Michael Nyman's Proms debut
Time Out : Aug 20th, 2009
This year Michael Nyman finally sees his work performed at the Proms. He tells Time Out about his journey to the mainstream and back again
It takes Michael Nyman about two minutes to make his way down from the composing eyrie at the top of his impressive Islington townhouse. Four storeys later and Britain’s most commercially successful classical composer appears at the door, wearing his trademark round thickrimmed glasses, and shows me and the photographer into his groundfloor sitting room.
He has been writing the programme notes for his forthcoming BBC Prom, a concert that will represent a summation of his career. There must be lots to say for, now 65, Nyman has seen the music business from every side - as musicologist, critic (he was the first to apply the term ‘minimalism’ to music), composer, librettist, pianist, band leader and, latterly, filmmaker.
Clearly keen to get on with the interview so he can get back to work, he perches on a black leather sofa and insists that he is photographed while he regales me with his candid observations. One suspects that he doesn’t use this room much: stacks of framed photographs sit racked on the floor, no doubt returned from his recent exhibition; there are piles of publications on art and architecture, but just a single conspicuous book on the theremin and a CD of ‘Boris Godunov’ hint at his métier. The decoration, like his music, is minimal and stylish: black window frames, and pale walls adorned with simply presented photographs of 1930s American dustbowl families. Two curious metal military observation chairs sit amid this eclectic space, and in the far corner, a Steinway grand piano. ‘Not much happens in here,’ he admits, nodding to the instrument. ‘That’s just for rehearsals.’ He is referring to the Michael Nyman Band.
Suffering from jetlag, he has just returned from Australia, where he was touring with his band, although he doesn’t consider what he does ‘touring’ - ‘they’re just gigs,’ he says casually. Such non-classical terminology reflects Nyman’s ability to cross over into popular culture while retaining his essential composing style, and to work with all sorts of artists, among them Indian sitarists, didgeridoo player William Barton and soulful pop singer David McAlmont. Indeed, it is his album with McAlmont that he is most keen to talk about and, after another breathless journey to the top of the house and back, he plays it on his laptop. It is clearly worth the journey and his eyes gleam as he listens, declaring, ‘I’ll probably never do another collaboration because this one worked so well.’
Tempting as it is to explore with him the many strata that comprise his professional life, today we’re here to discuss his gig at the Royal Albert Hall. Can this really be his debut? He nods ruefully. ‘It is the first time a single note of my music has been heard at the Proms.’
He cheerfully admits that, despite his vast performing experience, he is quite nervous about it - playing for an hour without an interval break, airing a world premiere BBC commission and it all being broadcast live on Radio 3. ‘We are dictated to by broadcast,’ he confides. ‘If we are not fully on our toes tempo- and durationwise, we could find that halfway through the last piece, just as the soprano voice comes in, we are into the shipping forecast.’
His Proms debut will represent a brief résumé of his career: the Purcell-derived film work of ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ and ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’; two of his ‘Six Celan Songs’; and the world premiere of his BBC commission, ‘The Musicologist Scores’.
The new 20-minute piece is based on one chord, some very fast riffs and little overlaid modules going at 190bpm, which are then interrupted by Handel and Purcell citations. Although he has never worked with Handel’s music before, the composer is someone with whom Nyman has an affinity. ‘I feel a very close fellow feeling with Handel because he was a recycler par excellence. Since I became a composer I realised that my natural processes also lead to reconstitution and recomposition.’
But it is Purcell who fascinates him, most notably homaged in his film scores to Peter Greenaway’s films, most audibly ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’, which uses repeated Purcellian figures and arpeggiated chords. It appears to be a lifelong affair. ‘Every time I look at Purcell I discover more and more that I would find useful to make my own music out of. One of the things I like about his music, apart from the sheer quality and power of it, is that I like composers who live in a transitional crossroads - he is halfway in a harmonic process that becomes standardised in Bach and Handel, but still has a lot of earlier seventeenth-century English musical harmonic radicalism.’
The relationship began incongruously in the late 1960s. Nyman explains: ‘It was the Summer of Love - I made a film for the Legalise Pot rally at Speakers’ Corner . I had long hippyish hair and wore beads and bells that I had bought in Turkey, but also in 1967 I was editing Purcell. I can’t remember the mindset of doing this.’ Then he laughs, adding, ‘It’s not drugs, it’s just pure bad memory.’
Pleased as he is with finally getting a Prom, and despite receiving a CBE last year, along with an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Leeds University this year, Nyman seems to wistfully accept that he is outside of the musical/cultural establishment. His conspicuous absence from the most recent ‘NMC Songbook’ CD, featuring a host of British composers, for instance; and he notes the irony that he was presented with his honorary degree by Lord (Melvyn) Bragg and yet was never featured on his television arts programme ‘The South Bank Show’ over the 30 years or so of its existence, despite its featuring ‘every kind of low-life and high-life of artist’.
‘They look at me as an outsider,’ he shrugs. But you just get on with it. You have your voice and process. Fortunately, my music has been ring-fenced by the fact that I started as a composer in ‘76 with the Michael Nyman Band and so I have never been at a loss of having my music performed, and am still not at a loss for presenting it in a way that has nothing to do with the Establishment. This year I have started doing rock festivals, like playing to 3,000 people at Primavera Sound in Barcelona.’
Despite a body of over 300 works, of which only ten per cent are film scores, Nyman is probably best known for his music for Jane Campion’s film ‘The Piano’. The soundtrack, which ‘has closed as many doors as it has opened’, has sold well over three million CDs and inspired many to take up the piano. But does he still like playing it? ‘Yes, I really still enjoy it, and uncynically my performance is different each time I play it. The nicest concerts are when there is a noticeable intake of breath, or sometimes applause, as there was with Primavera Sound, when people hear the opening notes. Now, I don’t think any other classical composer gets that kind of rock recognition.’ Come to think of it, neither do I.
Michael Nyman and his band perform at the BBC Proms at 10.15pm on Tue Aug 25, 2009.