Michael Nyman


Nyman and McAlmont create classical soul

Nov 15th, 2009

Bad news for any artists working on exciting new crossovers between two musical genres, or for any band that think they might just have come up with exactly the right mix of mainstream appeal and quirky individuality to nab the Mercury prize — you’ve just been trumped.

In one of the most extraordinary and extreme meetings of musical styles ever attempted, the soul/pop singer David McAlmont and the contemporary classical composer Michael Nyman have layered the lyrics and vocals of the former over the music of the latter to create an album that genuinely deserves that over-liberally applied adjective “unique”. Better still, it works.

You can hear for yourself on The Glare, which features 11 songs created by this musical odd couple, and which has just been released on MN Records.

The unusual pair met at a suitably unusual event: the launch of a book about noses. Or, more accurately, a book about the representation of noses in art and literature. Nose Book was edited by Victoria de Rijke, then a performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University. Nyman attended the launch, at the Freud Museum in Hampstead, as a contributor to the book; McAlmont was there because he was studying with de Rijke at the time, considering a move into acting.

This was back in 2000, so it’s no surprise that Nyman struggles to remember the exact details. “Did we introduce ourselves?” he asks leaning back in a comfy sofa in the living room of his north London house. “No,” says McAlmont, perched gingerly on one of the distinctly less comfortable chairs that occupy this artfully, but not cosily, furnished space. “I bounded over to you and said, ‘I’m a huge fan!’”

The chemistry wasn’t immediate. In fact it was seven years before the pair met again. “We discovered each other on Facebook,” explains Nyman. Where Freud had failed to establish a working collaboration, Facebook succeeded. The pair began to discuss working together.

Both have always been up for a collaboration, and, indeed, a musical challenge. McAlmont is one of our more mercurial singers, moving from the band Thieves through albums with Bernard Butler and work with the Bond composer David Arnold. The last time I interviewed Nyman, he had just finished collaborating with Damon Albarn on the soundtrack to the film Ravenous; earlier this year he worked with an Australian didgeridoo virtuoso.

So, each having established that they had found a creative partner who was open to new ideas, they began discussing just what they might be able to do together. “I was reading a book on Géricault at the time,” McAlmont remembers, “and our first idea was to do something based on his painting The Raft of the Medusa.”

This work by the French Romantic painter depicts the fate of more than 100 people set adrift on a makeshift raft after a French naval frigate had run aground. When it was first exhibited in 1819, only three years after the real-life events it depicts, it caused a political scandal.

Despite the power of the subject matter, this initial project didn’t pan out. So how did they get from this failed idea to The Glare?

“It happened right out there on the doorstep,” Nyman says, pointing to the pavement outside his house. Following a conversation in which the pair realised that the Raft of the Medusa idea wasn’t going to work, McAlmont was leaving the house, Nyman explains, and they continued chatting on the doorstep.

“As time went on, I had become less interested in the painting itself, and more interested in Géricault’s working processes, the fact that he was commenting on current events, all the research he did,” McAlmont says. Before tackling his final version of the painting, Géricault had constructed a model of the raft, and visited morgues to study the flesh of the dead. “As I told Michael this, we realised that it could offer us a new direction.”

McAlmont took the idea of researching current events as the starting point for his songs. “Frankly, I was fed up with writing love songs, which is what pop songs always are,” he says. “I’m in my forties now, and I want to do something more than that.”

He set himself the task of researching news stories to find the human stories within them, and then used these as the starting points for his lyrics. Then these lyrics were applied to pre-existing works by Nyman. The pair didn’t actually write together, in the conventional sense, at all; and yet, if you didn’t know this, you would never guess, so perfectly do music and lyrics fit together. McAlmont stuck almost exactly to the music as written. He was delighted to find that Nyman’s music contained exactly the kind of poppy choruses that he required. “To him, they’re there,” Nyman says, still puzzled by this alchemy, “but not to me.”

The subjects of the songs range from news stories that were inescapable (Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent), through stories that anyone who follows current events would be aware of (Silvio Berlusconi’s extramarital life), to items emerging from the more remote parts of the news media that few British listeners would be aware of (the fate of Zimbabwean orphans). In all cases, McAlmont sings the song in the first person, resulting in bold leaps of empathy, which carry the listener along (clearly, the time spent studying acting wasn’t wasted).

McAlmont cites the track Going to America as a turning point in the creation of the album — the first time he realised that he didn’t have to be too respectful of Nyman’s strict musical discipline and could instead indulge in some “R&B riffing” that played with the music’s rhythms rather than strictly adhered to them. This approach is taken even further on In Rai Don Giovanni, which wouldn’t have sounded that out of place on OutKast’s The Love Below.

The Glare is a win-win piece of work. From Nyman’s perspective, he can thank McAlmont for uncovering the emotional content of his music that can sometimes be overlooked as the ear follows the rhythms and repetitions. For McAlmont, a singer who has wandered the musical landscape without ever sounding quite at home, it is The Glare — paradoxically — that finally provides a musical backing that sounds as if it was made just for him.

In fact, the collaboration is so successful, so right, that Nyman now finds that when he plays the originals, he finds himself wondering where the vocals have gone.

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