Michael Nyman

Press Coverage

Odd pair's experimental collaboration

The Australian News :  Jul 24th, 2009

WHEN Michael Nyman was asked to collaborate with didgeridoo player William Barton, he had his doubts.

“I thought, ‘How am I going to write for an instrument that is basically played for tourists?’‘’ the British composer says.

“But then I heard William’s recordings and I thought, OK, there’s a historic, cultural embodiment in this virtuoso playing.’‘

Nyman said yes to his old friend Deborah Conway when she invited him and his band to the Queensland Music Festival. However, until then he had only heard the didgeridoo as played by amateurs. When he listened to a recording of Barton, it encouraged him and then intimidated him: “I realised I couldn’t presume to have knowledge of, or access to, or control something I knew very little about.

“What William is playing is not just notes, not just an abstract musical language. It has something to do with his personal history and the history of his people,’’ Nyman says.

Nyman’s so-called minimalist music, inspired often by baroque composers, became well-known through his film scores for Peter Greenaway films in the 1980s. His award-winning music for Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano is his most popular recording.

Barton, who was born in Mount Isa, Queensland, and taught to play the didgeridoo by his uncle, has extended the instrument’s range through collaborations with composers such as Peter Sculthorpe. In 2005, he worked with the Italian experimental music centre Fabrica Music on a cross-cultural performance called Credo, also for the Queensland Music Festival. He has played in concert halls in London, New York and Seoul.

This week, Nyman and his 12-piece band heard Barton’s response to Nyman’s music for the first time. “It’s brilliant working with musicians like William,’’ Nyman says. “I can create my musical environment and invite William into it to find his own path through it. I can sit back and say, ‘Yeah, this is my piece’, but William will add so much to it. He can say, ‘Well this is my piece’, and we will get a whole that is larger than its parts.’‘

Nyman and Barton’s first meeting on Wednesday was in a room full of millennia-old bones. Nyman’s six-year-old grandson Kit is obsessed with dinosaurs and the composer had requested a meeting with the internationally renowned young palaeontologist Scott Hocknull in order to obtain the scientist’s autograph for his grandson.

The music Nyman has created for Barton has nothing remotely to do with dinosaurs; the huge bones stacked on shelves in the Queensland Museum’s stores building come from a landscape strange to the English composer, but deeply ingrained in the music of Barton.

Nyman has named the music, which will be premiered tonight (Friday) in Rockhampton, Banjo and Matilda, in honour of two of the Queensland Museum’s most exciting finds.

“Not only me as the composer but also my 12 musicians are going to be gobsmacked by having their collective work added to and invaded and, I hope, totally transformed,’’ Nyman says of their collaboration with Barton. “It’s not only a sound and instrument we’re not familiar with but also a totally different way of thinking through sound that William embodies.’‘

Barton says his didgeridoo can “invade any music’‘. “Musical language is always in revolution,’’ he says, “and there’s no reason you cannot adapt something so ancient to the future.

“When I first heard the MP3 of Michael’s music, I immediately started picturing the Australian landscape and how I could associate it with the music, and paint his story, to create something beautiful.’‘

The collaboration may sound risky, but both musicians insist “nothing can go wrong’‘.

“What we play is fixed, and my way of inventing and structuring the music is calculated,’’ Nyman says, “but the poeticisation that happens when William responds to it may be less perceived in what I’ve written, even by me.

“Even talking about it with William begins to make me think differently.’‘

Barton says he can hear “whirligigs and eddies of dust’’ arising out of the landscape of Nyman’s music, and his mind is full of the potential rhythms he can create in response.

“Once I’ve heard it,’’ Nyman says, “I’ll probably want to go back and change everything.’‘

The Michael Nyman Band and William Barton appear in Rockhampton, July 24; Brisbane July 25, and Townsville July 30. The Michael Nyman Band plays concerts of Nyman’s cinema music in Sydney, July 26, and Melbourne, July

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