Michael Nyman is a composer in demand, and yet his position in new music today remains controversial. There can be no other composer alive who inspires simultaneously such devotion and antagonism, in apparently equal measure. Nyman is a man of impeccable musical credentials scholar, writer, critic, performer as well as composer. He is also a man of wit, wit which offers a haven of ambiguity to today's demand for easy labelling.
Nyman was born in London on 23 March 1944. His musical background was conventional - studies at the Royal Academy of Music and King's College, London, but with less than conventional teachers, namely, the communist composer Alan Bush and the distinguished musicologist of the English Baroque, Thurston Dart. It was Dart who introduced Nyman to sixteenth and seventeenth century English rounds and canons. These were to be influential, not only for their construction with repetitive, contrapuntal lines over harmonic modules, but for their ambiguity in being at the same time popular and serious. Dart also supported Nyman's interest in folk music encouraging him to visit Romania to carry out research.
Nyman graduated in the '60s at a time when popular music, particularly that of The Beatles, was storming the land. By contrast, 'serious' contemporary composition was dominated by Stockhausen and Boulez - Darmstadt serialists. Nyman's free-wheeling, eclectic, '60s education prevented him temperamentally, intellectually and ideologically from joining this club, either as composer or performer. So for 12 years, from 1964 to 1976, Nyman, though silent as a composer, was prolific as a writer about music, working for The Listener, New Statesman and in particular The Spectator, where he was given virtually 'carte blanche' to write about anything he liked - from John Cage to The Fugs It was Nyman, in a review of The Great Learning by the English composer Cornelius Cardew, who introduced the word 'minimalism' as a description in music.
During this period, he was a frequent performer with a wide variety of groups and bands ranging from the Scratch Orchestra and Portsmouth Sinfonia to Steve Reich and Musicians and The Flying Lizards. But perhaps the most significant event during these years was the writing of his book, Experimental Music - Cage and Beyond (1974), in which he set out to document and discuss the wide spectrum of musical creativity emanating from the aesthetics of John Cage, and its implications for a generation of composers and performers stifled by the rigorous academicism of the serialists.
The book, which to this day remains the most authoritative on the subject, might appear to have acted as some sort of catharsis for Nyman: having so convincingly explained the alternative to the Darmstadt School, and witnessed or taken part in so much of the music discussed, Nyman may unconsciously have seen a route for himself, should he ever become a composer. As it was, in 1976, Harrison Birtwistle, Director of Music at the National Theatre, invited him to arrange some eighteenth century Venetian popular music for a production of Goldoni's Il Campiello.
The music for II Campiello consisted of arrangements of gondoliers' songs for an eccentric street band of medieval instruments - rebecs, sackbuts and shawms with banjo, bass drum and soprano saxophone. It was the loudest acoustic band Nyman could think of, and produced a very distinct instrumental colour, something which was always to be a feature of primary consideration in his music.
It was only when the stage production of Il Campiello came to an end that Nyman, in wanting to preserve the band, became a composer almost by accident, in order to create music for it to play.
In common with many composers today - Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Louis Andriessen, and writers of jazz and popular music - Nyman has written extensively for his own group, not merely to give it music to play, but also to unite a group of musicians who were as interested as he in breaking down the barriers between serious and popular culture.
The Campiello Band had used no amplification hut, when in the early '80s it transformed into Michael Nyman Band, amplification became as integral to the Nyman sound as instrumental colour.
At first hearing, the Nyman style - simple tunes and chord progressions, an insistent beat, repeated notes, and loud dynamics - relates to pop music. But Nyman owes much to the English experimentalists, in particular John White, and to John Cage, who, as Nyman remarked, gave permission for the music of the past to be treated as a resource, as a raw material to be used in any way allowing, for instance, a single phrase to be put under a microscope, and enlarged into a composition.
The score for Peter Greenaway's film The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), which brought Nyman his first major success, is sourced solely from the music of Henry Purcell, in particular from lesser known ground basses and chaconnes. Purcell's material, in its use of closed harmonic systems, provided Nyman with infinitely repeatable, recyclable, and layerable harmonic structures similar to those with which he customarily worked. Melodic fragments would be varied over the bass line by extension, syncopation, suspension and superimposition. The resulting music is by Nyman, but with a memory, though not a specific memory, of Purcell.
His important collaboration with the English film maker, Peter Greenaway, which began 1977, established Nyman's reputation as a composer of film music, but has perhaps led to a distorted overall view of his output. No doubt this is because the numerous film scores and recordings of them have reached a vast and enthusiastic international public and catapulted him to 'cult' status. But Nyman is extraordinarily prolific in other areas, notably opera, chamber music, vocal music, and dance scores.
This productivity is enabled, to some degree, by certain reworkings of his own music. However, it would be wrong to imply a mere shifting of a page of score from one to another, or simply re-orchestration. Nyman, in fact, completely recomposes a work, subjecting the original material to a rigorous re-assessment so that the new musical conclusions are allowed to emerge. One such work is Zoo Caprices, which transforms ensemble music from his film score A Zed and Two Noughts (1983) into a virtuoso work for solo violin. The ghosts of J S Bach and Paganini may well be invoked, but such references may relate more to the musical memory of the listener than to any specific intention of Nyman.
Nyman's interest in building pieces out of modules and matrices relates paradoxically to serial technique, but his recognisable chords, chord progressions, and melodic fragments, his use of driving repetition and distinctive instrumental colours - the thumping keyboard, 'rude' bass clarinet and baritone saxophone (particularly associated with music for his own band), and the extreme high and low octave doublings - make the result very different from serialism, with an energy and exuberance more associated with pop and rock music.
Within this possibly mechanistic style, there is still room, however, for a remarkable range of emotional expression. The chamber opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1986) is based on a true case study by the American neurologist, Dr Oliver Sacks, of a patient, Dr P. Through a gradual diagnostic journey, Dr P's visual agnosia, or the inability to recognise what he can see, is painfully revealed. Nyman sets up a music parallel to reveal Dr P's deteriorating condition, by constructing a series of variations based on a 'recognisable' chord sequence which, during the course of the opera, becomes increasingly distorted as detail, contour, melody, colour and texture are removed. In real life, Dr P, a professional singer, relied on specific songs - eating songs, dressing songs, bathing songs - to provide 'guide rails' to cope with his mental disorder: to underline this tragic condition in the opera, Nyman poignantly 'borrows' from Schumann's song literature.
But it is Mozart that provides the richest source for a number of compositions by Nyman, including the unforgettable In Re Don Giovanni (1976) and I'll Stake My Cremona to a Jew's Trump (1983). No other score of Nyman's is as ingenious in its metamorphosis of another composer's material than the music for the film Drowning by Numbers (1987). Drawing exclusively on the slow movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola KV 364, Nyman treats his material (principally, the opening to bar 34, and bars 58-61) in a way that is practically a formal analysis. He exposes the melodic and harmonic relationships of Mozart's intense score by drawing out new melodies, be they poignant (Trysting Fields based on the repeated, throbbing, accented appogiatura), chirpy (Sheep and Tides, drawn from a simple bass line), or swaggering (Wedding Tango, a complex combination of the opening C minor theme with the same theme in E flat, as it later appears). In an oblique way, this process is reminiscent of the late Hans Keller's 'functional analysis'. (Incidentally, Nyman, like Keller, is a fanatical football fan.)
String Quartet No. 2, in six movements, commissioned in 1988 as a work for the Indian dancer and choreographer, Shobana Jeyasingh, marks a considerable freeing up of Nyman's harmonic language. While paradoxically, in its cross rhythms and syncopations, it effortlessly assimilates the strict rhythmic codes of Karnatic music, there is no mis- attributing its distinctly European sound with its memories of Scottish folk dance, Viennese coffee house, and the string quartets of Bartok.
Nyman's music is allusive, but not necessarily consciously so. There are certain works - The Draughtsman's Contract, In Re Don Giovanni, String Quartet No. 1 - where the original source, whether Purcell, Mozart, or a '60s pop tune, is not in doubt because Nyman quotes and rewrites passages; but in most of his work he demonstrates an intensely musical mind calling on a vast reservoir of musical memories.
Out of the Ruins, a choral work, composed in 1989 for a BBC TV documentary about the devastation caused by the earthquake in Armenia, uses a simple asymmetric dirge-like melody to set a text drawn from a 10th century Book of Lamentations. The allusion to Armenian chant is no more conscious than is the possible allusion to Faure's Requiem in Nyman's use of unexpected enharmonic shifts.
The Fall of Icarus (1989), a large scale dance work undertaken with the Belgian choreographer Frederic Flamand and Italian video sculptor Fabrizio Plessi, illustrates particularly clearly how, through modules and matrices, Nyman's thematic harmonic and rhythmic material can be expanded or contracted by the repetition, addition or subtraction of a beat, bar, or section, and at the same time speeded up or slowed down through rhythmic acceleration or augmentation. Although Nyman indicates that this technique was fully formed when he (re)started to compose in 1976, it is significant that this approach produces material which perfectly fits the needs of the film editor, even if on occasion, pieces stop abruptly, rather than end 'properly'.
Nyman's music, influenced as it seemed by Cageian aesthetics, English experimental music, American minimalism, and the Baroque, had by 1990 developed a confidence which, while still clearly related to its beginnings, had moved far from the Nyman of simple rhythms and insistent pumping. Prospero's Books (1990), Greenaway's fantasy on Shakespeare's The Tempest, might have tempted Nyman to fall back on an historical model, but instead, misremembering Caliban's line referring to the island as lull of 'voices' (rather than 'noises'), he produced a beautiful original score that, with its luxuriant use of female voices (three singers drawn from three different traditions - opera, rock, and cabaret) and richly substantial Masque, almost became the opera The Tempest that's never been written. There is no denying the score's illustrative and emotional power in underpinning the reconceptualised play and its characters.
The German cabaret singer, Ute Lemper, well known as an interpreter of Kurt Weill, took the part of Ceres in Prospero's Books, and it was for her that Nyman wrote his searing Six Celan Songs (1990). The poems of Paul Celan are amongst the blackest of this century. A Jew from Bukovina, Celan saw his parents shipped off to death camps from which they did not return; eventually he took his own life. Setting the poems in German and to the instrumental accompaniment of his own ensemble, Nyman here embraces his widest spectrum of emotional expression. The first song, Chanson einer Dame im Schatten brings tenderness, passion and bitter irony in bewildering succession, while Psalm and Corona speak of melancholy and tragic resignation. But it is for the final song Blume that Nyman reserves his darkest, most emotionally raw utterance. In its freely associating chords and recitative-like vocal line, the setting recalls the lushness of early Berg and late Strauss with a small dose of Kurt Weill tartness mixed in. The occasional throbbing bass, syncopation, repeated notes and keen instrumental colours, so redolent of Nyman's music, are here absorbed into a music that seems to revel in its structuring of time by traditional harmonic progression.
The Six Celan Songs unlocked in Nyman a response determined little by mechanical musical systems but more by the moment to moment emotional demands of a searing text. These songs may have served, in their exploration of intense emotional expression, as a study for Nyman's apparently a typical score The Piano (1992) written for Jane Campion's Oscar-winning film. But the emotionalism in this remarkable score also stems from the need for the musical expression of text, text (or language) that the dumb character Ada could only utter through her own piano playing. Nyman's 19th century romanticism is refracted through 20th century ears with teasing references to Scottish popular song. But it is the haunting, plangent melodies, lushly scored for strings, that have catapulted Nyman into becoming the best-selling 'serious' composer of our time. The score for The Piano has provided Nyman with a continuing obsession. He has reworked it many times: as a standard piano concerto; as a concerto for two pianos; as an arrangement for chamber ensemble; as a work for soprano saxophone and strings (Lost and Found); as a work for soprano and string quartet (The Piano Sings); he arrives always at new musical conclusions.
The Upside-down Violin (1992) written straight after The Piano represents a complete contradiction in musical and cultural terms. This is Nyman the collector of ethnic material, in this case the Arab-Andalusian tradition, a music developed in southern Spain in the 9th century. Written for the musicians of the Orquestra Andaluzi de Tetouan and the Michael Nyman Band, this three-movement work presented special problems both musical and cultural. Nyman's essentially harmonic/melodic compositional approach had to adjust to a monodic tradition where implied harmonies could not be drawn from melody. In the first two movements, Nyman's solution involves the sustaining of notes heard in the melody as drones or overlays, while the musicians richly embellish the monodic line encouraged by Nyman's Cageian instruction to 'make music related to, or suggested by, the music you have just played'. The rich sound of the Moroccan instruments doubled by the Nyman Band paradoxically recalls the boisterous energy of the rebecs and shawms of the Campiello Band.
The Piano Concerto (1993) represents a deep 'reconsideration' of the film score. Not only does Nyman establish a more coherent structure drawn from necessarily short musical cues, but by providing a more demanding piano part and a more fully orchestrated texture, he has produced a 'free-standing' work which has taken its place in the repertoire of classical pianists. MGV or Musique a Grande Vitesse (1993) for symphony orchestra and the Michael Nyman Band returns to high energy propulsion, delightfully conjuring up rail images not just rhythmically - the Band lays down a guide-rail along which the orchestra travels - but metaphorically, as passing musical environments are visited. Songs for Tony (1993) for saxophone quartet, Tango for Tim (1994) for harpsichord solo and To Morrow for soprano and organ are all works that mourn, joining Memorial (1985) and Time Will Pronounce (1992), pieces that started with one purpose but ended with another. Yamamoto Perpetuo (1993) in 13 sections, lasting 45 minutes, presents a second 'partita' for unaccompanied violin written for Alexander Balanescu. Like the earlier Zoo Caprices, the technical demands are formidable with the teasing mixture of Nyman's 'baroque' sound world. In the tradition of setting himself obstacles - viz. turning a choral work Out of the Ruins into a string quartet - Nyman has taken Yamamoto Perpetuo as the 1st violin part of his substantial String Quartet No. 4 (1995) managing to leave the double stops and implied counterpoint with the first fiddle rather than dividing it across the other three instruments.
In 1992, Nyman completed four commissions for musicians not immediately associated with the Nyman band. Fretwork (with James Bowman), the harpsichordist Virginia Black, the Trio of London and London Brass approached Nyman, all keen to have his works in their repertoire. For reasons of style and control, and in keeping with such composers as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Nyman has largely confined his music to performances by members of his Band, but times have changed. Nyman is content to relinquish control, indeed positively enjoys the invasion of other artists' worlds, and with concerto commissions from such virtuoso performers as the trombonist Christian Lindberg and harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka, the enjoyment is most clearly mutual. Nyman's music has matured and developed from an early cheeky cheerfulness (not withstanding Drowning by Numbers or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) to a point where the emotional content of a piece is the target rather than a by-product of a musical process. An awareness and willingness to engage in an emotional sound world bringing to it an expanded harmonic palette is symptomatic of the destruction of 'schools'. No longer is toeing the 'minimalist' party line a sine qua non. 'Music should now encompass as wide an emotional range as possible'.
Annette Morreau, March 1995