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Sound Of Movement

Michael Nyman

A contemporary composer drawing inspiration from the classics

Sam Hearnton discovers why Michael Nyman isn't part of the system

It is every hacks dream to appear in the hallowed pages of Private Eye's Pseud's Corner, so it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you all a man who has appeared there no less than three times. Yes, Michael Nyman, music critic turned music cryptic, surely holds the all comers record for pretentious prose — Paul Morley runs a poor second. But then what do you expect from a writer who's CV includes The Spectator and The New Statesman? Serious music? Got it in one.


Nyman, graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, critic and founder of the Experimental Music Catalogue. His work includes the Eno-produced experimental LP Decay Music. Which is where we come in.

Mr Nyman, prior to hearing The Draughtsman's Contract, I'd dismissed you as just another Systems composer...

"No one uses the term 'Systems Music' apart from John Gill!"

My apologies...

"There were two parallel schools of music. There was the (Phillip) Glass, (Steve) Reich and (Terry) Riley school and there was a corresponding school over here of Christ Hogg and John Watt and maybe me. We called it systems music over here, Glass and that lot called it... minimal music, processed music, they didn't want to call it anything.

"Now this whole journalistic pigeon-holing kind of things... you're in a category and you can't get beyond that category. "

A bad writer's trait...

"Yeah, I know. I did it. I'm responsible for the term 'minimal music' which I first used in 1968 and now I'm kind of tarred with the brush and I built the brush and I invented the pot of tar!

"All music is 'systems music'. Y'know, Mozart's music is 'systems music'. What we called 'systems music' was, in fact a repetitive music where a number system, usually a very simple arithmetical number system, is used to create the structure of the music. Now, I sometimes use arithmetic systems — you have a chord sequence where by the first chord is repeated four times, the second chord four times, the first chord three times, the second chord three times, the third chord four times, the first chord twice, the second chord twice... that is, literally, 'systems music'. But that is about a method, not a sound."

What have you been listening to in the last year?

"Dunno! Duck Rock. Very little else. Maybe some film music."

You said there was another reason for listening to music.

"Oh, yes. Yes. To get suggestions. You know, you hear something in someone elses music which may be totally incidental and you think 'Well... I could do such and such with that."

What you're talking about is stealing. I'm shocked.

"Well, I don't think it's stealing. If we're talking about Post-Modernism which I suppose we are... one of the things that Reich and Glass did — since I would see them as being Moderns rather than Post-Moderns — was, they invented a style and they were purists.

The further that music has become like other music, the less pure and therefore less interesting that music has become. If you listen to the early Reich and Glass which was very, very severe and very, very systemised and written in a language which, you know, maybe was close to some folk musics, maybe not. The medium and message are really very strong and as it gets closer to rock music or, dare I say it, very MOR, it becomes less interesting. The rest of us, the younger composers like me or Peter Gordon... you know, in a way the world's our oyster."

But you admit the debt your work owes to Reich and Glass?

"I have certainly learnt a compositional kind of control from those guys and also from (John) Cage which is a different kind of control — uncontrol. Looking around me, in the same way that painters can now look around and use a whole series of historical configurations and things they see and pick up — they can come from the fifteenth century or they can come from the twentieth century — but it's not necessarily 'ripping off', it's just using a vast range of source material. There are certain kinds of things I don't rip off. I don't rip off ethnic music. I use music that's ethnic to me — Mozart, Monteverdi, Brookner, Wagner and rock 'n' roll are fair game, but Burundi... I couldn't... I mean, that's real cultural imperialism."

But rock'n' roll has its origins in that.

"I suppose so but by the time I got to hear it — and I didn't really start listening to it until about 1975 — it had become very kind of 'whitiefied' hadn't it?

Definitely. It's more European now...

"Oh yeah. No, when I talk about rock 'n' roll I actually mean rock n' roll, not rock or pop. I think it's really become too sophisticated and very adulterated."


There is a body of opinion that believes all music has now been written and all one can do is come up with new sounds.

"Well, it depends what you mean by new sounds. You mean a new instrumental timbre?"

Yes. Say, using a digital sampler to combine the texture of different instruments or sounds to make new voices.

"I still think that with the kind of old-fashiondness of the sounds that I use like violins, saxophones and trombones, you can still come up with something that sounds newer.

"I'm basically very simple-minded and I like presets. I also like presets you can modify. The one or two times I 've used the DX7 I've quite liked the sounds but actually wanted to fiddle around with them and unless you get that computer (the CX5M) you can't do anything easily.

"The thing about all synthesisers is that after about four or five months, you can recognise them. Particularly DX7...

"On this new album — not through any design — I've used a Kurzweil because there was one sitting around in the Music Works when we were recording. It's reputed to have an amazing grand piano sound and I tried it — it's maybe better than most synthesisers but a million miles from a real grand piano. Not remotely as good.

"The other thing I've done — it's got nothing to do with my new album — is to use a Synclavier to sample bird sounds and then just play those sounds on a keyboard. I'd never used a sequencer until I did this thing with the Synclavier and I thought 'Great! All you've got to do is plonk down one line and everything is done for you.' But then when you listen back to it it sounds so perfect that if I'm doing a kind of steady eight in a bar, I actually want to hear slight errors and discrepancies. I want a bit of dirt, really. Basically, synthesisers don't really have a cutting edge."

I thought you'd say that. You tend to use synthesisers for imitative purposes, don't you? For instance, when you did the concerts at The Bloomsbury, you used a Juno 60 for harpsichord and an OSCar for bass.

"This thing I like, which you can't get with synths is (a), the sense of strain and (b), the sense of danger. You know, the sound of a trumpeter playing way, way, way high in the stratospheric register — it's a struggle to produce those sounds. I've always felt that, being a pianoist, organs were a big cheat. All you had to do was throw a switch, pull out a few stops, and you'd got an orchestral sound without any effort whatsoever."

I find it interesting how you mix instruments from completely different periods in your work. For instance, you've got two very twentieth century instruments, the electric bass and saxophone, playing side by side with a 17th Century keyboard, harpsichord, in The Draughtman's Contract.

"Basically the harsichord was a sop to the 17th Century but the thing that amused me most and the thing that I think was most in keeping with the film was the instrument that sounds like baroque trumpet is, in fact, soprano saxophone. It's a nice kind of double play between what you expect an instrument to sound like and the sound it's actually producing."

If you're not particularly interested in synths, how do you feel about samplers?

"I'm excited about their potential for certain purposes. But I think I'd get tired of it. I had an evening with a Fairlight and for me, the sampled violin sounded like a Casiotone..."

Surely, the samplers potential lies in sampling unusual sounds?

"Yes. It's (the CMI) an abused instrument. But I'd never do something that's totally sampled. They' re useful for putting demos together for jingles and things which I do from time to time."

Really? What have you done recently?

"I did the one for Citizen Watches which they're running currently — an expanded version of that track is on Kissing and Other Movements — and I also did the famous two minute Milton Keynes Balloon Race. I like doing them because (a) the money's quite good and (b), the discipline of making a complete piece of music that lasts for 30 seconds is something I don't normally do. I actually used an Emulator for the first time doing a jingle. Some people might say that doing jingles is very regressive but in fact it's very well paid R&D for me — I've learnt about Emulators and a whole bunch of other things."

Once you worked with Brian Eno back in '76, didn't you? Was that your choice or was he forced on you by the record company?

"Eno had been around the whole experimental music scene and I knew him as an ex-art student who occasionally turned up and played with the Portsmouth Symphonia. I knew nothing about Roxy Music. About 1975 Eno actually got some money from Island to put out a series of experimental music records (the 'Obscure' series). Brian approached me and asked whether I had anything that might be suitable, so I played him Bell Set which eventually became the 'B' side of Decay Music — originally, I was only going to have half an album, there'd be someone else's music on the other side."

So how did 1-100 come about?

"Well, I'd written that as a soundtrack for Peter Greenaway and we were sitting around in Basing Street waiting for the 2" tape of Bell Music to be delivered from St. Peter's Square and I sat down rather calculatedly and started playing these very slow, soft piano chords and Brian said 'What's that?' So, the next hour, we sat down and did four takes of it, which we overlaid. It was very cheap. Anyway, we sat down and listened to it and it sounded quite good. Brian then made me a copy. I had an old Revox G36 which I knew ran at 7½ and 3¾ IPS. We had a 15 and 7½ IPS copy made and I put it on and played it at 7½ IPS and just sat there and thought 'God, this is the most amazing thing I have ever heard!' anyway, I looked at my watch and thought 'Odd... I've been listening to this for 25 minutes and it's only an 18 minute track... what's happened?' and then I realized. Through some sort of mistake in the copying process I was playing it back at half speed and I immediately phoned up Brian and said 'You've got to put this out at half speed' and he said 'Yeah — I thought you'd say that'. And that's how 1-100 came about — a total accident."

David Cunningham has produced The Kiss and Other Movements as well as some of your past work. How did you become involved with him?

We complement each other. David, to give him his due, doesn't know much about the inner workings of the desk and the AMS and the plate. I kind of sit there and watch David and the engineer doing it but on my instructions. He knows the kind of sound I'm after."

You eq everything quite heavily, I've noticed.

"Oh, I'm a great eq merchant. Mr Radical eq. Coming back to Phil Glass, he saw The Daughtsman Contract and he said to me 'I like your score but maybe with your film you'll have a bigger budget and won't have to use synthesisers, you can use real instruments'. That either says a lot about his ear or a lot about my mix.

"So it's a curious thing because where on the one hand I say I like the sound of real instruments and I don't like the sound of synthesisers, when I actually get these real instruments on tape I'll manipulate the sound so that by the end it might not sound particularly close to what the instrument sounded like in the first place. It's a question of dynamics, of controlling a lot of seemingly opposing forces in the texture so that in order to emphasise a particular line or rhythm, you have to eq it very, very sharply. Maybe my hearing is faulty, because I know I like to put a lot of top on things..."

On The Kiss and Other Movements, you recorded on 24 track. What desk were you using?

"It was a digital desk — very interesting. We did a digital mix on some of the tracks."

Digital mix?!

"It was an Amek desk..."

But Amek don't do a digital desk! Automated, yes (the Anglia). Digital, no. How did you find it?

"Well, it was fine for Water Dances where the texture's changing from section to section. I also like it because one of my basic problems is I'm always pushing up the level on things. Now, with the computer desk, every new pass you put all the faders back to zero and you have an extra 16dB level to play with... but I must say that I didn't really have enough time to get to grips with it.

"We mixed the album onto a Sony F1 so we did digital editing over at Nova as well, which was exciting. It's great that you haven't got all these tape splices so you're not destroying the tape and the edits can range from butt edits to edits with quite a wide slope so it's actually horses for courses. If something doesn't work you then make the edit less radical over 20 more milliseconds. It's a much more musical process than using a razor blade. And much less frustrating.

"It took us nine or ten hours to edit the album because apart from one or two minor repairs, the whole album was recorded in movements."

What home recording gear have you got? Anything besides the inevitable Grand piano?

"I've got a Yamaha 6'1" grand, a Revox B77, a Sony cassette deck, a Studiomaster 4, a Roland echo thing... Space Echo I think... a Juno 60 — don't use it very much. Casio 202 and a couple of harmoniums. That's about it.

Nyman is just about to start work on the soundtrack for another Peter Greenway project Z + Two Noughts and will also be performing shortly on the continent. As I left, I remembered something David Cunningham had said to me when I interviewed him a few months before; 'I'm going to make a lot of money out of Michael'. At the time I thought he was joking. Now, I'm not so sure.

More with this artist

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The Day Before You Came

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We Have Complete Control

Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


Electronic Soundmaker - Jun 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Interview by Sam Hearnton

Previous article in this issue:

> The Day Before You Came

Next article in this issue:

> We Have Complete Control

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