WHEN Greg Lawson told his friend Martyn Bennett that he was going to orchestrate the music Bennett had created using electronic beats and samples, Bennett’s response was an enigmatic “Are you, now?”

Bennett, who died far too young at the age of 33 in 2005, knew about orchestration. His composition MacKay’s Memoirs, written for the students of his alma mater, the City of Edinburgh Music School to play in honour of the late medical doctor and respected piping instructor Kenneth A Mackay of Badenoch, featured pipes, clarsach and orchestra.

The piece was first performed at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and has since achieved iconic status but Bennett is much better known for albums such as final masterpiece, Grit, which took the voices of tradition bearers including Sheila Stewart and Lizzie Higgins into the electro arena.

True to his word, Lawson, a virtuoso classical violinist, as was Bennett also, put together the Grit Orchestra to bring his thoughts to fruition in time to honour the tenth anniversary of Bennett’s death. Its exuberant, strikingly emotional success in performing the music from Grit for the first time at Celtic Connections in 2015 has since been repeated at the prestigious world music festival WOMAD.

The 80-strong ensemble has had similar successes at Edinburgh International Festival and at Celtic Connections in 2018, when it played music from Bennett’s Bothy Culture album to a capacity crowd at the Hydro in Glasgow, accompanied by aerialists and stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill recreating his YouTube sensation climb of Skye's Black Cuillin Ridge on a scale model onstage.

Bennett’s likely response to such achievements can only be imagined. But he would surely be delighted to learn that the orchestra Lawson formed to honour his music has now become a commissioning ensemble, inviting musicians from within its rank and file – and some from outside – to create new compositions specifically for the Grit Orchestra’s combination of traditional, jazz and classical players.

The orchestra returns to Celtic Connections this year, performing the festival’s opening night concert and premiering six new compositions inspired by the Declaration of Arbroath ahead of its 700th anniversary in April. Among the composers are saxophonist Paul Towndrow and fiddler Patsy Reid. The former has some experience of large scale composition, having written his Pro-Am suite as part of the Commonwealth Games 2014 celebrations for not one but two jazz big bands, and Reid has worked in a wide range of music – including arranging strings for Nashville singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters and featuring with jazz guitarist Graeme Stephen – beyond her traditional background.

The fiddler, who has a Post Grad Diploma in Classical Violin Performance from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, studied orchestration as part of her classical training but her previous compositions for orchestra, she says, tended to be simplified to them playable for young musicians.

“I’m not actually a member of the Grit Orchestra, so I was really chuffed to be asked to contribute,” she says. “It’s especially liberating – and quite challenging, too – to be asked to write the music that I want to hear the orchestra playing. These are all musicians absolutely at the top of their game, so I knew that whatever I wrote, however intricate it was, they’d be able to play it. Not that I deliberately set out to be clever or challenging, far from it.”

Reid’s first response to the commission was to devote a lot of thinking time as well as listening and reading time. She knew the gist of the Declaration of Arbroath but on researching it on YouTube she was struck by how current it is.

“I spent most of 2019 thinking about what I wanted to write,” she says. “The intention wasn’t to be overtly political. In fact, my remit was to write five to ten minutes of music that’s groovy and optimistic. I never met Martyn Bennett but as a fiddler I’ve been struck by his virtuosity and the amount of music he left behind. So when I started to compose I began by doing what I usually do – I wrote a tune – and I demoed it on fiddle, bass and guitar and then started layering stuff on top. I love doing that and although I don’t always have everyone playing at once, I wanted to use the instrumental power available to its best effect.”

For Towndrow, whose own composition Deepening the River, featured at Celtic Connections last year and used a smaller collection of jazz, traditional and classical players, writing for the Grit Orchestra was an exciting challenge.

“I’ve played with the orchestra since its inception and I know what it sounds like onstage, which is possibly quite different to what people hear in the audience,” he says. “I know the other musicians so I can imagine the sound they’ll make and being able to “hear” them as I wrote was a great help.”

Towndrow’s thinking time ahead of putting pen to manuscript was concerned with history – the 15 years since Bennett’s death, the 700 years since the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath – and from there, extra-musical ideas started to colour his musical ones.

“I didn’t know Martyn personally but I remember seeing him in one of Tom Bancroft’s mad, brilliant theatrical events in the mid-1990s,” says Towndrow. “I liked traditional music, even though I was drawn to jazz as a saxophonist, and I had my own favourite players but when I heard Martyn, I thought, jeez, this is taking traditional music to another level of musicianship and daring. There was a fantastic sense of freedom in his playing and you really got the feeling that he was playing was in the moment. That thing where traditional musicians might be playing old tunes but by putting their own personalities into the melodies, they’re renewing them as they play them was very strong with Martyn. So that, added to his fantastic legacy was inspiring – and maybe a little daunting – when it came to writing the new piece.”

In jazz, as Towndrow says, it’s not so unusual to have music being composed from within the band, even in a large scale band (the London cooperative Loose Tubes being a great example), whereas in the orchestral world it’s rare to find the musicians creating the work for their colleagues to play.

“I love the idea that the Grit Orchestra could normalise this practice,” he says. “It seems somehow in keeping with the Martyn Bennett legacy to foster the idea of exploration, creating new music for what was originally a bespoke ensemble brought together to recreate this sound or that particular phrase made by this genius with an amazing imagination. It’s really exciting to be part of it.”

For Patsy Reid, coming to the Grit Orchestra as an outsider, there’s a similar sense of excitement.

“I love the idea that Martyn Bennett’s music reached and continues to reach such a diverse audience – he was a fiddler-piper revered by Peter Gabriel, for example,” she says. “And it’s great to think that the Grit Orchestra is continuing to take his music out there. My hope for the new music is that people get it the first time they hear it. That’s what I really had in mind when I was writing.”

The Grit Orchestra plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Thursday, January 16. For further information, log onto www.celticconnections.com