The Guardian feature article -- The Glare -- Hear all about it. Composer Michael Nyman and singer David McAlmont have joined forces – plundering news stories for their new albumOct 1st, 2009
We’re in the front room of Michael Nyman’s eccentrically furnished Georgian townhouse in Islington. Nyman and his latest collaborator, the singer David McAlmont, are posing for the Guardian photographer, crouched in front of two antique toy pianos.
“This is going to look like Ebony and Ivory, isn’t it?” sighs Nyman. “Oh dear, I’m sorry.” In fact, this pairing – which couples McAlmont’s heavenly falsetto with Nyman’s neurotic brand of minimalism – sounds exactly as you’d imagine and yet unlike anything you’ve heard before. “It’s a pop record, I guess, but I wouldn’t say I’m a pop fan,” says Nyman. “I’m always reading reviews in the Guardian where I’m told that some pop group or producer is doing something incredibly radical. I go out and buy it and I’m invariably disappointed, because it sounds like something that was done 20, 30, 40 years ago, usually much better, and usually by the Beatles. But I genuinely don’t think this collaboration sounds like anything else.”
There are a couple of reference points that spring to mind when you hear McAlmont and Nyman’s album, The Glare. The mix of chamber orchestration and androgynous vocals occasionally recalls Antony and the Johnsons; there are also parallels with Songs from Liquid Days, a 1986 project in which the American minimalist Philip Glass duetted with assorted jazz and soul vocalists.
“With Songs from Liquid Days, I can see some parallels,” says Nyman. “But it wasn’t very consistent – Philip Glass enlisted lyricists like David Byrne and Laurie Anderson, whose words were sung by other people. But here I think there’s much more cohesion.” McAlmont and Nyman met at a book launch at the Freud museum in the late 1990s, and resumed their friendship around a year ago when they “stumbled into each other” on Facebook. “The first time we met,” says McAlmont, “I’d just bought the box-set of Michael’s scores for the Greenaway films, so I was a bit starstruck.”
“I probably should have heard David’s stuff by then, but I hadn’t,” says Nyman, “When I finally got round to hearing him sing I was hugely impressed. Because I have some vague celebrity status, people think it would be quite easy for me to phone someone up and ask to work with them. But I find that terribly embarrassing. Facebook, however, is perfect for that kind of thing. It’s a much more casual way of contacting people.”
Since his album with Bernard Butler in 2002, McAlmont has largely worked with jazz musicians, guesting with the likes of Terence Blanchard, Courtney Pine and Guy Barker, and touring cabaret sets exploring the work of the Great American Songbook writers. Nyman was so impressed by McAlmont’s programme of songs by Harold Arlen that he asked to meet McAlmont to discuss acollaboration.
“The initial idea was a song-cycle based on a painting,” says McAlmont. “I was very drawn to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, and started doing loads of research into that. I was studying the life of Géricault and examining the real historical event upon which the painting was based. But, as a musical project, it wasn’t really working. It started to become a bit too restrictive.”
“So we ended up going through a series of existing pieces I’d written for films and other projects,” Nyman adds, “and David used each of them to provide the basis for a series of songs, in a way, creating his own mental painting around the music.”
Each lyric on The Glare refers to a real event. The lead track, Take the Money and Run, is based on a news story about a married couple in New Zealand who went on the run after accidentally being given a $10m overdraft; City of Turin follows a Nigerian victim of people trafficking; Friendly Fire is based on the story of a young man with a terminal illness who pays a neighbour to kill him. There is a lyric that imagines Joanna Lumley receiving a hero’s welcome from the families of Nepalese Gurkhas (A Great Day In Kathmandu); a track written from the point of view of a reality TV singer (The Glare); and another from the point of a Berlusconi mistress (In Rai Don Giovanni).
“I researched each story quite intensively,” says McAlmont. “I’d trawl local newspaper accounts, interviews with friends, YouTube clips of the people concerned. I felt like an actor researching a role – I was trying to get into their minds, examine their motivations, and imagine what I would do in those situations.”
In the past, Nyman has occasionally been accused of relying rather too heavily on other people’s music, re-voicing melodies by Purcell and Mozart, among others. This project sees him plagiarising from himself. “Most of these instrumentals were written as film music, for a specific function,” says Nyman. “Now David has written a whole other film, if you will, around each track, which is the complete opposite. Weirdly, the mood of the songs is invariably the same as the original setting for the music.”
Nyman cites In Rai Don Giovanni, a reworking of an aria from Mozart’s opera. “In the original opera, a servant is listing every one of Don Giovanni’s lovers. In David’s lyrics, the lover of Berlusconi is doing exactly the same thing. Likewise Fever Sticks and Bones was based on a piece I’d written for a film about an abandoned Polish child; it’s eerily similar to David’s story about orphans from Zimbabwe crossing the Limpopo river into South Africa.”
“I wasn’t aware of that at all,” says McAlmont. “You will gather that we haven’t actually spent as much time together as we’d like to,” says Nyman, laughing. “We’re actually learning more about each other during this interview than we have in the last year.”
How different did Nyman find this partnership from his other collaborations? “With most collaborations, there’s an element of compromise. With Sangam – the album I did with various Indian musicians – I ended up accompanying them, yielding to their vision. Others end up as a free-for-all. On this one, we both pretty much do our own thing, without any compromise. But yet, without me or the band changing anything at all, David’s voice pushes the music in a slightly different direction and brings out a rockier quality.”
“Weirdly, at times, it sounds quite Motown,” ponders McAlmont. “There’s certainly a rock’n'roll quality to Michael’s music. We played Bestival the other week and I was talking to Michael’s cellist, Dave Roach, on the way back. I said, ‘Is it physically demanding playing in Michael’s band?’ He said, ‘Yes, like you wouldn’t fucking believe! Some people run marathons, we play Michael’s music!’”
“Yes,” laughs Nyman. “My music has probably distorted a lot of lips and damaged a lot of bowing arms. But, having invented this system, I don’t exempt myself from this performance abuse. It’s very hard work, playing in the Michael Nyman Band. That’s why you sometimes see me standing up, doing that Jerry Lee Lewis thing, because it’s much easier to give it one from above.”
The Glare is released on 26 October. David McAlmont joins the Michael Nyman band to perform the album at the Union Chapel, London, N1, on 24 October, as part of the Marginilised series.