We often say on our music tours that Celtic Connections is as much about the connections part of its name as it is about Celtic music, and there can be no better example of this than the Grit Orchestra, a 75-piece beast of a group comprising musicians from Scotland’s classical, jazz and folk fraternities.
The orchestra was initially formed to perform at Nae Regrets, the festival’s opening concert in 2015, which is regarded by many as an alltime highlight of Celtic Connections.
Now artistic director Donald Shaw and conductor/arranger Greg Lawson are getting the band back together for the most ambitious event in the festival’s 25 years. Nae Regrets celebrated piper Martyn Bennett’s final album, Grit; now the orchestra named in its honour will perform Lawson’s arrangement of another Bennett album at Bothy Culture and Beyond at the Hydro, where they will be joined by aerial artists and stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill, who used Bennett’s music so effectively as the soundtrack for his stunning short film The Ridge.
In anticipation of this audio-visual spectacular, we spoke to Greg Lawson about this unstoppable orchestra. But first of all, here’s Donald Shaw…
On Martyn Bennett
When I was growing up playing traditional music, it almost felt like there was a rulebook and there was parameters for how you played tunes and arranged them, and I think that was a generational thing. Martyn was the first person I met who would take a tune and try to break the tradition – not wilfully, just looking for another way. So my experience of him was as a brilliant maverick for traditional music. I think he would have gone on to do exactly what we are doing with these albums himself at some point. He was definitely an important catalyst at a time when traditional music was beginning to find a sense of respect. I’m of an age when I can remember going to school and being ridiculed for carrying a traditional instrument and he was at that time where there was a new feeling about traditional music and the most important thing was that it reached out to the youth. Once young people began to understand it, it changed the whole perception of what traditional music was and gave it a sense of respect and confidence. We are now in a completely different world in Scotland for traditional music, it’s everywhere.
On the Grit Orchestra
There was a lot of love for Martyn and for the idea of reproducing Grit and there was an extraordinary energy and sense of commitment on the stage. There’s a little bit of wildness that is maybe curtailed in your typical orchestral scenario where there is still a certain amount of refinement in terms of what venues they are in, the idea that you need to sit still and listen, there’s a certain time when to clap or not. It’s very controlled and that’s fine but when you get a great orchestra, it’s the greatest sound in the world, the power of it is extraordinary. What Greg is creating with Bothy Culture is a massive rave with an orchestra but also drawing on the ability of these amazing musicians to create something special.
On Danny MacAskill
I always thought watching Danny in those films was like watching a dancer, it’s so graceful and felt like there was an obvious connection to music. He’s pretty reclusive so it’s been a long time coming – three years of texts. He’s kind of just a kid who loves going out on his bike, he’s pretty underground but he really loved the idea. He’s a big fan of music generally.
And now here’s Greg Lawson on his mighty creation, the Grit Orchestra…
That first concert was extraordinary in so many ways. I was in a really bizarre state of mind in that I was writing all this stuff and I was thinking ‘do I know what I’m doing here? if I get this wrong I’m going to have to go into hiding’. And so when I heard the orchestra for the first time in rehearsal, which was the day before the concert, I knew this was not the end of something; this was potentially the beginning of something and that frightened me because I hadn’t planned for that at all. And then one day later we are in the hall playing the gig and the response, to be honest it kind of messed me up quite a bit after that. The following year was spent in a state of emotional confusion trying to deal with that response.
The whole idea of an orchestra is that you put the most amount of people onstage that you possibly can and when all of that energy is released into a room, its collective weight has a profound effect on people, that’s why an orchestra was invented and yet it’s become such a safe environment now that I think it’s failed to do that on a regular basis. An orchestra has become industry and people are never really let off the leash. But you can’t control this orchestra. There are no rules of engagement in this group.
This orchestra is not a 19th century orchestra, it’s a different shape. It allows you to explore timbre and music at a different level. It’s so beautifully anarchic with all these mental musicians, it’s like herding cats. But when they do play, they play with spirit. I’m so allergic to hierarchy from the classical orchestras that I like to let this orchestra run along the freest, most chaotic levels possible because I trust musicians ultimately to do their jobs.
You have to play with risk, otherwise you just do the same. I couldn’t have done this ten years ago but the Grit Orchestra has come about because everybody is ready for it. I suppose what this concert Bothy Culture and Beyond is about is establishing a future for ourselves now we’ve actually got this group which is this beautiful expression of diversity, so everyone starts to be affected by each other’s discipline and realise that we have many things in common and the things we don’t have in common are things we can learn and be better and broader and bigger and more provocative.
It represents a beautiful ethic which is about tolerance of difference, saying don’t be afraid of the thing you don’t know, find out about it and work with it and you’ll find that there’s less to be afraid of and so much more to be excited about.
Bothy Culture and Beyond is at the Hydro on 27 Jan. Tix.
Our Trad Trail walking tours for Celtic Connections are available here.
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