Michael Nyman’s career was built for this.
The British composer and filmmaker brings his Michael Nyman Band to Toronto this weekend for performances of the soundtrack he set to Dziga Vertov’s seminal 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera. On Saturday, the band plays Nyman’s score for Vertov’s film; and on Sunday, they’ll perform it again to Nyman’s own scene-by-scene remake of the film, NYman With a Movie Camera, which Nyman created using images from his own archive.
MICHAEL NYMAN WITH DAVID McALMONT
CITY HALLS, GLASGOW
By HIS own admission in the pre-show talk, composer Michael Nyman writes “tunes” and some of his very best were aired during this concert of two halves.
The first half featured a loud, invigorating selection of his audaciously stylised soundtrack
work for Peter Greenaway’s films.
The urgency and relentless momentum of the material made great physical demands on the players but the sheer gusto of Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds outweighed the slightly chaotic delivery, while the soprano saxophone refrain snaking insistently through An Eye For Optical Theory and the irresistible feral force of Miranda were riveting.
In the second half, Nyman unveiled a new and unexpected collaboration, forged through Facebook of all places, with the stunning yet underrated British soul singer David McAlmont, who has added his somewhat eccentric lyrics to existing Nyman works.
McAlmont arrived with bling on his fingers and a marvellous instrument to add to the mix, though one could argue that Nyman’s exquisite theme from The Piano needs no adornment.
At first, on Take the Money and Run, it sounded like McAlmont would have to fight his corner, using crisp phrasing rather than his usual sumptuous delivery to stay on top of the music.
Soon enough though, his vocal melodies were dancing over the insistent strings or reclining gracefully over a tremulous piano ballad.
And, although generally less idiosyncratic than the Greenaway partnership, Nyman and McAlmont have created, with In Rai Don Giovanni, surely the only composition ever to combine the influence of Mozart and The Scissor Sisters.
The prospect of composer Michael Nyman and vocalist David McAlmont onstage, together, was a delicious one.
Nyman is best known for his soundtrack work, while McAlmont is rightly famed for his vocal acrobatics.
Saturday night’s performance, part of the excellent Minimal festival, had two distinct strands. The first was essentially a Nyman hits package. What was striking was that the music has held up better than many of the movies. Firmly rooted in systems-based composition, Nyman weaves an intriguing web of compelling piano motifs over which the 11-piece band plays with considerable gusto. The opening number, Franklyn, from Wonderland, was a case in point. For all the talk of minimalism the Nyman band is, at times, reminiscent of an outdoor brass band: big, bold and gallus.
Out of context and on their own, it is easier to recognise some of the reference points which Nyman has absorbed. There were two offerings from Prospero’s Books: Come Unto These Yellow Sands, over which the ghost of Gil Evans hovers, while the wonderful Miranda echoes the lyricism of Gershwin.
The second set introduced McAlmont to perform songs recorded for an album, The Glare, using his lyrics set against previously recorded Nyman compositions. While the result was occasionally underwhelming, with McAlmont’s voice set deep in the mix and competing for attention with the band, when his voice took full flight, as in A Great Day In Kathmandu and The Coldest Place On Earth, the hairs on the back of your neck stood to attention. Immaculate phrasing and a voice as sweet as Curtis Mayfield’s are McAlmont’s calling cards, and where did he buy that bling?
Star rating: ****
One evening but two very different aspects: the world premiere of NYman With A Movie Camera, Michael Nyman’s shot-by-shot update of Dziga Vertov’s groundbreaking 1929 mash-up film, Man With A Movie Camera, with Nyman’s score — composed for both films — played live by the 66-year-old and his 11-strong mini-orchestra. Nyman’s film said little but the aural-visual experience was senses-stretching.
Before that, Nyman and band were joined by singer David McAlmont to perform their inspired The Glare album, where McAlmont wrote and sang lyrics based on news stories, with existing Nyman pieces as backdrops. Magically sung, impeccably played, the collaboration was as absorbing on the thunderous throb of Friendly Fire as both the slower, wounded In Laos and the peek into Susan Boyle’s inner hell that is The Glare itself.
But this was a missed opportunity. Nyman was an island, silent and playing piano with his back to the audience throughout.
Worse, for all his charismatic delivery and the utter joy of A Great Day In Kathmandu, McAlmont was also mute between songs, leaving only awkward poses and no hint of what crime the Somali seemingly being extradited to the United States in Going To America had purportedly committed or what the apparent refugee in Fever Sticks And Bones was fleeing from and why. Surely I wasn’t the only one whose curiosity had been aroused…
The composer Michael Nyman explains the thinking behind his latest film, and reminisces about the parties held by a Frieze founder’s dad.
Michael Nyman is a composer of minimalist music as well as a film-maker and photographer. His work includes the score for Jane Campion’s film “The Piano”, Peter Greenaway’s films “The Draughtsman’s Contract” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover”, and the operas “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat” and “Facing Goya”. He formed the Michael Nyman Band in 1976.