Michael Nyman

The Draughtsman's Contract

The Draughtsman's Contract

The Draughtsman's Contract

Charisma CASCD 1158
1982

The Michael Nyman Band
Alexander Balanescu: violin
Malcolm Bennett: bass guitar
Andrew Findon: baritone sax
Barry Buy: double bass
John Harle: soprano, alto, tenor sax
Ian Mitchell: clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax
Michael Nyman: harpsichord, piano
Elisabeth Perry: violin
Steve Saunders: bass trombone, euphonium
Keith Thompson: tenor sax

My music for The Draughtman’s Contract neatly draws together some musicological loose-ends of 1967 with some not-so-loose compositional ends (and means) of 1982. The setting of the film -England c.1695- suggested the use of (then) contemporary music, and immediately that of Henry Purcell not merely because he died in 1695 but because he was a better composer than anyone else in England at that time (and more or less ever since). My musicological connection with Purcell runs back to the mid-60s when Thurston Dart presided over my (still unfinished) Ph.D. thesis on 16th and 17th century English repetitive and systems music -that is, rounds, canons and catches. In 1967 my edition of Purcell’s Catches was published by Stainer and Bell -the first to put the dirty words back since around 1740.

But whereas as a musicologist my prime concern was with the meticulous reconstruction of as ‘correct’ a musical text as possible from the printed sources of Purcell’s day, as a composer there was obviously never any question of sticking to the letter of Purcell’s music, or even necessarily to its spirit (though it is possible that my transformations may represent an ideal of how I would like to hear his music performed). Nor did Peter and I consider indulging in the pointless activity of musical pastiche usually found on the soundtracks of films located in the ‘historical past’ -The Draughtman’s Contract could only erroneously be seen as pastiche (and who’s interested in reproduction antiques anyway?). So we agreed on a score that would be on the one hand ‘Purcell’ and on the other ‘Nyman’ and simultaneously both, and when more recognisably the latter would nonetheless never stray too far from the former: 1982 going on 1695.

There was a precedent for this in my In Re Don Giovanni (1977) which takes to pieces the texture of the first 16 bars of the ‘Catalogue Song’ from Don Giovanni and puts it together again, retaining every note of the original while transforming both its sound and its feel, as it refers back to Mozart and forward to 70s minimalism, process music and rock. For The Draughtman’s Contract score a not dissimilar process of reconstruction, renovation, renarration, refocussing, revitalisation, rearrangement -or just plain rewriting- would be applied to a carefully sifted, narrow range of Purcell material (the range limited both by the requirements of the film and my own requirements as a composer): at all points the harmonic basis of the chosen music and quite often its melodic or rhythmic features would be apparent even to the not-particularly-attentive listener (though at no point did I usa all the components as I did in In Re Don Giovanni -some of Purcell’s melodic writing remains stubbornly 17th century).

Accordingly I returned to the Purcell Society Edition of the Complete Works of Purcell for the first time in 15 years (remebering yet another unfinished project -a new scholarly edition of the Two- and Three-Part Songs), and rooted out ground basses and chaconnes, or lifted prozed details which stood out from the page which I then turned into ground bass surrogates. Ground basses were chosen for three reasons:
such repetitive harmonic schemes often drew the best out of Purcell: ‘Dido’s Lament’, ‘Sound the Trumpet’, ‘Music for Awhile’, for instance, though none of these were used in my score since they were all too well known (my aim was to provide a memory of Purcell, not specific memories);
they are closest to the infinitely repeatable / variable / recyclable / layerable harmonic structures that I customarily work with;
(and crucially in the context of this particular film) these closed harmonic systems could be interpreted as making a musical parallel with the organisational and temporal constraints that the draughtsman Neville imposes on the Herbert household as he goes about his task of completing the 12 commissioned drawings of the house and the grounds. The initial plan for the score was to assign a different ground bass to each of the two sets of six drawings (to help with the ‘reading’ of each of Neville’s designated viewpoints) and allows each piece to grow and develop as each drawing progressed over six days. This fine plan was shot to pieces by the practicalities of film length, the editing process and the invariable problems of balancing the demands of dialogue, sound effects and music; so that some of the music prepared was not composed, some composed and not used, some used only in part. The concert score restores all the music originally composed and develops some of the material further than was possible in the film score.

One of the delights of working with Peter Greenaway is the possibilities it gives me of providing a ‘service’ and working precisely the same way I do when writing my ‘concert music’; but without The Draughtman’s Contract there would have been no opportunity to return, gratefully, to the music of my past, that of Henry Purcell.

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