Interview: Greg Lawson – The Grit Orchestra @ WOMAD Charlton Park (July 2016)


Tell us a bit about the players and singers you chose to play in the orchestra.

Luckily I know all these people. I’ve worked with these people and we’ve grown up in a community in Scotland, which is just so rich in musical experience – it’s unbelievable. It’s not like England in that Scotland’s identity with its cultural history is growing like a crop that just grows out of the ground. It’s never been abandoned or sold off with colonialism or ‘Empireishness’. So that is like this sticky thing to which all these other things can granulate with. We’ve all been part of experiments with jazz and folk. We’ve done dreadful concerts that just didn’t work, but you know, you have to try! And I’ve been watching these experiments go on for ten years and thinking, “there’s going to be a time when it’s right to bring all these people together and we’ll have enough knowledge to transcend our difference and find a commonality”. So I waited ten years and it felt right now to do it. And so I started writing the score, building the orchestra and calling the musicians and sending them the music.

It must have taken you ages to find suitable singers and sounds to replicate the samples and to orchestrate the whole thing. Do you feel like you got inside Martyn’s head doing that?

It was all about character. I listened to the sampled sounds and interpreted them as ‘character’. Because if you try there are loads of ways you can make weird noises on an instrument, but does it have the same character? Is it just an imitation, or does it have the gestural language that that sample had? Martyn chose his samples for reasons. They were never gratuitous, and he would spend weeks producing the sound, and then weeks placing the sample in the mix. Each sample It’s a considered thing. And an instrument is a considered thing. And writing for an instrument is also considered. So those two big differences suddenly became quite close together. Actually, they’re not so far apart. And so I’d work with the musicians, I’d ring them up and say “can you work out how to make this noise on a trombone? If you sung down it and did something with your tongue could you make that noise?” Then you’d hear them go off and go “whaaa whaaa – yea I think so!” “What about trying a different mute?” “Whaaap!” “Yes! That’s the noise!” Stuff like that. It was actually really good fun, although a little bit scary because I’ve never written anything like this before! I was uncertain a lot of the time, and deeply conscious that I was trying to replicate a beautiful thing, and if it didn’t work it would be terrible.

The music of Martyn Bennett means a lot to Scottish people. In the orchestra there are elements of Gaelic culture, traveller’s storytelling traditions, Scots songs and bagpiping. Do you think the English audience got it?

I think so. I know music gets hijacked by cultural identity. I think in many ways anyone who’s aware of any folk tradition knows that at the heart of it there is storytelling, there is music and there is the movement of people. And in that way folk traditions themselves are universal. They’re not different. They express the same aspect of humanity, and that way they’re the same, even though they may appear different. If we can start to look at that, well the world will be a better place! But in music we can help ourselves by understanding that we have more in common than we realise.

Do you have plans to do arrange any of Martyn’s other albums for the orchestra?

Yes, I’m writing music for another one of Martyn’s albums, which is Bothy Culture, and I’m going to do his Dixon Sets as well, and Karabach. I’m going to do that in January. In the next six months I have to write that. It’s is odd, because when I wrote Grit I was working in the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra all day, then coming home and working until four in the morning. That’s how I did it for a year. This time I’ve got six months off just to write. And from 2017 we’re going to do a tour of Grit. We’re also going to generate some money to commission musicians from the folk and the classical and jazz communities to write new music for this orchestra, then go back to Celtic Connections in 2018 and plays our own music. That’s the only response you can have to that embryonic thing that Martyn did in Grit. He started something. And it’s not about what he’s going to play you, we’re going to honour you and then ourselves. And we’ll find out if we’re any good! It might be a really embarrassing cross-genre orchestra that just sounds hideous, but it might not, because the will’s there, everyone’s knowledge is there and there isn’t anything else like it.

Tell us a bit about what it’s like to have your own orchestra.

There are lots of orchestras that are trying to do something different, but this is doing it from the right principles. Everyone’s a real musician in their own genre, and musicianship prevails. That’s what we need to learn as musicians. Our skill-set is a communicative one. We need to get together and learn from each other because then music can evolve. There’s so much beautiful stuff going on in the world, but until it granulates you can’t make an evolutionary step. That’s what you have to do because time goes forwards – it’s inexorable. We have to keep on moving. It seems to me to be a real opportunity as a growth point for an orchestra and as a growth point for form. But it all started off with Martyn.

I haven’t really conducted before. I’ve done little bits and watched people conduct my whole life, but with a group like this what’s beautiful is because the one thing I don’t like about orchestras (and I play in classical orchestras) is that I believe they’ve got it wrong. They subjugate their musicians. It’s so hierarchical, it’s massively over-disciplined, riddled with fear, and they put people on stage who are just desperately trying to get through another week’s work. It’s like an industrial model from the industrial revolution – it comes from the same period in time. It’s designed without any concept of the humanity involved. It takes the most beautiful form of music in the world and spits it out like a giant threshing machine week after week after week in cities in every single country all over the world. And it kills the musicians, and it kills their spirit, and it kills the music. I’ve spent my life doing it and I can’t stand it.

So to form an orchestra where everyone was allowed to be a human being, everyone was picked for his musicianship, where the only rule in that orchestra is that you play with your heart was great. You can do whatever else you want. Anything. You can be badly behaved, as long as you play with your heart. And the collective will that comes from that means you get the true potential of every musician on stage released to its maximum. The only place I’ve experienced that before is the John Wilson orchestra. It plays like it’s going to die, and that’s the only way to play. And that’s what this lot do. Today we came down to do WOMAD and we were all nervous – partly because we didn’t have a sound check or anything, – and everyone’s made friends. It’s become a community – a community of difference, of different musicians. Man, it’s great! It’s such a lovely thing and we want to take it forward.

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