The picture I am left with after talking to Michael Nyman, is not one of a composer who is eager to bare his emotional soul, as he creates lilting scores like the “The Piano”; but of a musical alchemist whipping his band on, who like sorcerers apprentices, are caught up in Nyman’s maelstrom of changing rhythms and harmonies.
Seeing the band live for the first time, many are blown away by the dynamics and volume of familiar instruments (soprano, alto and baritone sax) inhabiting a totally unfamiliar tonal range, which at times, resembles music antiqua (medieval instrumentation). As a result of the intensity at which his music is performed, members of this all star band end the night, limp and sweating, resembling tuxedoed marathoners. Nyman calls it cookin, band members, like world renown saxophonist John Harle, a fifteen year veteran of the Nyman ensemble, have another word for it.
“Madness. There is a sort of hysteria created by the circularity of his number playing which has figures of two, three and four on top of each other. You’re never starting in the same place and any attempt to make sense of where you are in the score is frustrated. However, Michael’s Pythagorean dictatorship which gives him complete control over the score and I believe the audience, is not necessarily unromantic or unique. Claude Debussy would regularly direct his publisher Durand to add bars to works like Jeux to complete his Golden Cycle of numbers. And, despite the fact all the parts are written it has a collective swing that ‘takes off from the stage not the page’,
Michael Nyman grew up with a professed dislike for the smooth, sound of saxophones of the Glenn Miller Band. Since the sax section carries a large part of the ensembles sound, he found it necessary to tonally retool it .
I ask John Harle to do things that don’t have alot to do with sax playing, he invents a way of doing it, exaggerates it and feeds it back into my expectations of what saxophone players can do. Even though the band doesn’t contain soloists like or Tricky Sam Nanton or Harry Carney, there is paralell to a band like Ellington’s in that the interaction between the unique sonic capabilities of players like John Harle and baritone saxophonist , Andy Findon, that are fed back to me coloring the subsequent compositions, giving the band a signature sound.
Much of Nyman’s compositions and resulting orchestrations are generated from harmonic ideas and a heavily accented piano style he developed as he struck out on his own after years of performing other peoples music and writing as a critic for The London Spectator.
Rather than deriving my style from what I heard during my years as a music critic, my compositional style , was generated from writing at the piano, where I discovered the articulation of certain harmonies was instinctive. Despite the fact I had been performing as a concert pianist for years, I had no inkling that there was this demon, heavy handed, pianist lurking around until I started playing piano in the composer mode. It was Brian Eno who pointed out to me, as I was contemplating the shift from critic to composer, that a distinctive style on the piano or guitar can’t be consciously developed it just happens.
It was Nyman who first used the term Minimalist, in referring to composers like Terry Riley, and authored the most detailed work on the subject, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Schirmer Press) , during his decade as a music critic. He championed the openness to new forms and instrumentation exhibited by composers like Cage and Steve Reich.
A ranking professional might have played it flawlessly from a technical standpoint, but would have never discovered the passion that Holly did in her preparation for her role as Ada.
The score for Jane Campion’s The Piano , precursed a change in Nyman’s cinemascores. Whereas Nyman’s scores in Peter Greenaway’s films often had a life of it’s own or sometimes directed the action, his scores like that for Six Days and Six Nights and Carrington are tied to the mood of the characters. His latest project Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady is destined to be his most complex musical psychodrama yet.
I find my film music is becoming simpler and simpler, Nyman commented. Lately, I’m paying more attention to what’s on the screen, instead of putting my head down and saying the music should have a life of it’s own, which worked in Greenaway’s films (“Draughtman’s Contract”, “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”) but in a film which depends more on genuine interactions between human beings or is more moody it doesn’t.
The fact the score for “The Piano” was so scaled down may very well cost Nyman a shot at the Oscar, as he pointed out. The film would have been drenched by a big John Williams score, which the Academy seems so taken with, Nyman said. I used my release of the Piano Concerto to display the possibilities for a punchier score, with further explorations into counter melodies which would have confused the emotional thread of the movie.
At the core to much of Nyman’s movie music is his reworking of pieces from other eras, such as the 19th Century Scottish folksongs for The Piano or Purcell’s King Arthur, which he transformed for the opening of The Draughtman’s Contract , the first work for which he garnered world wide acclaim as a composer.
It also gained him the wrath of the British critical establishment who accused him of unceremoniously borrowing great themes and cast doubts about his ability to create his own, which negatively impacted his ability to receive commissions for larger works at Home. Indeed part of this wrath may have been a holdover from his days as a 24 year old critic who made a name for himself covering music, Cage, Reich and Glass, they chose to ignore. Although he is working on a piece for the BBC to commemorate Purcell’s 300th anniversary he has often had to cross the channel (to France) or the Atlantic to find commissions for the larger works he so desires.
Bach covered Vivaldi, Stravinsky called himself a kleptomaniac and Handel covered himself. Jazz wouldn’t survive without standards, Nyman opined. What I’m doing to classical music is a combination of respect and disrespect. During the punk era I felt very at Home. Because I felt they were doing to rock what I was doing to Purcell. It’s not laziness on my part. It has to do with perceiving something in someones work that had gone unnoticed. When I use a source I very carefully rewrite it, trying to give breath to certain qualities it contains that suggest special harmonic inventions that weren’t available in 1600, but are available to me now , like in Re:Don Giovanni.
His core compositional motivation is his love of harmony, which he feels suffered at the hands of the serialists who followed Schoenbergs lead in creating a linear music that he says is “dire to listen to. Nyman sees Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Lamont Young as heroic figures who reintroduced chord changes and harmony into modern classical music.
“This harmonic movement comes as much from jazz as anything else. Alot of the chord changes Reich used, he got from Dizzy Gillespie and many of the blues things Lamont Young was doing came from jazz. I think harmony is the central attraction to classical music. Luckily I seem to have a talent for coming up with changes that move the music along and the emotions. When I hear other composers parading impotent chord changes I wonder what’s wrong with their ears or their musical honesty.
Many are looking to judge Michael Nyman by larger specialized band he has assembled which will not be available forever. In spite of his own doubts he has created a unique and valuable body of work. And though he denies the romantic musical impulse, Nyman: “I much prefer the abstract manipulation of notes”, it’s something he does suspiciously well.