Michael Nyman

Drowning by Numbers

Drowning by Numbers

Drowning by Numbers

Virgin Venture CDVE 23
1988

The Michael Nyman Band
Alexander Balanescu: violin
Jonathan Garney: violin, viola
Miranda Fulleylove: violin
Rosemary Furniss: violin
Briony Shaw: violin
Jackie Shave: violin
Kate Musker: viola
Joe Rappaport: viola
Tony Hinnigan: cello
Andrew Shulman: cello
Robin McGee: double bass
David Fuest: clarinet, bass clarinet
John Harle: soprano, alto sax
David Roach: alto sax
Andrew Findon: tenor, baritone sax, piccolo
John Wilbraham: trumpet, flugelhorn
Michael Thompson: french horn
Steve Saunders: bass trombone
Michael Nyman: piano

It was Peter Greenaway who first drew my attention to the brief but stunning melody with which Mozart closes the exposition of the slow movement of the Sinfonia Conertante for violin, viola and orchestra. He suggested that I make 92 versions of these four bars (58-61) one for each of the 92 characters whose biographies make up his film The Falls (1980): this I did by breaking the sequence down beat by beat and adding layers of new figuration. But this little symmetrical fragment has refused to lie down and die: the music for the last four biographies appeared -under the title 89-90-91-92- on Morgan Fisher’s Miniatures (Pipe Records), an anthology of one-minute pieces; I used it to represent The Woman with Three of Everything (everything about her was borrowed in my score for the Paul Richards / Bruce McLean The Masterwork / Award-Winning Fishknife / Riverside Studios, 1979); it also naturally finds a place in the solo piano version of this score, A Neat Slice of Masterwork; and in another transformation surfaced in the ‘diddle diddle’ sections of I’ll Stake my Cremona to a Jew’s Trump, a setting of Chapter 15 from Volume V of Tristam Shandy where it finds itself in the company of other Mozart-derived material.

So that Peter’s first and major instruction to me concerning the score for Drowning by Numbers -that it shouldbe based on Mozart’s movement- was doubly enticing in that it implied a return to the spirit of The Falls and gave me the opportunity to pursue my obsession into previously uncharted territories.

With Drowning by Numbers, however, there was a major difference: the slow movement would be heard -in its original form- after each of the four drownings (Peter’s decision) and my score would be based on the whole movement, not just bars 58-61 (my decision). The resources I discovered were rich indeed: I had already noted the internal symmetry of bars 58-61, but as I broadened my focus the large-scale symmetries attracted my attention: the melody of my favourite bars (in E flat major) are repeated at the end of the movement in C minor, which suggested the possibility of alternating chords from each sequence to create an entirely new harmonic continuity (‘Great Death Game’, ‘Dead Man’s Catch’ and ‘Crematorium Conspiracy’). The rhythm of this melody is self-evidently the same as that of the opening bars of the movement, and this is exploited in ‘Drowning by Number 3’ and the outer sections of ‘Wedding Tango’ the middle section of which, like ‘Sheep and Tides’ ‘Drowning by Number 2’, ‘Wheelbarrow Walk’ (shades of The Falls!) and ‘Vees in Trees’ (the obligatory melodically-overlaid waltz -cf ‘Waltz in F’ on Michael Nyman and ‘The Disposition of the Linen on The Draughtsman’s Contract) Continues my research into the potential of the elegantly simple harmonic underpinning of the tune that spins its way through ‘Sheep and Tides’ and ‘Bees in Trees’ until it displays itself in more grandiose garment at the end of ‘Knowing the Ropes’.

And harmony becomes melody as the bass line bars of 58-61, heard against itself in augmented form, symbolises the solidarity of the three Gissies in ‘Fish Beach’ and ‘Endgame’. Which leaves ‘Trysting Fields’ and the first part of ‘Knowing the Ropes’ both of which are musical lists or, better, acts of musical trawling in which all examples of a particular category of musical material are taken out of their original context and placed side by side in a montage that preserves their original chronological ordering, removes the connective tissue and puts under a microscope in ‘Trysting Fields’ Mozart’s ‘affective’ deployment of the accented appogiatura which partly accounts for the poignancy of this movement -a poignancy which I deliberately allowed to reach into my soundtrack.

It is curious that Drowning by Numbers is the second in which I have resited Mozart’s music in the location of death: Cremona was the first, one of a long and continuing line of ‘death musics’ from the Grand Funeral Procession of Prague of 1987, through ‘A Watery Death’ and ‘Bravura in the Face of Grief’ from The Draughtsman’s Contract, the death and delay music from A Zed And Two Noughts to Memorial composed in memory of the 39 Juventus fans killed at the Heysel Stadium in 1985 (see also The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover).

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