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Michael Nyman

Michael Nyman

Milton Keynes adman draws up Draughtsman's Contract

Imagine pictures. Imagine "The Draughtsman's Contract". Imagine the Milton Keynes TV ad. And what do you hear? The music of Michael Nyman, both times. John Morrish investigates this unlikely-sounding combination.

MICHAEL NYMAN seizes the September issue of One Two Testing, opens it on his kitchen table, and becomes immersed in it.

"Just talk away and I'll sit reading this." he says. "Chords of the month... I might learn something from that."

And so I start my interview with the man who brought us the music for the brilliant film "The Draughtsman's Contract" (brilliant if controversial, I should say), for the Milton Keynes 'red balloon' advertisement, for David Nobbs' comedy "Fairly Secret Army", and much more.

For a good deal of the time he is simultaneously flicking through the magazine: later he starts glancing at the cricket on a television at the other end of the room. Strangely, his answers don't suffer from his divided attentions. They are admirably lucid and intelligent. Maybe that's why his head is such a strange shape — and why his new album "The Kiss", has the catalogue number EGED 40.

Some time in 1982, I went to a former cold store in Brixton, south London, to interview David Cunningham of the Flying Lizards, then at the height of their fame as a semi-fictitious pop group in the Monkees/Archies mould.

Cunningham played me one of the things he was working on, with something called the Michael Nyman Band. He described how the band, with around a dozen members, played live in the studio using all manner of arcane instruments, and then he took the tapes and cut them about and put everything through the EQ mangle as if it were some neighbourhood punk band. "It's a kind of medieval systems music," he said, to describe the astonishing, raucous, unique sound that ensued.

That sound, a combination of hammering grand piano, driving strings and, unexpectedly, electric bass, was a little subdued on the "Draughtsman's Contract" score, but it's back on the new album, though with the traces of medievalism left well behind.

Nyman doesn't feel particularly happy being bundled up with a lot of other composers under the "systems" label. He complains that no-one thinks Mozart and Haydn are the same even though they are both "symphonists". "You listen to Mozart rather than Haydn, or to both of them, because their music is different even though the packaging, to use a horrible word, may or may not be somewhat similar," he says.

The Haydn and Mozart comparisons come easily to a man with a conventional musical education followed by a spell as a music critic. But as a composer/performer/band-leader, Nyman is leading a life which compels him to keep one foot in the "serious music" camp and one foot outside.

He has a record contract with EG, just like a rock act, but he's happy to take commissions from performers and public bodies, just like one of the "contemporary music" mafia. And he's in touch with the kind of hardware that is normally seen in a rock context.

"If a performer has heard any music and comes up and says, 'I really liked that, will you write a piece for me,' to make that kind of breakthrough is actually very important since without performers my music wouldn't exist.

"Except, obviously, if I did everything on Emulators, which of course as a keyboard player I could do, life would become very easy and expensive recording costs would come down to an absolute minimum. But then all the things I like about my music, and the way the albums are produced, would disappear through the front door.

"There's a certain roughness, a certain edge, a certain attack, maybe a certain out-of-tuneness... and I find most synthesiser music, most sampled music, it's the difference between a fine piece of Cheddar and a piece of processed Kraft cheese slice."

Well, processed cheese or no, Nyman admits to using a Kurzweil sampling synthesiser on "The Kiss". It was on approval at The Music Works studio when the Nyman band was there. He was told it had an "amazing" grand piano sound. "I thought, if this is amazing, give me a grand piano any day. What a grand piano is all about is shades and nuances and control. Even though I may play a grand piano as loud as possible, and it would seem that amplification and some sampling system would be just as good, I know when I'm responding to the sound that hits me that I'm playing a living instrument as opposed to a dead instrument."

He liked the Kurzweil's cello sound enough to put down four or five tracks for the song "Images Were Introduced", from "The Kiss" LP, and then added three real cellos. But there was a twist. "I did a kind of reversal thing. The sustained parts that I played on the Kurzweil were ideal for live cellos because they were very good cello writing. The parts for live cellos which I invented were these very fast arpeggios, an absolute swine of a part to play.

"And I had these three cellists, one a session cellist and two soloists, and they sweated away on this part. They were scrambling around all over the fingerboard. It was a kind of contrapuntal part with a high, a middle and a low, and I wanted all these things, and the edge and the energy I get from the sheer difficulty of playing that is something that would not have been reproducible on any keyboard instrument.

"I would have sat down and played it and it would have been absolutely in time, perfectly in tune. I could have put down three tracks which would have been perfectly synchronised with each other and it would have been as dead as a dodo.

"The other thing I've done with sampling keyboards, I would use them for background filling in, for support, if I found that I'd recorded something, say a melody, that didn't have enough weight. I would get an Emulator sound to 'thicken'. And I've used them on jingles where I wanted a kind of four-part French horn section. You know, you plonk down four notes and you've got a horn section. I did that on the Milton Keynes commercial. It's a kind of cost-cutting device, maybe something the MU should be worried about."

More interesting exploitation of the potential of electronics comes in an as-yet unheard project, some music for an autumn '86 BBC natural history programme, "The World Of Birds". The producer, Geoffrey Boswall, told Nyman he wanted all the title music and incidental music made from bird sounds.

So after listening to tapes of bird songs from the natural history unit's archives, Nyman hired a Synclavier and an operator and spent a day in a 24-track studio making samples and 'playing' them. "And I thought this was disastrously slow and I found the whole system was cumbersome," he said, adding that the day had produced just one minute of music.

So he decamped to collaborator David Cunningham's studio and spent another day working on 8-track with David's Greengate/Apple II kit. "If you have a very fast bird sound you're not really hearing components. I was discovering sounds that really didn't exist or that certainly hadn't been used for making what is essentially keyboard music. So I would revert to the shorthand of saying 'Let's see if we can find a baritone sax sound from this bittern'."

"Quite interestingly, I found one bird, either South African or Zimbabwean, its total song consisted of one note repeated, almost exactly in time with my repeated "Bird-List Song' note," he said.

"Bird List Song" is a characteristically quirky number from the first album, "Michael Nyman", which Michael calls his "White Album", consisting of a list of birds' names (naturally enough) sung on a single, very high note at regular intervals throughout the song while the band fiddles furiously all round.

"So that provided the whole structure of what we did, except that this one note happened to be an F instead of the A in "Bird List Song'. Since I took the whole of this bird's song I didn't feel I was being too kind of deconstructive, or atomising, or in another context too sort of culturally imperialist, by literally pulling these bird songs apart.

"Basically all I did was to write a piece of my music in a way I would normally write it for instruments, and instead of assigning this line to a soprano sax it would be a sampled such-and-such," he said, admitting that the finished result sounded like birds "up to a point". He left a few complete songs in as "riffs". "Because of the exigencies of TV titles music I had to come up with something that was recognisably melodic." he says, adding that yes, the music was accepted.

Normally, though, Nyman's instrument is his eponymous band, a motley collection of strings, reeds, brass and, of course, electric bass.

"The band grew out of Nyman's first real music-making job after a 10 year break. He had composed as a student, then discovered serialism (the system of composing around a series of 12 notes that swept European art music in the early part of the century and is only now beginning to loosen its grip), and that was enough to make him give up.

He only began to write music again after "having realised after six or seven years in the wilderness that it was OK to write tonal music. You've got to realise the pressure that one lived under. The major composers I was knocking around with (as a music critic) were Birtwistle, Goehr and Maxwell Davis, and tonal music was just looked on with huge scorn."

The American minimalists, Philip Glass. Steve Reich, and so on, showed Nyman that there was another way forward, and in his music critic period he became, in his own words, "a salesman" for that music.

"The difference between the Americans and the traditional tonalists was that the Americans invented a totally new methodology of putting music together so that their tonal music sounded very fresh and new and was in no way dependent upon any other Western music," he said.

Strangely, it was one of the old school of Difficult Music For Tiny Audiences who helped Nyman into a position where he was effectively forced to compose and perform. Harrison Birtwistle asked him to research 18th century popular music for a play at the National Theatre when it first opened. Then Nyman started a band to play it and became sufficiently enamoured with the sound ("great tunes, full of punch, full of gusto") to try to keep the band alive after the play closed.

"I sat down and thought, shit. I've got to give a concert in a month's time, I can do a certain amount of arrangements, but what repertoire? So then I sat down and started writing music from nothing. I was sort of surprised at what came out. I didn't have any particular style in mind. The astonishing thing is, I sat down with 16 bars from Don Giovanni and I thought maybe I'll do a kind of remake of this, because I've always liked these 16 bars. I just looked at it and there were these kind of repeating notes in the violins. I didn't know what to do with that, so I thought if we take this line, and put that line first, and add this and add that, I had a sort of structure, which again I hadn't really thought about.

"And then I sat down and played these repeating violin notes on the piano and then suddenly started playing them like Jerry Lee Lewis (he hammers on the kitchen table), and there was the Nyman piano style. One minute it didn't exist and the next minute it did."

He had written "In Re Don Giovanni", the first of the band's distinctive pieces.

"I never thought about writing a kind of music that combined classical music and rock. There was a piece of classical music, my hands responded to it, and look what happened. It really is quite bizarre," he concludes.

The most important collaboration in Nyman's musical life has been that with the abstract filmmaker Peter Greenaway, whose masterpiece "The Draughtman's Contract" was also the first film he had made with characters, a plot and dialogue. Nyman has produced music for many of Greenaway's films and the method has always been the same. "He usually makes the images fit the music," said the composer.

Basically, the pair agree on a structural principle — 12 pieces for the 12 drawings in "Draughtsman", for example. Then Greenaway takes the music and makes the film with it in mind, although he apparently disregards the original structure when it suits him. "I'm providing him with raw sound material," says Nyman.

The "Draughtsman's Contract" music owes a lot to one Henry Purcell, the 17th century English master composer, in the same way that "In Re Don Giovanni" owes a great deal to those 16 bars of Mozart's opera.

Nyman acknowledged this himself by removing from the soundtrack album a song that was "more Purcell than me". And he gave the old man a credit as "music consultant", which didn't satisfy The Guardian's music critic. Dead people don't have lawyers, but live ones do. So let us move on.

The success of "Draughtsman", more in fame than money, has brought Nyman a certain separation from his former colleagues in the world of Arts Council-funded contemporary music. It's not surprising. Months of toil to produce a commissioned string quartet is worth about £600-800, he says, whereas a two-minute commercial will bring him in about eight times that.

"There is a terrible disequilibrium between the worlds, both in terms of input, and, I suppose the classical people would say, in terms of quantity. But it doesn't worry me because doing the commercials doesn't mean that all my music suddenly becomes music for commercials," he said.

Besides, he needs to do that sort of work. He doesn't get any commissions from the musical establishment, he doesn't get reviewed in the "straight" musical press, and he doesn't get any Arts Council money. Not only that, his straight pieces for full orchestra don't get played.

"There seems to be a stigma about English composers being popular," he said. The Americans like Glass and Reich manage to be popular and acceptable with the musical establishment, he moaned.

"I find it culturally interesting, and great, that Reich should have his Prom, and Glass his opera, and Reich should be doing an Arts Council contemporary music network tour, but where are the English groups doing these things? Where are the English so-called systems composers or minimalists being commissioned by the Sinfonietta or having a Prom?"

In the meantime, Nyman will continue to plough a solitary musical furrow somewhere between contemporary music on the one hand and rock on the other, spreading his own idiosyncratic brand of systems music to more ears than are ever likely to hear the sounds of Glass and Reich.

He may toy with synthesisers, but the repetitive structures of his music will be hammered out by human hands and not by sequencers.

"If I perform 'Bird List Song' for 10-20 minutes at the end of a concert and the players are really shagged out, and they know they have got to get through it, and I can see their bow arms (he mimes an exhausted string player), this gives a quality to their work which is absolutely unreproducible, which makes it unique, which makes it exciting and which makes it dangerous. The physical effort is part of the quality of the music," he said. And when you see his band you will see that it is true.

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One Two Testing - Copyright: IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


One Two Testing - Oct 1985

Donated by: Angelinda

Interview by John Morrish

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