DESPITE the hype that tends to surround anyone whose musical method is slightly out of the ordinary, few musicians can genuinely be referred to as groundbreaking. Martyn Bennett was one of them.
A bagpiper and fiddle player of exceptional ability, he preferred to call himself a sound designer, a description that, tragically, became more and more appropriate.
Growing up in a household steeped in traditional Scottish music, he discovered rave culture and electronic dance music as a teenager. It's hardly an exaggeration to suggest that neither was quite the same again as he found a way to fit together what appear to be polar opposites without any of the awkwardness that usually accompanies this sort of exercise, and then, for a few desperately short years, took his sonic vision to places perhaps even he hadn't thought possible.
Though born in Canada, where his mother, Margaret, who would become a well-known Scottish singer and folklorist, was studying and temporarily working, Bennett was a Scot through and through, fiercely proud of his history and soon a masterful practitioner of his heritage. Playing fiddle and pipe tunes over a beatbox seemed a logical progression. He was neither the first nor the only traditional musician to try mixing traditional music with electronic beats, of course, but Bennett totally immersed himself in both sides of what, in his hands, turned out to be a fabulously exciting hybrid, and he had the imagination to keep developing it.
His first album, self-titled, was pretty much standard pipes, fiddle and whistle over enthusiastic, if still somewhat rudimentary, sampling, with Bennett's broad and bawdy sense of humour reflected in a closing loop of what sounds like the Stream after which the track is named. Its true nature is revealed right at the end by the sound of someone zipping up his fly. Bennett's most public profile was as the electrified and electrifying dreadlocked piper at Edinburgh's huge Hogmanay celebrations around this time.
By the time he released Bothy Culture in 1997, however, he had well and truly embraced the music of elsewhere, perhaps most notably the Middle East and India, incorporated it seamlessly into his ever denser mix without losing sight of his Scottishness, radically advanced and improved his sampling techniques and taken more than a few tentative steps into still relatively uncharted territory. The album created a template of sorts for those following, though few, if any, have even tried to keep up.
His next major record, after a couple of hard-to-find independently released efforts, saw a radical change in sound and approach, if not in heart or artistic essence. Bennett had cancer and playing his battery of instruments became increasingly difficult, to the point at which he eventually smashed all of them in frustration.
He continued making music, though, thanks to his deep understanding of both electronics and the Scottish tradition, a few old records and a vast well of creativity. Grit, issued by Real World in 2003, is a remarkable achievement, a mixture of deep sadness, searing insight and sheer exhilaration that may have disappointed some who were hoping for more of those blazing pipe reels but which still seems unique, even in the rapidly changing world of electronic music, in the way it brings the old towards the new.
Few of the sounds, if any, were physically played by Bennett, but his soul infuses every note as the voices of great traditional Scottish singers of the past mingle with emotionally powerful soundscapes, thunderous beats and a haunting reading of Psalm 118.
Bennett died in 2005, at 33. A 2012 compilation, entitled Aye, meaning both "yes" and "always", collects two songs from each of the three main albums, two from Hardland, his 2000 collaboration with Martin Low, and three previously unreleased tracks.
It's a nearly perfect introduction.