Michael Nyman Band at the Barbican
telegraph.co.uk : Apr 9th, 2009
One of the enduring mysteries of new music is why Michael Nyman’s music has such massive appeal. It can’t be the melodies, which are oddly angular and unsingable, and refuse to lodge in the memory. It can’t be the tone-colours, because the strident, outdoor sound of the Michael Nyman band – thumping piano chords, shrill high saxophones, relentless scrubbing strings – isn’t exactly ingratiating.
And yet as this concert reminded us, there is something strangely compelling about the way Nyman takes the simplest chord progressions, sets them at odd acute angles to each other, and animates them with pounding rhythms.
It’s a style well suited to accompanying a certain kind of cool, formalised film, and the first half of this concert consisted of excerpts of scores Nyman composed in the 1980s and 1990s for Peter Greenaway and others.
The films may not have worn well, but the music, with all its unashamed borrowings from the past, came up remarkably fresh. The obstreperous offbeat accents shoved into Purcell’s ground-basses were as rudely energetic as ever, the perverse mechanical repetitions inserted into Mozart’s lovely Sinfonia Concertante produced – to my own surprise – a strange muffled pathos of its own.
Playing alongside Nyman’s own band were the three accordion players of the Polish Motion Trio, who added a reedy, folk-like tang to the sound. They also took a leading role in the evening’s main event. This was Poczatek, a film score commissioned from by the Polish Cultural Institute, to accompany Nyman’s own choice of excerpts from some of the greatest Polish films of the past half-century. Nyman is a great film buff, and clearly enjoyed assembling an enigmatic series of images: a train passing through a landscape, armies on the move, awkward teenagers at a 1970s disco, a woman leaning against a wall down which paint slowly trickles.
As for his musical invention, it was as relentlessly energetic as ever, and the players – despite the vast demands on their stamina already made – gave it their all. But as the piece progressed I felt more and more uncomfortable. Mixed in with the amusing scenes were appalling ones, such as those from Andrzej Munk’s ‘The Passenger’ showing women inmates at a concentration camp forced to march naked at night through mud. How could Nyman allow his music just to continue in its cheerfully obstreperous way? Not for the first time, I felt Nyman’s impressive aesthetic purism was won at the cost of ordinary humanity.