QUEENS HALL, EDINBURGH, SATURDAY 27 OCTOBER 2007
Sue Wilson hears the musical legacy of Martyn Bennett act as a catalyst for new creative explorations.
It's coming up for three years now since the death from cancer of the composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Martyn Bennett. This is the third concert staged by the Martyn Bennett Trust, established in 2005 to build on his groundbreaking musical legacy. Where the first two shows were essentially commemorative tributes, 2007’s event was the first to commission new music. As one possible starting-point, the chosen composers were invited to sift through an assorted pile of notes, tunes, jottings and manuscript sheets found in a bag among Bennett’s belongings.
Violinist Robert McFall – founder of alt.classical outfit Mr McFall’s Chamber, as well as a member of the SCO – had done just that, and picked out a piece entitled ‘Peewits’, originally written for solo fiddle, but beautifully arranged here for string quartet. Evidently inspired by the plaintive cry of the bird it was named for, the music unfolded in long, slow measures, at once tranquil and bittersweet, lingering on the layered strings’ sensuous timbres and gracefully shifting harmonies, before segueing into a second piece, Fraser Fifield’s ‘Kilchoan Ferry’, with the addition of its composer on low whistle. This took us into more turbulent waters, being largely in Balkan-style 7/8 time, reflecting Bennett’s passion for alternative rhythms and diverse musical traditions, as Fifield’s tremendously forceful yet liquid blowing sparred and parried with the strings’ darting, glancing forays, deftly interspersed with smoother, mellower passages.
With the four new commissions spread throughout the programme, they were complemented by half a dozen other contributions, from musicians variously touched or inspired by Bennett and his music.
Opening the show was the City of Edinburgh Music School, where Bennett was a student in the 1980s, performing ‘Memories of a Traveller’, a brief but lovely composition by one of the school’s most recent alumni, Mairi Tully. The emphasis on youth – recalling both Bennett’s own precocious talents and his devotion to encouraging younger musicians – continued with a lively set of subtly funked-up tunes from Flying Fiddles, a teenage ensemble from South Uist and Benbecula, originally founded by Deidre Morrison, a member of Bennett’s band Cuillin Music. Also in the first half – and also from South Uist - Bennett’s favourite piper Fred Morrison delivered a typically jaw-dropping medley on the uilleann pipes, his audaciously elastic phrasing swerving deep into blues territory, while his array of chords from the instrument’s regulators sounded at times like a miniature brass section.
Bennett’s mother, the singer and folklorist Margaret Bennett, also received some of the night’s warmest applause, performing a rhythmic, Native American-influenced Gaelic song she originally learned in Newfoundland – and which featured on Bennett’s last album Grit – before a spine-tingling rendition of ‘The Glen Lyon Lament ’.
Next up, striking a suitably cross-cultural note, was an arresting dance duet from Seona Robinson and Shruti Chitnis, combining Indian classical choreography with the driving Celtic/Arabic grooves of Bennett’s track ‘Ud the Doudouk’.
Lastly before the interval came the second commissioned piece, a fusion of digital and live instrumentation created by saxophonist Phil Bancroft and DJ Dolphin Boy. Taking its title from Bennett’s ‘4 Notes’, off his second album Bothy Culture, it brilliantly continued the original’s exploration of this deliberately limited melodic palette, meshing powerful yet soulful beats and rich electronic textures with fiddles, pipes, sax, guitar, and recordings of Bennett’s voice, talking about both his music and his illness. With its potent melodic heart, improvisational wildness and climactic sweeping grandeur, it expressed both the fierce anguish of a lament and the exuberant inventiveness that was Bennett’s primary defining trait.
The third commission to be unveiled was veteran experimentalist Bill Wells’s ‘Paradise Fucked’, based on an extract from Bennett’s composition of that name, and arranged for an 11-strong ensemble including fiddles, cello, pipes, sax, bass and guitar. Also featuring Wells on piano, and led by the Pastels’ Katrina Mitchell on the Tenori-On, a newly-invented Japanese instrument whose buttons triggered sequences of both musical notes and flashing lights, it proceeded in a succession of incremental shifts, gradually adding then subtracting layers of instrumentation, in a manner akin to minimalist music. Its elegant parabolic trajectory was hindered by poor sound separation, and many of the players seemed somewhat underused, but it certainly executed some interesting ideas, and sounded ripe for further development.
Completing the quartet of premieres, saxophonist Laura MacDonald’s ‘Ode To Martyn’ also involved a large cast, numbering over a dozen folk and jazz musicians, and also didn’t entirely gel into more than the sum of its parts. With everyone mostly playing all at once, there was little dynamic differentiation through the piece, while a decidedly un-catchy melodic motif also dampened its impact.
The freewheeling collective energy onstage nonetheless buoyantly captured the spirit of the occasion, paving the way for Cuillin Music themselves to close out the night, with five majestically high-octane dance tracks from their original live set.
Taken together, too, the four commissions marked a significant and fruitful step forward in the work of the Martyn Bennett Trust, towards their aim of promoting Bennett’s music not only as a remarkable body of work, but as a multi-directional catalyst for fresh creativity. © Sue Wilson, 2007