The Composer's Contract
An ex-music critic turns prolific avant garde composer and finds himself in demand from the Time Out fraternity. Dan Goldstein talks to the man everyone calls a systems music composer—wrongly.
In a dark corner of EG Records' head offices, avant garde composer Michael Nyman talks sound textures, film music, sampling and creative accountancy.
Operating a telephone switchboard isn't a very inspiring job at the best of times, but if you happen to be doing it at the offices of a record company in London, the whole thing can get completely out of control. Just ask the girl who answers the phone at EG Records' head office in still-trendy-after-all-these-years Kings Road. On a hot, sticky August day that proved only an isolated break in Britain's summer of discontent, she was desperately trying to put the outside world in touch with the people inside the building, while keeping one eye on the journalists and other riff-raff that occasionally wandered into the reception area, and another on a well-thumbed copy of Middlemarch.
'...Hello, EG. Can I help you? ..I'll just see if he's in. May I ask who's calling? Hang on one moment.' (Click.) 'Hello Bob. Is Jack there? No? I've got a caller for him. Margaret somebody. I didn't catch her second name.' (Click.) 'Hello. Sorry about that. Mr Roberts isn't in his office at the moment. Can you call back later? Thanks, bye.' (Turn of page.) (Click.) 'Hello, EG. Can I help you? Oh hello, how are you? Yes, I'll just see if she's in.' (Click.) 'Hello, Alison. Johnny from Polydor. OK?' (Click.) (Turn of page.) (Click.) 'Hello. Who's that? Ah, well I've got two gentlemen in reception who've come to interview Michael Nyman... What paper did you say you were from...? Electronics & Music Maker. OK, I'll get them to wait a while. Thanks, bye.' (Click.) 'There'll be someone along to help you in a moment, OK?' (Turn of page.)
Five minutes later, Michael Nyman bypasses the network of bureaucracy that's been so carefully constructed to protect him from having to meet journalists and other riff-raff without a proper introduction, strolls idly past the EG reception area, and two of the former. He looks just like he does in the photographs: middle-aged, round-faced, and quite unlike any music business figure you'll ever meet. He looks as out of place in a record company office as a bacon sandwich in a kosher butchers — though come to think of it, he'd look perfectly at home working behind the counter of a kosher butchers.
'This is my big interview day', he announces, extending a warm, larger-than-average hand. 'I've just done the Waltham Forest Gazette. I do all the big ones.'
Eventually, the network of bureaucracy catches up with us, and we are escorted up a flight of stairs to a dark, quiet room that could be an accountant's office. Its walls look as though they're being held up by vast modern shelf units. The shelves are full of box files with labels on their spines that say things like 'EG Marketing Accounts', 'Brian Eno Studio Accounts', and 'Bryan Ferry Dry Cleaning and Laundry Accounts'.
The network of bureaucracy (whose name turns out to be Alison, and who is really rather lovely) leaves the room to arrange some chilled orange juice for the travel-weary scribes, the composer sits in a large director's chair on one side of a magnificent oak desk, his interviewers sit facing him, and some back issues of E&MM are put on the desk to distract attention from the editorial Walkman.
'You're the magazine with the cassette on the front, aren't you?' says Nyman, a fortnight before the magazine with the cassette on the front closes its doors. 'Oh, no. You can't be. I've done them already.'
Nyman is visibly tired and at first, finds it a little difficult to concentrate. The chat with the Waltham Forest Gazette has worn him out, but it hasn't robbed him of the gift of conversation, and by the time Editor and Music Editor depart EG for Chelsea's boutiques, the interview has filled the bulk of a C90, with the composer doing most of the talking.
Luckily, he doesn't need to give us The Life and Times of Michael Nyman, as we've done our homework and know enough not to need too much in the way of autobiography. But it seems worth asking why Nyman opted to leave the competitive world of being a music critic in favour of the even more competitive world of being a composer - something that took place seven or eight years ago now.
'It happened almost overnight', he remembers. 'I was a freelance music critic, working for a number of publications like The Listener and New Statesman and so forth, and one day it fell to me to write a review of a new record by Gavin Bryars. It was on the Obscure label, which was the label I was on, and I knew Gavin very well, so I didn't really want to say anything very nasty about it. It was all very praiseworthy - everything we did on the label was - but somehow I kept finding things in its structure that I didn't like. I kept finding myself wanting to change things in the music, to take an active part in its composition. So I thought "if I can't be a critic full-time, I might as well give up writing altogether, and do something I can really put my energies into". So I did.'
Simplicity itself, though Nyman remains one of the few men to have proved themselves capable of crossing the border between the critic and the criticised with any credibility. At the time he put together that Bryars appraisal, he'd had one album, Decay Music, released by Obscure, the label set up by Brian Eno as a sort of 'alternative' focal point for new British music, financed in part by resources within the EG group. Bryars, Harold Budd, John Cage, Jan Steele, Christopher Hobbs and Eno himself were among the composers whose work found a welcome and appreciative outlet in Obscure, and as Nyman recalls, everyone connected with the label went about their work with a lot of seriousness and not much time for frivolity.
'We were all terribly, terribly serious about what we did. Obscure was set up a a reaction against the commercialism of most of the modern music of the time, and we consciously shyed away from anything that would jeopardise our detached outlook. We wanted to remain separate from the mainstream, and by and large I think we succeeded. We sold a few records, but of course, the economic potential of something like that is never going to be all that great.'
Too true. Decay Music was never likely to break into the Top 40, what with one side of it being taken up by a single piece, '1-100', that consisted of Nyman recording an identical sequence of 100 piano chords four times, without hearing what he'd already done, and then replaying the four recordings simultaneously. The results are more listenable than the process would suggest, sounding more like a forerunner of Eno's piano-based ambient work than a Cage-inspired experiment in alternative methods of composition.
Whatever, it was a path Nyman chose not to pursue once he'd decided to compose music on a full-time basis. Instead, he's directed his attentions toward producing what commentators (this one included) have made the mistake of calling 'systems' music, a label that puts Nyman's output in the same file as the work of Americans like Philip Glass and Steve Reich — Nyman is a self-confessed despiser of labelling (who isn't?), but his lack of taste for the 'systems' tag is quite justified. For one thing, the structure of his work owes more to baroque lyricism than arithmetical progression, and for another, he writes better tunes than any of the minimalists from across the pond.
His major claim to fame, or at least, the closest he's come to becoming a household name, was writing the soundtrack to Peter Greenaway's cult film succes, The Draughtsman's Contract. Nyman had worked with the director before, notably on an obscure three-hour epic called The Falls, and to those that knew such earlier excursions, the Draughtsman's music represented a tried and tested formula: lots of interweaving melodies played vigorously on a variety of string and wind instruments, with several instruments playing parts in unison to create textures that sounded dynamic and decidedly unacoustic. But the combination of Greenaway's arcane dialogue and lush photography, and Nyman's distinctive staccato melodies (performed by his own dependable acoustic ensemble) produced a sum far greater than its constituent parts. Suddenly, Nyman was in demand from the Time Out cognoscenti, and a soundtrack album duly followed. But that was where the problems started...
'These things invariably involve some level of compromise, and there were some things about the way Peter used my music that I didn't like at all. The music was chopped up into little bits, as it so often is, and one of the pieces ended up not being used at all.'
They're all on vinyl...
'Agreed. But I never called that record a soundtrack album as such. The performances are different, the pieces are altered, the recordings are tampered with in various ways. And I think it works in isolation, even though it doesn't have Peter's pictures to go with it.'
Nyman has in fact continued to work with Greenaway on a number of projects, including a suite of pieces for television that forms part of his latest album release, The Kiss and Other Movements, and the soundtrack to the director's new feature-length film, A Zed and Two Noughts, due for release this autumn.
'It's set in a zoo, so I thought of extending my principle of mixing instruments to the point of, say, having a baritone sax playing a melody along with a lion, or a rhinoceros. There wasn't the time to do that in the end, so the soundtrack is quite conventionally scored. But I will do something like that at some point - it's a nice idea.'
To begin with, Nyman was intent on recording the new pieces with an entirely new set of musicians in Holland, but the experiment was not a success.
'I realised that I've been spoiled all these years by my Band. They can do anything I demand of them, and they're not afraid to blow harder, or scrape harder, than they've ever done before. The brass players in Rotterdam were remarkable, but the strings were really rather disappointing. What you've got to remember is that a lot of the energy you can put into a performance simply isn't notatable on a manuscript. I can only instil it properly if I'm conducting my own band - I know they'll respond. Otherwise, you can end up with a load of musicians who won't want to know, or a conductor who just isn't capable of conveying all that energy. I have done things with other musicians where the presence of somebody new has sparked off something really worthwhile - but the Dutch thing wasn't one of them.'
But Nyman doesn't confine himself to conventional orchestration. Like many of his contemporaries, he's found electronic instruments to be of great value, in both composing and performing terms. Live, he's used a Roland Juno 60 to recreate orchestral timbres, while an OSCar deputised for a bass guitar at some of his Band's concerts during 1984.
More adventurously, he's just completed a soundtrack to a nature documentary for BBC Bristol, using nothing but sound samples played on an Emulator.
'The programme is called The World of Birds, and the people behind it wanted a soundtrack composed entirely of bird noises. So they gave me a load of tapes of birdsong - and I sampled them into the Emulator — effectively making samples of samples. I approached the writing with a blank piece of manuscript panpr, and as I started to compose I realised how odd it all looked: instead of the titles on the staves running 'piano', 'violin', 'viola' and so on, they ran 'robin', 'bullfinch', 'swallow' and so forth. It was very rewarding and really quite fun. I've changed the samples quite a lot, and obviously some of the sounds become unrecognisable if you play them in different ways across the keyboard. I introduced various different elements into the pieces, so you could probably listen to them for some while without realising what was actually making the noise.
'I find synthesisers and computers very enticing - mainly because they're so convenient. You can insert your floppy disk or whatever, load a tuba sound, and play, say, an eight-note tuba chord for which you'd have to pay about four hundred quid if you wanted it played by eight tuba players.
'But there is also something rather unsatisfying about the way synthesisers actually sound. I mean, I know there is such a thing as "the DX7 sound", but most of the time, I find myself wanting the presence and the attack of somebody playing an acoustic instrument. It would be nice to have access to synthesiser sounds via some means other than an electronic keyboard. But somebody in the band played a lyricon once a little while ago, and the sound it made was entirely dependent on the synthesiser it was being used with; it wasn't really adding any character of its own. If you played it with a Korg, it sounded just like a Korg; you might just as well have played the synthesiser on its own.
'I've always been interested in mixing sounds together to produce new textures. People have listened to something like Draughtsman's and asked me "what on Earth is that?", and I've said "well, it's this combined with this combined with this", and they're completely dumbfounded by it. I like the idea of having an acoustic instrument playing a melody simultaneously with a synthesiser set up to produce an approximation of that acoustic sound. That's the sort of mixing of sound that interests me.
'Changing sampled sounds is something I could have immense fun doing. This new Mirage looks interesting.' (Nyman glances down at an advertisement in one of the magazines in front of him.) 'I had a demonstration of a Fairlight not long ago, not because I was seriously in the market for one, but because I was thinking of hiring one for some film work I was doing. This guy went through some of the disks with me and sampled a few sounds, but it seemed to me all you could do to actually change a sound was alter its envelope. If something came out that had a whole synthesiser section, something like the old EMS Synthi, that you could stick on the end of an acoustic sound, then that really would be worthwhile.'
Nyman also makes use of contemporary recording technology in his quest for new tone colours and new ways of manipulating acoustic sounds. Here he's been ably assisted by expert knob-twiddler David Cunningham (of Flying Lizards fame), who's helped guide him through the maze of EQ, artificial reverb, delay effects and the rest. And Nyman finds the whole field fascinating, even though such an open-minded approach would win him no friends among the arch-traditionalists of the 'serious' music establishment.
'It makes no sense to me, no sense at all, to go into a 24-track studio and just record a performance. People do it all the time, but it strikes me that if you have all that equipment at your disposal, you might as well try to make some use of it. Personally, I love getting behind a mixing desk and mucking about with the sounds these instruments make. I like giving them extreme EQ settings, or putting some of them within different acoustic 'rooms' — I've been using the Quantec Room Simulator a lot. I know I'm tampering with their naturalness, depriving, say, a saxophone of half its timbre by EQing it in an extreme way. But to me it's just another way of getting something new out of instruments that have been around for a long while now, and I always retain some element of their natural attack, because that's very important to me. It's similar in a way to what I do when I'm scoring a piece, mixing sounds together. In some ways, it's really an extension of the scoring process, and just as important in its own way.
'You can't do it live, so I tend to opt for a very natural sound over the PA (all Nyman's concerts are amplified affairs), and let the scoring and the performances of the Band members do the rest. I like playing live because it's hot and there's an audience, and because people buy you drinks afterwards and tell you how wonderful they thought it was - or whatever!
'But I love recording, too. There's all that business of accuracy in tuning and timing, which I don't like, but the biggest problem for me is time. Using David Cunningham is like a short cut for me. I know the music and he knows the desk, so I tend to follow his direction to a large extent, if I was left to my own devices I'd probably learn a lot more, but there's never enough time, really. Ideally I'd do a Bryan Ferry and have a quarter of a million to spend, do it over two years, that sort of thing. Actually I don't think I'd ever have to use all that up, but it would be nice to know I could take as long over something as I needed to.'
Would a home studio be a help?
'Oh yes, I think so. I'd love to have a studio at home. Not for recording as such, because that doesn't really interest me at all, but just so that I could experiment, find out a little about how everything worked and how it could all be used. I've got a terrible memory for that sort of thing and I never write anything down, so if I put a saxophone through a certain delay line setting and then through a certain noise gate I'll just say "that's good". I won't remember the details, so when it comes to doing it again, it's back to square one. And that, again, uses up time.'
Time, or rather the lack of it, seems to be Nyman's biggest problem. As a composer earning his living from the music he writes and performs, he finds there's nothing worse than having to complete a commission by a particular deadline, only to discover that it doesn't get used for another six months.
'I write an awful lot of material, far more than will ever see the light of day, I suspect. Here they're talking about releasing one album of mine every two years, which is nothing, really. Ideally I'd like to do something like a vinyl equivalent of a quarterly newsletter, but the more records you put out, the fewer of each you sell — so here at EG, they have to put all their promotional muscle behind one album every so often.
'In a sense it doesn't matter because I don't make any money from record sales anyway. Most of what I earn comes in from film and TV work, and I'm quite happy to do that.'
Such is the lot of the modern composer. But whatever Nyman has to do to get his message across, it's better than working behind the counter at a kosher butchers, or worse, operating the switchboard at a record company office...
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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