Michael Nyman

Decay Music

Decay Music

Obscure Records OBSCD6
1976

Michael Nyman (on 1-100 and Bell Set No 1)
Nigel Shipway (in Bell Set No 1)

1-100 was composed on 19 December 1975 as a sound track for a film by a friend of mine, Peter Greenaway. This film consists of the numbers one to a hundred, shot in an assortment of locations and contexts and edited in sequence. Peter Greenaway asked me to find some musical parallel for this additive arithmetic process and, additionally, to provide a rhythm to edit the numerical sequence to.

Since the idea of simple accumulative growth interested me, and since the photographed figures would also contain a variety of other ‘incidental’ images making for a wider system of references, I initially considered systematising (or desystematising) previously composed music either as collage or as something more straightforward. At the time I happened to be examing the Blue Danube Waltz and to have discovered in its history two curiously linked experimental features: as multiplicity (the performance that Strauss himself conducted at the 1872 Peace Jubilee in Boston with a reputed 1,000-piece orchestra and a 20,000-strong choir), and as uniformity (Schoenberg’s criticism of the shameful absence of rhythmic and melodic variation in the first six phrases of the opening of ‘the otherwise very beautiful Blue Danube Waltz’).

I idly began counting the number of bars of the first section of the Blue Danube and discovered, to my surprise, that it was precisely 100 bars long. Consequently I conceived the idea of building the piece up bar by bar - the first bar, then the first two, then the first three, etc. until the hundred bar structure was complete (rather after the manner of Frederic Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge). However, this would have exceeded the film’s length many times over (and it has since become the sound track of another Peter Greenaway film), so I rejected it in favour of a similar procedure with 100 chords. That too would have taken too long, so I was left with 100 chords, each played once only, in sequence. The choice of the chords themselves related to my current preoccupation with the traditional harmonic language, most especially with isolating some specific feature of functional harmony. What interests me most are closed, cadential progressions, whose final chord naturally joins on to its beginning, so that the sequence can be extended endlessly through repetition. (The principle behind the chaconne, passacaglia and ground bass).

The 100 chords of 1-100, however, are built on a harmonic procedure which in traditional usage is usually finite - that is, they end with a cadence establishing a new key or confirming the old one, but which can be extended by simply continuing the chord-to-chord root progression - sequences rising a 4th and falling a 5th. In Vivaldi the chords used above these thrilling but commonplace progressions are either triads or 7th chords. In 1-100 I have arranged individual sequences to correspond roughly to the numbers 1-9, 10-19, etc., while the overall grouping of sequences corresponds broadly to the gradual numerical accumulation from one to 100. Thus the first ‘section’ alternates triads and major 7ths. 10-19 has chains of 7ths; 20-29 7th and 9ths, etc. Generally, 1-59 consists mainly of major 7th-based chords while the later sequences are a mixture of minor and dominant 7ths, 9ths and 11ths.

Similarly the procedure for playing this unbroken chord series is also designed to correspond, in a mild kind of way, to the numerical accumulation. I made the means of creating a variable editing rhythm for the film dependent on acoustic factors - that is, the density of the chords (starting in the higher part of the piano register and progressing gradually to the low register; the chords themselves gradually getting denser), and the uniformity with which I was able (or unable) to play the chords. The duration of each chord was dictated by the length of the decay of the sound: one chord followed the previous one either during the last stages of decay or when it had died away completely. The register and density of the chords guarantees that durations get progressively longer as the piece goes on.

This recorded realisation of 1-100 consists of four unsynchronised superimposed readings. What interests me about musical processes is the fact that one can precisely specify the material and the method of articulation, and yet leave the system open in some way to bring about something more than mere unprogrammed incidentals; rather the complete transformation of the material, the effacement of the ‘given’ identity. This was a pleasantly unexpected consequence of making the four ‘blind’ (deaf?) superimpositions of the 100 chord sequence. Thus not only are entirely unforseen, accidental concurrences and staggered sonorities thrown up, but the original harmonic rhythm, the expected resolution of ‘dissonant’ chords, disappears almost entirely too.

Bell Set No. 1 was composed in June 1971 and also features progressively lengthening decay, but this time of a measured and pre-determined, rather than acoustic and subjective kind. The piece was originally intended to exploit the properties of some bells I collected in Turkey in 1970. The rigid arithmetic system the piece employs was designed to make heard the two main characteristics of bell sounds - sharp attack and comparatively long decay. My intention was to shift progressively from emphasis on the one to an appreciation of the other. Consequently I devised a rhythmic principle which is applied systematically to four independent rhythmic structures, which each begin fast and get gradually slower.

Each rhythmic structure grows by the symmetrical process of adding quavers around a constant rhythmic unit. The first structure is a three-note rhythm with a constant central quaver; the second is four-note with a constant crotchet; the third has five-notes built around a dotted crotchet, while the fourth rhythm consists of six notes, with an unchanging minim. At the beginning, these ‘central’ durations are flanked by quavers, and then the outer durations are added to regularly, quaver by quaver. Each rhythmic unit is repeated a number of times, before the player moves on to the next one, at his own discretion.

Bell Set No. 1 was first performed, in its simplest ‘orchestration’ - with one bell per part - at the Cockpit Theatre, London, in 1973. It occurred to me subsequently that it need not necessarily be restricted to bells, since any resonant metal percussion instruments with strong atack and decay would be suitable. This recording uses bells, triangles, gongs, cymbals, tamtams, etc. with one instrument per note per rhythm.

Each performance of Bell Set No. 1 must contain all four rhythmic structures, which all relate to a constant pulse but are otherwise unsynchronised, and this recording combines two complete readings of the piece.

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