Michael Nyman

The Suit and the Photograph

The Suit and the Photograph

The Suit and the Photograph

EMI Classics 7243 5 56574 2 8
1998

Camilli Quartet
Elisabeth Perry, violin
Rachel Browne, violin
Prunella Pacey, viola
Melissa Phelps, cello

Michael Nyman Band
Elisabeth Perry, violin
Rachel Browne, violin
Prunella Pacey, viola
Melissa Phelps, cello
John Harle, soprano saxophone
David Roach, soprano and alto saxophones
Simon Haram, tenor saxophone
Andrew Findon, bariton saxophone
Nigel Gomm, trumpets
David Lee, horn
Andrew Fwabert, bass trombone

String Quartet No.4; 3 Quartets
In my first three string quartets (written between 1985 and 1989 and released on Argo) I put myself through bizarre compositional hoops. The first quartet attempted (in honour of my professor of musicology, Thurston Dart) to synthesise John Bull and Arnold Schoenberg; the second was based on baratha nayam dance rhythms provided by the choreogapher Shobana Jeyasingh for her dancework Miniatures, while the third translated a choral piece, Out of the RUins -which I wrote for a BBC TV documentary on the Armenian earthqueka of 1989- via Romanian folk song and dance (which I had collected in 1965/66 while I was a student of Dart) into a string quartet in honour of the Romenian revolution of 1990.
String Quartet No.4, composed in the winter of 1994/5, unwittingly follows this pattern. In 1993 I was commisioned by Yohji Yamamoto to write a solo violin work for his autumn fashion show in Paris. Yamamoto perpetuo is a substantial, virtuosic concert piece in its own right (it was recorded by Alexander Balanescu on Consipio Records) yet I decided to turn it into a string quartet not by ‘arranging’ its component parts for four instruments but by taking it over lock, double-stop and bariolage as the first violin part of the new quartet. In the case of String Quartet No.4 such an immutable ‘given’ (very different in nature from the starting points of the first three quartets) self-evidently forces a composer to make textual and textural choices which may not have presented themselves if this self-contained structure had not been thus (self-)imposed.
The theme of Yohji’s show was Cinderella, and he expressed a wish for ‘some European folk music element’ in the score. While I was writing Yamamoto Perpetuo I had no access to any folk music apart from the Scottish popular tunes that I had noted down for The Piano but had not used. Three of these appear in modified form in String Quartet No.4, and curiously enough all are in A-minor ?olian modes: the first is heard (for the first time) in the second half of I; the second at the beginning of III and the third throughout VII.
String Quartet No.4 is a narrative made up of a chain of twelve complete but often cross-related movements, each quite simple in design. For instance, the Scottish melody first heard in the second half of I is hinted at in the 2nd violin/viola in the second fast section of II and is directly quoted again during III and XII. The theme of the fast section of IV is taken up again in VII; IX reverts to the mood of the opening of I, while the rising scale/syncopated themes of II, IX and the bass of X and XII are related. X also reintroduces the slow harmonics theme from VII. XII is (apparently) cast in the form of a baroque French rondeau. The main theme of VI was plucked out of the Quartet and used in my score for Christopher Hampton’s film Carrington.
String Quartet No.4 was written for the Camilli Quartet who gave the first perfomance at the Queen Elizabeth hall, London, on 21 April 1995. It was subsequently dedicated to the memory of my composition teacher, Alan Bush, who had a powerful influence on my life and who died on 31 October 1995.
3 Quartets also has Japanese origins: it was commissioned but the Arion-Edo Foundation of Japan and first performed by an ensemble of Japanese musicians (with John Harle and Elisabeth Perry) at the Globe Theatre, Tokyo, on 15 July 1994, conducted by the composer.
The three quartets referred to in the title are a string quartet, saxophone quartet and brass quartet. My original compositional idea was both to view each quartet as a complete unit and to explore a series of colouristic interrelationships between individual instruments in each quartet. But this pre-compositional idea went by the board during the writing of the piece as the musical material took on a life of its own.
3 Quartets is a multi-section, multi-tempo single-movement work, of which the first wto sections are introduced by the string quartet. The first, fanfare-like, is ‘crossed’ by an irregular scalic figure while the second is based on an arpeggiated 3+3+2+2 chromatic figure which also subsequently found a place in the Carrington film score (where it seemed a perfect expression of the painter Mark Gertler). At the centre of 3 Quartets is a soprano saxophone chorale which hints at the closing brass chorale, over which the snaky scales of the opening secitrion heroically re-appear.

The Suit and the Photograph
I have long admired the photgraphs of August Sander, the German photographer who, under the title “Man of the 20th Century”, attempted to create an exhaustive phtographic archive of the representatives of every possible “type, social class, sub-class, job, vocation, privilege” in Germany in the early part of this century.
Ever since I discovered it, I had always affectionately associated Sander’s photograph of the five peasant musicians (reproduced on the cover of this CD) with the Michael Nyman Band in its earliest incarnation in 1977 as the Campiello Band. Does this album flirt with an imaginary “country music” (like parts of my Trombone Concerto), perhaps belatedly opening myself up to the influence of Alan Bush (to whom String Quartet No.4 is dedicated)? Bush may have been amused by John Berger’s analysis of this photograph in his text “The Suit and the Photograph”.
Berger analyses the class influence of the nphysical character of the suit on these musicians. He suggests the experiment of blocking out the faces of the players to consider only their clothed bodies.
He writes that: “By no stretch of the imagination can you believe that these bodies belong to the middle or ruling class… the static photograph shows, perhaps more vividly than in life, the fundamental reason why the suits, far from disguising ths social class of those who wore them, underlined and emphasised it.”
He continues: “Their suits deform them. Wearing them, they look as though they were physically mis-shapen… The musicians give the impression of being uncoordinated, bandy-legged, barrel-chested, low-arsed, twisted or scalene… None of their abnormalities is extreme. They do not provoke pity. They are just sufficient to undermine physical dignity.”
If you then cover their bodies, Berger suggests, we see “country faces. Nobody could suppose thay they are a group of barristers or managing directors. They are five men from a village who like to make music and do so with a certain self-respect. As we look at their faces we can imagine what the bodies would look like. And what we imagine is quite different from what we have just seen [in their suits].”, which Berger describes as “the first ruling class costume to idealise purely sedentary power”.

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