Martyn Bennett was the shot in the arm that Scottish music needed to send it rocketing, supercharged, into the 21st century.” (John Byrne)
It’s a poor, pale substitute for his still being here, but as the years pass since Martyn’s untimely death, his seminal, seismic impact on our contemporary cultural landscape grows progressively more apparent.
If he were still here, on the one hand Martyn might well have laughed at such lofty language; on the other he’d have seen it as no more than his due. He relished puncturing pretension just as he espoused the grandest artistic ideals; was as capable of deep humility as he was of audacious ambition.
This Sunday afternoon dub tune is how I see life sometimes – a walk in the park and a piss in the duck pond. (Sorry if you thought that sound at the end was a cute little Scottish burn.)”
Schooled from childhood in both traditional and classical music, before diving head-first into rave culture, Martyn was the right man, in the right place and time, to make the quantum creative leap his music represents. His twin gifts of rigorous, restless intellect and profound spiritual consciousness, allied to his musical mastery – and his brilliantly mischievous sense of humour – enabled him to achieve a radical new synthesis of ancient and modern, local and global, rural and urban, that both embodied and advanced the fast-evolving culture he inhabited. Keenly media-savvy, in pursuit of often unworldly objectives, he crossed and transcended boundaries at many different levels, from that of image – as ‘the dreadlocked piper’ – to those of genre, art-form and audience.
“Try and find those things that make us Scottish. They are not necessarily tartan, but are no less colourful. They are in the sound of the kick drum, the bass line, the distortion, the punk guitar, the break-beat. Try and see the old ways in new surroundings.”
Martyn’s facility for encompassing such dualities resonates tellingly with that of another great Scottish artist and thinker, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who famously declared, in his 1926 magnum opus The Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle: “I’ll hae nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur extremes meet.” Like MacDiarmid, Martyn delighted in marrying traditional forms and idioms with untrammelled imaginative flights, the sacred with the profane, the raw with the rarefied, all in pursuit of rejuvenating Scotland’s rich past heritage amid the exigencies of the present.
“As globalisation is set to expand, I feel it’s time for us to face our own reflections in the great mirror of our cultures.”
Like MacDiarmid’s, too, Martyn’s perspective was at once staunchly Scottish and all-embracingly international, simultaneously splicing the cultural with the political, not least through his passionate commitment to the principle of ‘cultural equity’ – the term coined by celebrated US musicologist Alan Lomax (and later adopted by the UN), to assert the value of marginalised communities’ own modes of creative expression. “Practical men,” Lomax wrote, “often regard these expressive systems as doomed and valueless. Yet, wherever the principle of cultural equity comes into play, these creative wellsprings begin to flow again – even in this industrial age, folk traditions can come vigorously back to life, can raise community morale, and give birth to new forms if they have time and room to grow in their own communities.” As a précis of Martyn’s creative practice and aspirations, this could hardly be bettered.
The groundbreaking influence of Martyn’s work as both a Scottish and a world music artist – an identity underlined by the release of his final masterwork, Grit, on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label – is increasingly evident today. 21st century Scotland is an undisputed world leader in the musical ethos Martyn pioneered: in music where traditional idioms flourish on a par alongside any other sound currently extant, where fruitful cross-fertilisation is merrily rife, and where technical and artistic standards are fiercely but inspiringly high. And where Scotland’s cultural equity, too, has never been valued higher, both at home and abroad.
Throughout this hugely exciting scene, among both artists and audiences, Martyn remains an enduring inspiration. While variously and justly renowned as a piper, a fiddler, a composer, a producer and a thinker, Martyn himself ultimately favoured the title ‘sound designer’. He was the first to point out that he played – as opposed to made – very little of the music on Grit, and was as interested in expanding his production horizons, by actively mentoring younger musicians, as he was in continuing to bridge the realms of folk and classical composition, a direction so magnificently and heartbreakingly inaugurated in Mackay’s Memoirs. He himself professed to lack a truly outstanding talent on any one instrument, but even if true, this simply points to his unique genius in grasping and articulating the bigger picture – artistic, historical, ideological, psychological – of which he was part.
And if one considers, as many do, that this contemporary flourishing of Scotland’s music has been a key cultural fount of energy, dialogue and confidence behind 20 years of parallel political progress – then on the one hand Martyn’s loss feels all the sorer once again, but it also helps fully to illuminate just what a game-changer he was, and what a legacy he’s left us.
“You have achieved what I hoped you were going to achieve, which was to bring the old to the new, and you have bloody done it.” (Sheila Stewart)
And so while it’s cold comfort, it brings a warm glow nonetheless to know that Martyn would be a happy man alive in Scotland right now. He would without question have achieved wider direct recognition, and as such would be enjoying both greater clout and greater resources as he led his merry dance within our national culture. He would surely have rejoiced at the SNP’s famous 2011 victory – not necessarily as a particular party advocate, but as a believer in self-determination – and been happiest of all, as ever, in the thick of the ensuing debate: playing devil’s advocate, refusing easy answers, challenging us and himself to work – in Alasdair Gray’s celebrated phrase – “as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.”
But even in his tragic absence, the ongoing role he’s playing – another operative word – is ample grounds for celebration. Elegiac though his music now, in part, inescapably sounds, ultimately it triumphs in being as timeless and affirmative as this collection’s title.