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From the Archive: Michael Nyman Band

Nothing Concrete text
1 Jul 2020
40 min listen

Revisit this in-depth interview with composer Michael Nyman exploring the story of how over forty years ago, the Michael Nyman Band, were conjured into existence.

I’ve become a much better performer through playing with the Michael Nyman band and through working with these musicians also become a much better composer

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade.

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Ben Eshmade: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we remember and we listen to an in-depth interview with composer Michael Nyman, exploring the story of how over 40 years ago the Michael Nyman Band were conjured into existence. 

Michael Nyman:  So I kind of invented this fake street band and I've sort of become a much better performer through playing with the Michael Nyman Band and through working with these musicians also become a much better composer. 

BE:  On this edition we'll be hearing from the composer about the daring and complex journey that led to the 40th anniversary of the ensemble back on November the 14th 2016, in the Barbican Hall. In this concert, you could have heard them perform rarities and some of their best-known work in chronological order to mark the 40th anniversary of their creation. So let's explore the journey from theatre foyer to a million-selling film soundtrack, from his ground-breaking work with director Peter Greenaway, to his own more recent film essay, ‘War Work’. It began at the National Theatre with the help of composer Harrison Birtwistle. I travelled to West London to speak to the composer.

MN: Well, I mean the Michael Nyman Band wasn't really formed, I mean this is the story, okay: so I was some sort of would be musicologist when I left the [Royal] Academy [of Music] in ‘64/’65. I was also, through another set of circumstances, a friend of Harrison Birtwistle, and Sandy Goehr and Maxwell Davis, and the musicology didn't continue beyond me leaving King's College London – what did continue was the association with New Music. And again, through the scene, David Drew who was the world expert on Kurt Weill and the Director of Music or Director of Publishing at Boosey & Hawkes in the ‘60s, I suppose. He phoned me one day in ‘68 and said that The Spectator needed to have a Messiaen piece, ‘Turangalîla-Symphonie’, reviewed and the music critic then wasn't too keen to do it or wasn't very quick to do it, so they asked me to do it and I wasn't really equipped to do it either, but that started my career as a music critic in 1968. I don’t know whether things still happen like this, but that’s something else. You know, so I carried on the association, especially with Birtwistle as a kind of, you know, I was a kind of in-house writer for him because he didn't write and he didn't really talk very much, so I used to kind of do articles, or interviews in his voice, so to speak. And at this time I wasn't a composer, so I'd stopped composing in 1964 because I didn't really want to write the music, that Birtwistle, Goehr or Maxwell Davis etc. were writing. So ‘68 I was a music critic. ’76 Harry [Harrison Birtwistle] had been appointed Director of Music at the National Theatre and the first production at the Olivier for the opening was either ‘Il Campiello', which is a Goldoni comedy, which was going to be directed by Bill Bryden. They had collectively, or whether Harry, or whether it was Bill, decided that the soundtrack, the incidental music, would be made up of eighteenth-century gondoliers’ songs. And so he asked me to – since he knew I had been a musicologist, this was 10 years before – we go to the British Museum music library to get volumes, or to transcribe, or find, or whatever and transcribe gondoliers’ songs, that I will then give the transcriptions to him, he would then give the transcriptions to Nino Rota and Nino Rota would write the score, which was fine. So I went to the music library and found a lot of, I didn't find any kind of collections of Venetian gondoliers’ songs, obviously, because there wasn't, there were no Bartók’s around. But there were a lot of kind of piano sonatas by early classical composers like Galuppi and people like that, that we don't really remember. And you know, there'll be a sonata called ‘Venetian Gondoliers Sonata’ or something, so I kind of copied down all these - so I extracted them from the piano sonatas, copied them down, put them on a sheet of paper or two sheets of paper, gave it to Harry, who then gave it back, gave the sheet back to me because he said that, you know, Rota decided, for whatever reason not to write the soundtrack, not to write the incidental music – so it was going to be me. So I had this sheet of tunes and I don't know how long I had to write this score and there were two elements, you know, one is how to treat these tunes, but the more important thing was to find an ensemble to play them and I sort of did a bit of research and I discovered the Venetian street music at the time was just kind of rather boring sounding groups of violinists sort of wandering the streets. So I kind of invented this fake street band. It was an onstage band and what I decided, and I don't know where this came from, was that it would be the loudest possible onstage band that wouldn't use amplification. So the string instruments were kind of rebecs rather than violins, and the wind instruments were saxophones on the one hand, and kind of shawms and curtals on the other hand, and it was it was based around a group that I think still exists called City Waites, and you know, Roderick Skeaping and Lucie Skeaping and Keith Thompson played every kind of woodwind instrument you can imagine. So I then decided quite irrationally that, from being an onstage band we’d become an offstage band, and we’d become a concert group. So, Birtwistle at that time had already started having concerts in the foyer of the National Theatre before, I mean, like six o'clock, you know, people are sort of wandering around drinking and it was great. So we had the concert and we had the band, but we had no music. The only music we had for that ensemble was the ‘Il Campiello' music, which was about sort of 10/15/20 minutes. So I then had to sit down and write a whole programme of music, a whole kind of concert. And there were some things that I would call arrangements, so I think there was an arrangement of ‘Mack the Knife’ from The Threepenny Opera, but there were also some arrangements that were so extreme that I would call them compositions, or something halfway between an arrangement and a composition. So like the ‘Miserere’ from ‘Il trovatore’, which I remember from seeing when I was a kid and there’s Manrico in the prison and there's Leonora, so they kind of exchange kind of arias and I did a kind of sort of funky version of this very strange arrangement. And it was very interesting that it was an arrangement where it was the power of the sound and the strangeness of the sound of the instrument, and then there was something that took found music and kind of sampled, basically sampled it, so ‘In Re Don Giovanni’, which again is something I remembered from, you know, seeing as a twelve or thirteen year old, and like the opening of the ‘Catalogue Song’, I kind of analysed it and stripped it down and kind of repeated it kind of line by line and layer by layer, and built up this piece that from twenty five seconds lasted nearly three minutes. So that was a genuine composition, but everything was transformed by the sound of these kind of unusual instruments used in unusual combinations.

And the band that was called the Campiello Band had nothing to do with kind of rock-band, it was a band because it was a street band. We used to travel around southwest England and play on band stands and beaches. So it was, it was strangely the son of the Portsmouth Sinfonia and the son of the Scratch Orchestra. So there was a whole kind of cultural mix that was embodied in the Campiello Band that is kind of difficult to unravel now, but I can, I can just about do it.

BE: We continue with the demands of director Peter Greenaway, the soundtrack to a sex comedy and the music of birds and noses. 

MN:  So that was really the start of my work as a composer with a resident performing group, and as the music got more ambitious, and as something like ‘In Rae Don Giovanni’ became a model for other things, so the demands on the players became greater. And, you know, I would write string parts that actually couldn't be played on a rebec you know – maybe go higher than the fingerboard would allow, or faster or whatever. So I kind of re-enacted the history of instrumental music within the Campiello Band in a very short space of time: the rebecs were replaced by violins, shawms and curtals and whatever were replaced by more saxophones, since everything is kind of harmonic and since everything has to do with baselines and chord changes, the most important instrument was the bass guitar, and I can't remember when I first used the bass guitar, I'm sure it's there somewhere, and once you introduce a purely electric instrument, then you can't have an acoustic band. So then that's why everything became amplified in order to aspire to the condition of the bass guitar. And then obviously, there were kind of, there were and there are, there’s an inbuilt imbalance between having a loud saxophone played by a loud saxophone player like John Harle; and a violin even when it's played by someone as kind of pushy and powerful as Alex Balanescu, you know, they can't, there's no competition. So the internal dynamic, the internal balance of the band had to be
controlled by electronics, by mixing basically.

So I became a composer again in 1976. So, Peter Greenaway who'd been a friend, and we'd kind of toyed with writing, with me writing soundtracks to his films. I had had the very first English synthesiser, the VCS 3. 

Then in ‘76, he made a film called ‘1-100’ which was kind of quite simply the numbers one to 100 shot in random fashion and then assembled in sequence, from one to 100, and he wanted a score from me that was musically and conceptually based around one to 100. So I wrote a piece for him which he rejected because it was wrong and I wrote another piece.

‘1-100’ was a kind of slow drifting series of sustained piano chords that were unsuitable for the kind of rigorous structure that he wanted for the film. So I wrote him another piece that he used as the soundtrack, but ‘1-100 then became one of two pieces that was recorded by Brian Eno and released on Obscure Records, ‘Obscure no. 6’. So I became a composer and a recording artist in that year, and a soundtrack composer for avant-garde film, experimental films.

Plus, I also wrote the soundtrack for a film called ‘Keep It Up Downstairs’, which was a kind of soft-porn piss-take of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, which was the kind of ‘Downton Abbey’ of those days. And so, you know, I was in a very interesting place, at a very interesting time. Now, the other thing that I started in 1976 was teach music in the Fine Art department of Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. This was part of a long-standing tradition of experimental composers like me, like Gavin Bryars, like Michael Parsons, teaching in art schools, which is a tradition. And one of the things that I did in addition to my kind of one-to-one teaching and my general studies lectures, which I think was very interesting – I would sort of stand up and talk about, you know, Steve Reich or George Brecht, or whatever – was to form a little orchestra, willing musicians amongst the art students who are not very good players. So this was a kind of chamber orchestra version of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and we did arrangements of course and for some reason, I wrote a piece… six or eight years ago when I was making ‘Witness 1’, you know, once I became a filmmaker. And with ‘Witness 1’ – which is basically a series of animated still photographs, that were police photos of gypsies who were put in concentration camps by the French during the Second World War – for some reason it seemed to be a very suitable soundtrack, so I arranged it for the Michael Nyman Band. So although this version of the piece is kind of rather developed from 1976 and there are a lot of saxophone melodies that weren’t there in the first place, the harmonic structure is just the same. So effectively this is the oldest piece of the Michael Nyman Band that exists, so it has to be at the beginning of the concert and also I want to, it's very easy to kind of sit down and say, okay, here's the music from ‘The Draughtsman's Contract’, this is what I do, and it's all full of energy and whatever. But I think by putting ‘Witness 1’ at the beginning of the concert, I mean it's right chronologically and also kind of establishes a kind of filmmaking connection, and it’s my own filmmaking, not me writing music for other filmmakers making films.

And then ‘Bird List Song’ we don't do very much. This film, ‘The Falls’ that I think he made in 1979 – and he said, there were 92 characters, and one character only communicated through birds’ names and only communicated through singing birds names. So he gave me a list of birds and said, you know, here are the lyrics for this song. I did two things, you know, one is that it became the kind of index of ignorance, so the hundred birds that he gave me, I decided only to keep the names of the birds that I never heard of, since it was only a list and since there's no kind of greater value for this bird’s name over another bird’s name, except in the number of syllables it contained, I decided that everything should be sung on one note. The piece kind of developed of its own accord, each instrumentalist has a theme that grows from one or two notes, to ten notes, or whatever. So it’s not only an interesting song in the fact that that it exists in ‘The Falls’ as a film performance, again by Lucie Skeaping, who was in the Camiello Band, but also as a beginning of a series of songs whose texts are made up of kind of just word lists. So there's a piece called ‘Nose-List Song’ that I wrote in the mid-‘80s, which is a list of descriptions of the nose of a character who walks into a town in one of the stories that’s inserted in Laurence Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’, and then the most recent list song is called ‘Shakespeare Sex-List Song’, which consists of a list of words that Shakespeare used for fucking arranged alphabetically. So that's kind of interesting.

BE: Next we speak about his specific path through connecting image and music, the sampling of Mozart and quickly fast forwarding through a string quartet and an opera and arriving at his first song cycle. 

What was it like at the time you know, as we move through the ‘80s because your music must have, through film, been heard by an audience you never really imagined? 

MN: Yeah, well, yeah, and also his films were seen by an audience that he never imagined because everything from 1976 from ‘1-100’, through ‘The Falls’, ‘Vertical Features Remake’ were seen by limited audiences. So you know these films would be shown at the NFT [National Film Theatre], ‘A Walkthrough H’, whatever, wouldn't have, would not have a kind of huge audience.

And then he sort of cracked it with ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ because it was a feature film, a fiction film, it more importantly, used actors. So ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ kind of hit some kind of zeitgeist in the same way that ‘The Piano’ did ten years later, but musically he used ‘In Rae Don Giovanni’ as a model. In the script that he sent out he included as a 45 RPM single that I'd made in Belgium, of a recording of ‘In Rae Don Giovanni’ and he'd kind of written about ‘In Rae Don Giovanni’ as a musical process, which showed that a piece of music could be firmly planted in the 18th Century and be very faithful to Mozart, at the same time that it was obviously a piece of experimental music.

I mean it’s a kind of sampling kind of piece. So this was a model not only for his film thinking, because although the film was set in late 17th Century, you know, it was basically about Thatcherism and about property and about kind of relationships. So ‘In Rae Don Giovanni’ was very important and when we talked about the music, he said, you know, he wanted the music to be based on late 17th Century English music obviously, because that's when the film was set. So since I’d been a so-called Purcell scholar and then there were, the instructions were the draughtsman made twelve drawings of the house and each drawing would be identified by a particular piece of music. So that wasn't a situation where you say, well so-and-so does this and has this conversation and a certain amount of anger, or there's a certain amount of seduction going on – I want the soundtrack which reinforces those dramatic situations. There was twelve drawings, twelve pieces of music, and each drawing was made over a period of six days. So I decided there would be a musical parallel between a blank page, or the first marks, and the completed drawing. So it was selecting twelve pieces of Purcell, reconstructing them, you know sampling them, and reorganising them and building them up in kind of six layers.
The actual music of the music and the power of the music and the potential of the music, and the kind of emotional content to the music, immediately kind of took over from the commissioning process and the writing. He immediately kind of corrupted his own system, because he kind of knew what music was having what effect on what images that he was in the process of shooting, while I was in the process of writing the music. So these two things happen totally simultaneously. And that worked as a principle, working between us until
‘Drowning By Numbers’ which he'd already shot and wanted different music, and then he was stuck with me and he was stuck with coming back to me as composer. So that film was shot and edited before I wrote the soundtrack.

BE: Let's move on to the second half of the concert, we're skipping through years very, very quickly. Is this a change of gear again moving away from films to somewhere else? 

MN: Well no, because this is the problem with, you know, the Nyman/Greenaway thing. You know, while I was writing for, you know, Greenaway made quite a few films, you know, one every two years in the ’80s, but I wasn't exactly kind of sitting around as a composer waiting to be called up and instructed by Peter Greenaway. So I was writing the first string quartet in 1985, I mean, ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’, the first opera in 1987. So I was just being a composer who occasionally was called upon by Greenaway at the time, and then subsequently in the ‘90s by other directors to be a soundtrack composer. So in the early ‘90s, I had a commission to work with Ute Lemper, so I worked on the song cycle very much in collaboration with her, a friend of mine who told me about the poems of Paul Celan a few years earlier, so it seemed very obvious and appropriate to make a song cycle. I think my first song cycle of poems that Paul Celan had written basically about the Holocaust in Paris during the post war period, till he committed suicide, I think in 1961. And that also kind of fed back into, as a student I'd been sent by Thurston Dart to Romania to collect folk music and Paul Celan was born in – well he was Romanian, I think, he was born in what is possibly Ukraine now. So there was a sense in which, because of my knowledge of Romania, I sort of discovered a kind of Romanian strain in Celan’s work that other composers have not. So when Birtwistle said Paul Celan is the kind of – it's the horror and the modernity, that is kind of uppermost, I think. As I say, detected this kind of rather more romantic, still kind of harsh, Romanian strain in the texts and that was the basis of the work that I did with Ute.

BE: In this last section we speak about his film work post-Greenaway, how he found the musical voice of Holly Hunter's pianist, and finally, where the band has ended up. 

We're moving back to films in the concert now: ‘Wonderland’, ‘The Claim’, ‘Gattaca’, ‘The Libertine’. You're working with new directors now, so I'm interested to ask about that experience. A lot on debut features, or at least films early in their career. How did you find that?

MN: Well, yeah, this is all kind of post-Greenaway. So, Greenaway and I kind of parted company after ‘Prospero’s Books’ in 1991, basically because I didn't like the way he used the music. He demanded a very specific score and I wrote something that I think is the best soundtrack I've written; very, very intensive and I've just released it on an MN Records album called ‘Michael Nyman and The Tempest’, believe it or not. So ‘Prospero’s Books’ did three things: it generated the ‘Prospero’s Books’ soundtrack album, it generated an Opera called ‘Noises, Sounds & Sweet Airs’, and it ended the relationship with Peter Greenaway. But directors in the ‘90s seemed to want to work with me more, totally independently of me splitting up with Peter, than they had in the ‘80s. So obviously, the key film was ‘The Piano’, that came totally out of the blue when Jane Campion just happened to ring me. 

And the success of ‘The Piano’ as a soundtrack and as a film also came out of the blue; and then all the other directors that wanted to work with me in the ‘90s and more recently, but not very recently because I don't write film music anymore, were kind of post-‘The Piano’. So they obviously knew the Greenaway films but weren't particularly attracted to that kind of music, they were attracted to the Michael Nyman, who had kind of recreated himself with the soundtrack of ‘The Piano’, simply because ‘The Piano’ was not me kind of putting on a different style, but was me actually getting inside the head of the Holly Hunter character, who in the 1850s made her own music. So I was basically writing, not music for her, but music for her as a composer. That's how that came about and that was a kind of softer, more poetic, more lyrical musical language, which it seems the Michael Winterbottoms and the Neil Jordans of this world were very attracted to. So I had a kind of 1990s career as a film composer that was very different from the 1980s career and I think I wrote some really good scores. I think ‘Wonderland’ is one of the best and most natural soundtracks I've written and ‘The End of the Affair’ worked out to be very good in the end.

So, basically the film music in the second half of the programme is me saying okay, I was still a film soundtrack composer, and this is a very, very, very short instant-digest of some of the soundtracks I compose. In ‘The Libertine’, which was more or less the last soundtrack I composed for Laurence Dunmore. So, he came to me and his attitude was that he’d first discovered my music ‘A Zed & Two Noughts’ and then he kind of made up his mind that if he was ever going to make a film he would ask me to write a soundtrack, and ‘A Zed & Two Noughts’ would be the kind of model, and he would allow me to, you know, in ‘The Libertine’ he would allow me to write any kind of music I chose. And then as the film industry becomes more complicated and the more kind of yeasayers and mostly naysayers who, especially with a with a with a first-time filmmaker would say, well, you may think that music is suitable for this film, but we don't. This becomes a sort of pain because when I sit down and write an opera, which is my equivalent as a composer writing, writing a film making a film, nobody can, nobody gives you advice and nobody instructs you what to write. And nobody instructs you what not to write and nobody says, you can't have this kind of music or you can't have this kind of structure or you can't have a musical relationship between two characters that is expressed in this way rather than that way. So the freedom that I have as a composer pure and simple – and it's never pure and it's never as simple – is not allowed in film. And I, you know, whenever I kind of see a film now and I think of, you know, the pressures that are put on the soundtrack composer, I feel that the amount of time and energy that consumes could be better used writing other kinds of music, or making my own films.

You know, coming back to ‘Witness 1’, I mean over the last ten or fifteen years, I've made a lot of films, most of which are kind of street films. I'm a street filmmaker in the sense of being the equivalent of, the filmmaking equivalent of a street photographer. As a filmmaker, the musical content, the soundtracks, are kind of important but passive and the active creative process is the shooting of the film. So something like ‘War Work’, I started making that film two years ago and I'm now going to make the very, very last edit of it in a week's time. And although the images, the choice of images, and the arrangement of images, and the kind of relationship, or the kind of forms of imagery that I use from 1914–’18 is constantly being shuffled around, but the music doesn't change at all. Now that might mean that I'm sort of supremely confident about the music, or basically more interested in in the content and relevance and reference systems of the visual images – and I'm not gonna say anything either way.

BE: Moving on to the last few questions, maybe as we’re at the end now, how does the version of the Michael Nyman band that maybe recorded or performs ‘War Work’ differ to the one that was at the National Theatre right at the beginning.

MN: We're just discussing kind of producing a programme and I found the other day, a photograph that must have been taken in the summer of 1977 of the Campiello Band outside the Serpentine Gallery. And so you get this line of musicians with their kind of instruments kind of pretty loosely, you know, assembled, and it's all very kind of rough and ready. This is going to be contrasted with a very recent formal photograph we had taken of the band in an Italian theatre before a concert and everyone looks very grim and very serious. The point that people would take from juxtaposing these two photographs was that, you know, everything was kind of light and frivolous in 1977 and now the Michael Nyman band takes itself far too seriously. Performance demands in a Michael Nyman Band concert are much greater now than they were in 1977 and there is, you know, obviously, the content of the music has changed, but in terms of being an absolutely kind of supreme and very high energy, high involvement in the moment of performance, group I don't think anything has really changed and it is still a band. Maybe now it's kind of, it's not only a kind of street band/brass band, but also it’s kind of closer to a rock band, but there's the same kind of focus, and there's the same kind of sense that, despite all the demands, and despite all the skill of the musicians, that the actual moment of performance is still very important and we’re not sitting down and just playing, we're not just kind of playing repertoire. This kind of goes from me as the kind of musical director and pianist and that's kind of transformed and translated in some way visually and aurally to the musicians and I've been to a lot of rock concerts, especially in Mexico City, where I live, and I find the kind of discipline and energy and sheer kind of passion for playing, there is a kind of consistency, even though when I'd started the Campiello Band, I was not really a performer and didn't really have a clue what I was doing. So I've sort of become a much better performer through playing with the Michael Nyman Band and through working with these musicians, also become a much better composer. They allow themselves to make themselves open to the kind of demands that they allow themselves, open, to be made on them. So in terms of, you know, bowing arms, and in terms of kind of demands on saxophone lips, and bass trombonist’s lips and arms, you know, it's, you know, rather than a group that just sits down and performs – and that's something that kind of still thrills me and makes me want to continue performing because it's kind of demanding. It's hard work. But it's very generous and passionate hard work.

BE: But long may it continue. 

MN: Okay, thanks very much.

BE: Thanks to the composer for speaking to us and the music producer Serious for making this podcast possible. For me, one of the wonders of the classical or contemporary classical world is the Michael Nyman band. a rock band-like ensemble who have continued to bring these tour-de-force performances to venues such as the Barbican. Perhaps going in and out of fashion, but never short of razor-sharp melodies, pounding rhythm and energy.

I’m Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. We’re here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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