Michael Nyman

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The WORD Magazine - "This Just in" - The Glare's feature article by Kate Mossman (Dec '09)

Nov 12th, 2009

This article has been posted with kind assistance from Kate Mossman, Alex Gold and all at The Word magazine - Music Magazine of the Year - AGAIN!

To read The WORD Magazine Online, Click here


Kate writes:

“A bizarre collaboration between David McAlmont and Michael Nyman revives the dying art of the topical news story in song


William zantzinger may only have got six months for the death of Hattie Carroll but he was imprisoned for eternity in Bob Dylan’s song, an almost journalistic account of his senseless attack on the waitress that reads like an in-court summary. The Mississippi floods gave rise to Memphis Minnie’s When The Levee Breaks and to the cool, satirical surveillance of Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927. Natural disasters, unjust deaths, shipwrecks, even the comebacks of champion boxers – for a time, if it really happened, someone wrote a song about it. In 2001, Neil Young reworked the last words of Todd Beamer, who tackled the hijackers on Flight 93, and put them into his post-9/11 song Let’s Roll: “I’ve got to put the phone down/And do what we got to do”.

David McAlmont and Michael Nyman – the fractious falsetto out of McAlmont & Butler and the godfather of the ambient soundtrack – are not the most obvious contenders for taking the art of “current affairs” songwriting into the 21st century. This month the pair release their album The Glare, an 11-track exploration of Nyman’s shorter instrumental works, each turned into a song by McAlmont’s news-based lyrics. The twist is that all the words are in the first person. In Going To America McAlmont plays the part of a 16-year-old Somali pirate; in Secrets, Accusations And Charges he’s a Scottish widow running a modest fish import/export business who secretly masterminds major international jewellery heists; and in the title track he’s Susan Boyle. Many of the songs have a rare photographic immediacy about them – In Laos was inspired by a single striking photograph that McAlmont saw in the Telegraph showing Samantha Orobator, the pregnant British woman recently facing death by firing squad for drug smuggling, wearing blue prison overalls, surrounded by guards and flashing a look at the gathered press. “I had a second, a single chance to let the cameras see my face/I hoped then that I would make the news”. He’d also planned to write something about Lynndie England, one of the United States army reservists court-martialled for the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad. “But I found out The Rolling Stones had already put her in a song,” McAlmont explains, “and they were having a go at her. And that’s not what I wanted.”

McAlmont is installed in a corner of London’s Groucho Club on a wet Tuesday afternoon, one leg crossed over the other, pert mouth, pinkie extended over a cup of black coffee and a copy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in his hand. Any attempts at polite conversation and you instantly feel like a philistine. “I saw the film of that!” you offer, cheerfully. “Which one?” McAlmont enquires with an imperious brow. “The Philip Seymour Hoffman or the Toby Jones?”

McAlmont met Nyman at The Freud Museum several years ago, at the launch of a book, implausibly, “about the nose in art”, Nyman remembers, coming in from the rain, waylaid by a somehow stressful vinyl-buying expedition to Poland Street. He’s small and squat, and his limbs have a round, tightly packed quality. It gives him an avuncular air, all grand gestures, arms flung over the back of the sofa. He wants fish and chips.

I ask them to explain the way they work together, and Nyman remembers returning to a triumphant, uplifting fanfare he’d written in 1977 called In Re Don Giovanni – “the first Nyman classic! If I’m ever short of a chord progression I just go back to that one.” McAlmont then turned the piece into a song about Silvio Berlusconi. “I needed a 21st-century Don Juan story,” he says, “so I went rooting around the Berlusconi saga and sort of latched on to [now ex-wife] Veronica Lario. Because she’s basically had enough now, hasn’t she? There’s been all these rumours and he’s not going to change.” He then proceeds to sing in the guise of Lario, “His hair is not his own/ And although surgeons fixed his eyes/He never sees how vulgar he’s become”.
McAlmont spent ages at his computer, he explains, “just going around the world on the web or looking at newspapers – Hindustan Times, New Zealand Herald, Laotian Enquirer – locating characters. I could get a real sense of why a 16-year-old boy would become a pirate,” he says of Going To America, “and what a boy on a flight who’d been captured by the CIA might be thinking, knowing that he was finally on his way to the States, his dream. But for the wrong reasons.”

Nyman and I both stare at the strange young man in the pork-pie hat picking at his hake. Things are unusual in McAlmont’s head. You can’t help feeling Nyman is slightly in awe of him, this extraordinary, energised but meticulous soul injecting supercharged life into his soundtracks. Nyman admits to “sort of offloading” the project on to McAlmont and letting him take the reins. “I’ve done nothing,” he laughs, “in terms of arrangements, structure, performance, style. He’d come round and play stuff to me and the more I heard the more I realised I didn’t need to do anything.”

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