Peter Lawson: solo piano
Johnathan Carney: solo violin / conductor
by Brendan Beales
Michael Nyman was born in London in 1944, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music and King’s College, London. In 1974 he published Experimental Music -Cage and Beyond, a history and discussion of the (mainly) American tradition of experimentalism in music that remains one of the best books on the subject. Nyman’s highly individual style sometimes combines elements taken from earlier music (notably the Baroque and Mozart) with pounding, repetitive rhythms derived from rock-music. In addition to his many successful and innovative film scores, he has composed operas, ballet music, concertos, songs, and chamber music, much of it performed and recorded by his own band.
“The voice you hear is not my speaking voice, but my mind’s voice.” This poignant phrase is the opening line of Jane Campion’s screenplay for The Piano, which she began writing in 1984, and which first lit up the world’s cinema screens some eight years later. It tells the story of Ada, a young Scottish widow who has not spoken since she was six years old. She is married by her father to a man in New Zealand, and travels thither with her daughter in tow and a piano amongst her luggage. Since she does not have a voice of her own, she expresses herself largely through the medium of music, and much of the film is taken up with her attempts to get her piano moved from the sea-swept shore to her new home. She bargains with one of husband’s neighbours, Baines, who eventually suggests a trade-off: he will give her the keys to her piano, one at a time, in exchange for sexual favours. At first horrified and outraged at such a proposal, Ada finally gives in, falling in love with Baines in the process and, by the end of the film, leaving her husband to live with her persuasive lover.
Nyman recalls meeting Holly Hunter, who played the part of Ada, and who would be required to play the piano in the film. “I had noticed from the tape she sent me that she was much more adept at powerful, emotional pieces than very precise, rhythmic things. I had to find music which she, Holly, the pianist and the actress, rather than her character, was emotionally attracted to, so that she could really be engaged by it and give it passion. I had to establish not only a repertoire of music for the film, but a repertoire of piano music that would have been Ada’s repertoire as a pianist, almost as if she had been the composer of it. Since Ada was from Scotland, it was logical to use Scottish folk and popular songs as the basis for our music. Once I hit on that idea the whole thing fell into place. It’s as though I’ve been writing the music of another composer who happened to live in Scotland, then New Zealand in the mid 1850s.”
What Nyman created for The Piano, then, was a kind of “aural scenography” that expressed Ada’s character and changing moods, supplying in music all the dialogue that was missing from the film. In common with much of his film music, material from the score was soon recycled and recomposed into new pieces. Various individual items of music were scored for different ensembles, and the solo piano album has become a bestseller. Parts of the score were arranged for string orchestra, and a suite has been performed and recorded by Nyman’s own band. Nyman’s purpose in “reconsidering” the film score into a concerto for piano and orchestra was threefold. His intention was to “create a more coherent structure out of often short, self-contained film cues, to build more elaborate, dynamic textures than were called for in the film (with its more limited palette of string orchestra and saxophones), and to write a more taxing piano part than was suitable for The Piano.”
In three of its four sections The Piano Concerto makes use of the Scottish popular songs that were associated with the character of ada in the film. In the first section, the source material is the song “Bonny winter’s noo awa”, in the third Flowers of the forest and Bonnie Jean are used, and the final section reprises Bonny winter and Flowers of the forest.
Nyman began his association with film director Peter Greenaway in the late seventies, and the two collaborated on a number of short films until the enormous success of the full-length The Draughtman’s Contract in 1982 catapulted them both to international fame. On the Fiddle (1994) is the collective title for a trilogy of pieces drawn from three of Nyman’s film scores for Greenaway. Nyman took his material and arranged it, initially for solo violin and piano, and subsequently as the orchestral version written specially for Jonathan Carney in 1996, recorded here for the first time. Nyman himself has drawn attention to the origins of the title:
“After I had decided to write three violin pieces, unified not only by their cinematic origins but more importantly by the alternation of slow and fast music, I discovered(through a Radio 4 quiz) that the origin of the phrase “on the fiddle” is as follows: illegal street gamblers who were running “Find the Lady” sessions would have a member of their gang holding a violin, on the lookout for the police. When a policeman came in view, the “violinist” would pick up his instrument and play (presumably fast music) and the gamblers would disperse into the crowd.”
The material of Full Fathom Five comes from Nyman’s setting of one of Shakespeare’s lyrics in The Tempest, as used in the 1991 Prospero’s Books. Angelfish Decay is based on a sequence of music from A Zed And Two Noughts (1985), and was written to accompany a speeded up time lapse sequence in which an animal is seen in the process of decay. Miserere Paraphrase, was written for the film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989), and was originally a setting of the Miserere text of Psalm 51, sung in the film by a boy soprano and mixed chorus. Prospero’s Books a 1991 film score, arranged for chamber orchestra in 1995 incorporated Prospero’s Magic, Prospero’s Curse, Cornfield, and Miranda.