Michael Nyman

The Nyman / Greenaway Soundtracks

The Nyman / Greenaway Soundtracks

Virgin Venture DVEBN 55
1989

Michael Nyman - Taking Stock
The bringing together in a single box of the soundtracks for the four feature films that Peter Greenaway and I have worked on between 1982 and 1989 provides an opportune moment to take an overview of and look at the fortuitous and deliberate connections and disconnections between the four scores - in short, to consider their intertextuality.
The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed and Two Noughts, Drowning by Numbers and The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover represent, of course, what we could call the ‘second phase’ of the Greenaway/Nyman collaboration, a consistent body of work of narrative feature films all, however uncomfortably, part of the dominant cinema culture. The first phase runs from 1977 to 1982 and consists of a number of short, experimental, non-narrative films such as A Walk Through H, Vertical Features Remake, 1-100 and Act of God, and also the three hour The Falls (some of the soundtrack of which appears on the sadly-deleted MICHAEL NYMAN album (Piano Records)). The short film/TV film tradition has of course continued concurrently with the features, with such projects as Water Dances on THE KISS AND OTHER MOVEMENTS (Editions EG); 26 Bathrooms (Images Were Introduced on the same album) and, most recently, Death in the Seine.

The continuities that I shall indicate exist between the four features also spill over into the non-features. Death in the Seine, for instance, presents a particularly complex interrelationship between feature film, concert score and short film. In 1986 I rewrote the score of A Zed and Two Noughts as Zoo Caprices (TER), a virtuoso solo violin work for Alexander Balanescu. In the summer of 1989 Peter Greenaway, excited by Alex’s performance piece in Carcassonne, immediately seized upon the ‘remake’ of Time Lapse as the starting point for the Death in the Seine soundtrack. Having just completed the music for The Cook, I decided to extent this track by superimposing its figuration and structure on two stretches of music from Memorial from The Cook.

This little tale of recyclings and reworkings introduces a number of themes more pertinent to the four features:

1) Music based on pre-existing music (1).
The Draughtsman’s Contract and Drowning by Numbers are each derived solely and exclusively from the music of other composers - Purcell in the former, Mozart in the latter. However, the differences between the two are as significant as the similarities. With The Draughtsman’s Contract, a separate Purcell work was used as the direct model for each track, while with Drowning a single piece, the slow movement from the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for violin and viola, was used as a single source from which all the tracks were generated. (As a further cross-fertilisation between the narrative and non-narrative films, one should note that a four-bar fragment from the Sinfonia Concertante was originally used by me as the biography titles music in The Falls in 1980 in a form most closely resembling Wheelbarrow Walk.
Additionally, parts of the scores of Zoo and The Cook also derive from 17th century models.

2) Music used in more than one film.
Peter decided to use Fish Beach from Drowning to accompany the early lover’s scenes in The Cook.

3) Music composed before the start of filming.
Since Miserere had to be ‘sung’ by the kitchen boy Pup in vision in The Cook, it obviously had to be composed in advance of the shoot. (This was one case where I avoided recomposing ancient music - Peter had wanted a new version of Allegri’s famous setting of the same text: my version owes nothing to his or anyone else’s music). Additionally, a “demo” recording of Memorial was available to Peter before the shoot and he chose to use this, rather in the fashion of using playback for the filming of an opera, as a means of ‘choreographing’ certain sequences of the film.

4) Music recorded over a pre-existing recording.
The recording of Memorial that Peter used for playback in The Cook was that of the live performance that took place in June 1985 in Yainville near Rouen. Since the pacing of the final procession with the corpse is dependent on the original, this recording, with all its variability of tempo had to be reproduced precisely in the studio for the soundtrack by literally listening to the old version in playback while recording the new version over it. Coincidentally we had to do the same in Drowning by Numbers with the unmediated version of the Sinfonia Concertante, Menuhin’s rather wayward reading of which had been used by Peter and John Wilson as background to the tightly-edited corpse sequences.

5) Use of pre-existing music (2).
In two significant cases, music that I had composed for a different purpose was chosen by Peter to use in a soundtrack context: the music of the time-lapse photography of decaying corpses in A Zed and Two Noughts was taken from a 20-minute score I wrote for a Lucinda Childs dance work, Portraits in Reflection; while Memorial in The Cook was taken from a multi-sectioned work of the same name written in memory of the Heysel Stadium victims in 1985.

6) Death music.
All four soundtracks.

7) Vocal music.
Apart from Miserere, three scores include solo songs; The Draughtsman’s Contract contains two Purcell songs (with Nyman-modified vocal lines) in the opening sequence; in Zoo “The Elephant Never Forgets” and “Teddy Bears Picnic” in their original 30’s recordings, and in The Cook “Come up with something sometime soon” with text by Greenaway and music by Nyman. For different reasons none of these songs appear on the soundtrack albums.

8) Instrumental versions of vocal music.
In Draughtsman, the instrumental tracks Queen of the Night and The Disposition of the Linen are both based on the songs heard in the opening sequence while Miserere Paraphrase in The Cook is based on Miserere.

9) Waltzes.
Each score contains a waltz: The Disposition of the Linen (Draughtsman), Delft Waltz (Zoo), Bees in Trees/Sheep and Tides (Drowning) and Book Depository (The Cook). Both The Disposition of the Linen and Sheep and Tides use the technique of the overlaying of multiple melodies simultaneously over a given harmonic sequence (a technique first used in Waltz on the MICHAEL NYMAN album).

Postscript
The above represents Michael’s own overview of the Nyman/Greenaway soundtracks. Interestingly, the system of cross-reference in the music parallels similar preoccupations evident in Greenaway’s films. In a review of The Cook, David Robinson of The Times commented: “perhaps no English film-maker before Greenaway has had so strong a visual sense and such an ability to express it; or a collaborator as ideally complementary as the composer, Michael Nyman.” This set represents what Michael calls “The second phase of his collaboration with Peter Greenaway”. We await the beginning of the third phase.

Declan Colgan Venture Records October 1989


Director’s Comments
The following notes were written for “A Broken Set of Rules” choreographed by Ashley Page for the Royal Ballet and originally performed at the Royal Opera House, London, August 1984. Much of what follows, although specific to The Draughtsman’s Contract seems relevant to the entirety of their collective work, hence its inclusion.

Peter Greenaway - Origins of a score
The music for A Broken Set of Rules has been developed by Michael Nyman from the score he created (from music by Henry Purcell) for the film The Draughtsman’s Contract. In cinema, it is rare to come across a truly satisfying equivalence between image and music. Traditional filmediting procedures and practice normally push, cajole, persuade or relegate music into a secondary or tertiary role, essentially making it function as a prop for providing emotional mood. Music used as structure in film, outside of being merely a vehicle to illustrate, is exceptional. Michael Nyman has constantly applied himself to rightfully demanding a better deal for the marriage of image and music; he does not always get it, but he should be vigorously encouraged to keep on trying. For him, the producer was wrong who said that if you did not notice the music in a film, it was good music.

The score for The Draughtsman’s Contract was conceived at a very early stage in the project’s production. The simplest description of the film, has always been that it is a film about 12 drawings set to music. The musical score always followed that premise. The fact that the film was to be very English in manner and style and had an English concern for landscape and dialogue naturally suggested that the music should apply itself to some concern for the same. After a certain amount of wandering to find the right historical timescale to promote its interest in sex, morals, work, property, patronage, style and aesthetics, the project settled into two weeks at the end of a hot summer of 1694. In the cold winter of 1695, Henry Purcell died, aged 36, apparently the victim of a cold, having been locked out of his house all night - the death of composers is always good copy. Purcell was a prolific ‘collaborator’ composing enthusiastically for the stage, for opera performance, for dance and choir - he might well have comprehended the niceties and inequalities of current music-image relationships.

For The Draughtsman’s Contract pastiche Purcell was anathema. To the French ‘Pastiche’ might represent respectable attainment; to the English pastiche invariably means fraud. There is little value in making an historical film for its own sake (the desire to get it correct is a chimera - how can anyone know if an artefact is historically correct? Alma-Tadema, Holman Hunt, Harrison Ainsworth are hardly applauded for getting it correct). Retrospectively that ambition seems an irrelevance. It was essential for the music, like everything else in the film, to have strong modern resonances. Michael Nyman’s score successfully achieved this. His knowledge of late Baroque English music and his working compositional enthusiasm for the new tonality, both of which could be seen to have strong structural and rhythmic ties anyway, make certain that The Draughtsman’s score would provide a musical base and reference to all the strong concerns of the film.

My enthusiasm for Michael Nyman’s music has been a long one. The music’s exuberance and energy is infectious. The music has always seemed to me to be an essential counterpart of the additive and accumulative processes of film-editing - arranging short elements, even provocatively straightforward elements into longer and larger chains. Building upwards out of small beginnings to construct large edifices, like the elements of filmic-montage making larger and larger meaning out of a small collection of humble or simple images. Michael Nyman’s music is often very simple in structure - it shows its skeleton admirably, it has a strong regard for melody, it delights in repetition, it has an ironic sense of its own existence, it is nicely self-reflexive.

Film sound is - more or less - technologically fixed from when the optical soundtrack was invented in 1929. Apart from the privileged exhibition cinemas, cinema sound-reproduction is poor, stereo sound on television virtually non-existent. Music deserves to be heard live; Michael Nyman’s especially so. The opportunity to hear live Nyman music with synchronised moving image is - unlike this present opportunity with dance - not available in the cinema. We hope there will be an opportunity very soon to correct this oversight.

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