The composer who coined the term for a musical genre knows a little goes a long way.
Michael Nyman is sitting in his living room when I call. As he speaks, the composer probably still best known for his film soundtracks (The Piano, Gattaca, the scores he wrote for Peter Greenaway), is surrounded by his Alvar Aalto chairs and table, and photographs of his children on top of his grand piano. There are other pictures too, lined along the floor, pictures that he admits should really be on the wall. Is he not tidy by nature then? “Theoretically yes. Practically not.”
It’s very tempting to take this metaphor and run with it. To take this offhand conversational comment from the flow of Nyman’s brusquely framed yet loquacious answers and apply it to the music he makes; music that goes by the name of minimalism, music that could be said to be “tidy” – with its limited palette, its love of elegant variations on repetitious patterns – but only in a theoretical way too.
Sometimes it’s only the tidiness that’s heard. When it comes to minimalism, the same words recur again and again when critics try to sum it up – “rhythmic”, “insistent”, “steady”, “hypnotic”, “patterned”, and, yes, “repetitive”.
Sometimes even “simple”. Its detractors would go further: the composer Harrison Birtwhistle – clearly not a fan – once opted for “simple-minded”.
But none of this is quite enough. It doesn’t explain the variety and versatility of the form, which offers a home for serious contemporary musicians and adventurous pop stars (everyone from Brian Eno to the Velvet Underground), allows its practitioners to write film scores, operas and, in Nyman’s case, have their work adapted – by singer David McAlmont – into pop songs (the duo will perform a gorgeous song suite entitled The Glare in the City Halls during Glasgow’s Minimal weekend).
So today I want to ask Nyman for his own definition of the word minimalism. He seems the perfect person to ask. After all, he’s one of the few composers who is still happy to be called a minimalist composer: “As an ex-historian, it would be absolutely futile of me to deny that what I do doesn’t originate in the principles that I first saw in Terry Reilly and [his work] In C in 1968 when we played it with the Scratch Orchestra.”
More than that, though, it’s Nyman who’s given credit with coining the term. Back in the late 1960s, he was the music critic of The Spectator, a surprisingly open-minded assignment at the time that allowed him to write about anything that crossed his path. Rock, pop, classical, contemporary. One week saw him writing about the Fugs at the Roundhouse in London, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs For A Mad King and Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning Paragraph One at the Wigmore, which was, Nyman recalls now, “very desaturated” and with “very, very little going on”.
He found that “very, very little” rather refreshing and mentioned “minimalism” in his review, a word echoed in the headline. And so a form of music was born. Or at least named. By accident. “The original use of the word was not to create a category but just to describe a purely physical phenomenon of a piece of music that was very uncomplicated.”
He was aware of the idea of minimal art in the US, but it wasn’t until he met Steve Reich in 1970 that the association between the concept and the music that was then emerging in New York became more concrete. It was Reich himself who argued that his own work – and that of Philip Glass, La Monte Young and Reilly – could be seen as sympathetic (“he subsequently regretted that,” Nyman points out). After meeting and befriending the American composer, in the early 1970s Nyman became a proselytiser for the musical form that by now was known as minimalism, promoting it in his writing and promoting it in concert.
He even wrote a book entitled Experimental Music, published in 1974. A year earlier he had gone on Radio 3 to give his definition of minimalism (yes, finally, we’ve got there) “and my definition was ‘a little amount of material going on for a long time’, which I guess was still permissible.”
Of course when he returned to writing music in 1976 he “twisted minimalist principles to my own personal ends and kind of contradicted a lot of the things that I laid down as the holy grail of minimalism”. A lot of his choices, he says, went against the grain “and sometimes relate more, maybe, to the Beatles than to La Monte Young. But that’s just the way I do things.”
That way of doing things included taking musical motifs from Purcell and Mozart and reconstituting them into whole pieces. In the same way as Steve Reich looped and phased tape recordings of a Pentecostal preacher called Brother Walter for It’s Gonna Rain, Nyman was effectively “sampling” Mozart on In Re Don Giovanni, which builds around a 16-bar phrase from Mozart’s opera. “It’s sampling and a remix,” suggests Nyman. “I think I was possibly the first composer to sample and remix composed music. And long before Byrne and Eno worked together.”
There’s a difference, Nyman claims, between the original American minimalists and their British followers. He reckons his work is inevitably more “domesticated” than their American counterparts. “My music is definitely coming out of that very British minimalist cultural scene which is less heavy-duty, less hard-edged, less – as I said in 1970 – abstract and chromium-plated than the American brand at that time.”
Such delicate differences are rarely registered by minimalism’s critics. The label is enough for some to write off what it’s applied to, says Nyman. “But just as there are great baroque concertos by Bach and Handel and, to a lesser extent, by Vivaldi and Corelli, and there are really shitty, routine baroque concertos that go through the same set of motions, you don’t dismiss the whole of the baroque concert or repertoire.”
But if you want to make broad, sweeping summaries, you could maybe argue that minimalism makes sense in – and possibly makes sense of – the modern world. In his fine book The Rest Is Noise, music critic Alex Ross quotes cultural commentator Robert Fink’s notion that it “often mimics the sped-up, numbed-out repetition of consumer culture, the incessant iteration of commercial jingles on TV”, but also delivers “a kind of silent critique of the world as it is”.
There is a lot in this. Much of Glass’s work, for example, feels contemporary in the same way as William Gibson’s novels, urban R&B and HBO drama serials.
But that is by no means minimalism’s only pleasure. Forced to choose a favourite piece of Nyman’s, I would opt for his bruised, brooding score for Michael Winterbottom’s otherwise slightly desiccated film Wonderland. It doesn’t need the input of David McAlmont’s soulful voice for its aching romanticism to be all too evident to the ear. And it’s a rebuff to anyone who would argue that minimalism is cold and emotionally distant.
In the end, this is already a moot point. The fact is that minimalism has already won the culture war when it comes to contemporary music. As Nyman points out, the American brand, at least, “has basically succeeded in taking over the world”.
Minimalism has become maximalist in its impact – something that Nyman couldn’t have imagined when he was promoting it to all too few 40 years ago. “When I went on tour and performed [Reich’s] Drumming for the first time in Berlin,” Nyman recalls, “there was no sense that this was anything other than a kind of music local to downtown New York and the only fan-base was us. A concert we did in a big sports hall in Pamplona in northern Spain was met with hysterics and bewilderment and shouting.
“And yet those guys and the rest of us persisted in writing the music we want to write and, in the process, in addition to satisfying ourselves, this is the only music that is listened to by a whole generation of listeners who are maybe more familiar with rock music and pop music and world music. The last thing in the world they want to do is go to a Harrison Birtwhistle concert. And if they reject Harry – and he’s the best of the bunch for me – then there’s a whole dimension of music that is unavailable to this very intelligent audience.”
Is that a happy ending? For some of us, yes. And a handily tidy one. Repeat (and repeat) to fade ...
The Michael Nyman Band and David McAlmont play Glasgow’s City Halls on October 16. Nyman can be heard in conversation at the same venue at 6.30pm.
Michael Nyman's dynamic jump into filmmaking
Composer Michael Nyman’s dynamic jump into filmmaking, “NYman With a Movie Camera,” is as much a celebration of the world as its inspiration, Dziga Vertov’s silent masterpiece, “Man With a Movie Camera,” celebrates Soviet society. Having written a thrilling 2002 score accompanying screenings of Vertov’s monumental film, as well as the British Film Institute’s DVD release, Nyman exploits his considerable acquaintance with the work to create a similarly giddy montage with editor Max Pugh, this time shot on vid over the past two decades. Fests, specialty exhibs and classy vid play beckon.
Unlike Vertov’s, Nyman’s camera travels the globe, visiting more than a dozen countries (including considerable footage lensed in Iran and Mexico, the director’s primary residence). However, like Vertov, a celebratory tone is created through montage (with visual tricks exactly duplicated) as well as by a sense that the viewer belongs to a family of humans. Paralleling Vertov’s antic cameraman, Nyman observes a Mexican lenser operating a camera jib as a constant reference point and “character.” Nyman’s score, performed by his powerful band, alternates between andante and allegro, the latter exploding with his signature locomotive propulsion.
Camera (DV), Nyman; editor, Max Pugh; music, Nyman. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Future Projections), Sept. 12, 2010. Running time: 67 MIN.
three truly outstanding albums rose above the morass of quite-goodness…
Paul Morley meets Michael Nyman and David McAlmont, and explains why they would be the anti-Cowell Christmas No 1 in his world… and they give an exclusive festive performance…
Kate Mossman writes, in the January edition of The Word magazine…
“I’m still a bit stunned by David McAlmont and Michael Nyman’s The Glare - how McAlmont ever thought to write those strange, complicated uplifting tunes over the top of Nyman’s soundtracks; how Nyman himself was clever enough to leave him to it.
I saw them performing it at a one-off gig at London’s Union Chapel and I really hope it gets more airings.