A shot of real Scotch
September 26, 2006
In recent years, Barbara McDermitt Yule experienced an absence in her life, caused by a shortage of Celtic culture. Yule, who in the mid-’60s lived in Aspen and ran the Aspen Theater Institute, or ATI as it was known, left the United States in 1978 to live in Scotland, the native land of her husband, Jack. Earning her Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh’s department of Scottish studies, she developed a deep appreciation for Scottish music, dance and storytelling.But in 2000, the Yules returned to Colorado; they now live in Gardner, in Huerfano County, in the south of the state. Though Jack is a harp-maker, and the couple’s daughter a harpist and storyteller, the Yules were itching for more Scottish sounds and tales. Even the Ceilidhs, the Scottish-style gatherings they would throw, weren’t enough.So last year, Barbara organized the Spanish Peaks International Celtic Music Festival, a series of concerts around Colorado. She brought the event back to her old hometown, with events in local schools and an informal concert at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theatre. And it wasn’t enough simply to sing the songs and play the instruments from Scotland; the musicians, at least a number of them, had to have Celtic blood.”I had heard of Scottish festivals” in the states, said Yule. “I’d ask which Scottish performers they had, and they’d say none; they were all American.” So Yule called her friends from overseas, and threw a true Scottish festival.Since last January, Yule has experienced a further absence. Martyn Bennett, a Scottish composer and musician whom Yule befriended some 20 years ago, died, at the age of 33. Yule consulted with Bennett’s mother, Margaret, a singer, storyteller and writer whom Yule knew from the University of Edinburgh. The two agreed that this year’s Celtic Music Festival would be largely devoted to Martyn’s music and memory.The festival presents the People of the Sea concert Tuesday, Oct. 3, at the Aspen District Theatre. The concert, featuring nine performers – musicians, storytellers, singers and dancers, from Scotland, Ireland and the U.S. – opens with a Ceilidh, a blending of music, stories and dance. The second half of the concert features a performance of “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry,” a traditional Scottish ballad that Martyn Bennett set to music for a BBC program in 1995. The evening closes with a selection of Martyn’s tunes for pipes, played by the Dublin-born, American-based uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan.
Breaking barriersMartyn Bennett’s music would be worthy of celebration even had he not died young. The late musician was recognized as a gifted instrumentalist and composer, and the recognition came from many quarters. Margaret Bennett emphasizes that her son’s greatest contribution was his vision for knocking down whatever it was that separated the traditional from the modern, folk from classical. In particular, Martyn had a vision for restoring the place of the Highlands bagpipes, perhaps the most distinctive and significant instrument in Scottish traditions.”One of his things was to weave both traditional themes and traditional instruments into new pieces, because they tended to get bypassed or ignored,” said Margaret, who appears as a storyteller and singer in the People of the Sea performance. “Folk music was like such a little backwater. He wanted it upfront, on the dance floor, and in the classical orchestra.”There was a real irony in that you could play your exams on violin, or piano, but not on Highlands bagpipes. He wanted the traditional bagpipes accepted in the classical orchestra.”Margaret is proud to say that her son, who was born in Newfoundland, Canada, but raised largely in Scotland, went a long way toward accomplishing those goals. For the 1999 dedication of Scotland’s new Parliament – the country’s first Parliament in 200 years that was independent of the English government years – Martyn was commissioned to write a piece of music. The composition, “Mackay’s Memoirs,” was not confined to a narrow Scots-centric view, but was expansive, reflecting Martyn’s way of thinking about music. Margaret says the piece “bridged the world.” The “Mackay” of the title referred to Dr. Kenneth Mackay, a Scottish missionary who did medical work in Peru. According to Margaret, Mackay was a great exponent of Scottish bagpipes – but also, like her son, an open-eared lover of all music.
“Mackay was interested in blending all kinds of music, Scottish and Peruvian pipes,” she said. “Martyn picked up those features, and composed a piece for classical orchestra and bagpipes.”Martyn also composed works for string quartet and bagpipes, but his output wasn’t limited to concert music. He recorded electronica music for nightclubs, believing that making Scottish-inspired dance music was to way to connect young Scotsmen to their cultural past. Margaret remembers one of his songs being blasted from car windows all over Edinburgh. In 1994, Martyn appeared at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, as piper for the Scots-rock band Wolfstone. The group arrived as a virtual unknown; after a powerful evening performance on the main stage, they were an instant Telluride favorite, and were invited back the following year. At England’s Cambridge Folk Festival in 2000, Bennett shared a bill with Joan Baez.Martyn did some work with rock singer Peter Gabriel; his last album, “GRIT,” was released on Gabriel’s Real World Records. The CD was built around vinyl samples of Gaelic singers, dating back to the 1950s. Unexpectedly, Gabriel showed up to play at a memorial concert for Martyn.The story of selkiesMartyn, who would go on to attend the School for Musically Gifted Children, and the Royal Academy of Music and Drama, in Glasgow, began composing for television while still in his teens, and he also did much work in the theater. In 1995, at the age of 23, he composed the music for a new radio production of “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry.” In addition to writing the music, Martyn played all of the instruments. (His specialties were violin, piano and bagpipes.) The musical drama had its premiere, and may have had a few repeat broadcasts. But Martyn’s music for “The Great Selkie of the Sule Skerry” was never recorded independent of the radio production, and Margaret feels the work is somewhat underexposed.”We’re not playing it just in his memory,” she said. “The piece itself is memorable. The story has such a fascination.”
The story is also an excellent introduction to an element that is at the core of most Scottish folklore, the sea. “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry” is one of numerous ancient stories about selkies, the legendary seals that have the ability to shed their coats and become land-dwelling humans. In many of the tales, a selkie is seduced by a human and is persuaded to live its years on firm ground, yet always has a hankering for the sea.In “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry,” a male comes ashore, marries and has a child, and eventually tells his wife about his true home, in Sule Skerry. He leaves for the water, but promises he will return to teach his wife to live in the sea. When he parts, he also gives a warning: His wife will remarry, and her new husband, a hunter, will kill a seal and seal pup.”It’s a spine-chilling story,” said Margaret. “It doesn’t end the way we might want it to end.”But it is also a quintessential Scottish tale, mixing fantasy and melancholy and water.”Wherever you are in Scotland, you’re never terribly too far from the sea,” said Margaret, who grew up on the Isle of Skye, off the northwestern coast of Scotland, and whose grandfather was a fisherman. “And if you’re from the coastal areas, like I am, it figures in your life every day, every part. There’s always someone going off to sea.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org