MICHAEL NYMAN Live (Venture)

Another borderline inclusion for a rock fanzine, in my defence I'd like to point out that a) Michael Nyman plays on Kate Bush's "The Sensual World" album, b) Orbital named his soundtrack to "The Piano" as one of their fave five albums recently and c) the sleeve notes mention both The Moonglows and Metallica. Eclectic city here we come!

Often derided by the serious classical press, Michael Nyman's music is based on short., melodic, repetitive phrases (just like much of the other music discussed in these pages), and for many years he's had his own dedicated band to perform it, including string and brass players in its composition, as well as a bass guitarist and Nyman himself on piano. He has worked on the soundtracks for many of Peter Greenaway's films, including "The Draughtsman's Contract" and "Drowning By Numbers", before becoming very successful indeed with his score for Jane Campion's "The Piano", and the Mercury Music Prize-nominated "Piano Concerto", on which it was based.

"Live" is his first post-hype release, and it's very good. An eclectic selection of material includes one of his earliest compositions, "In Re Don Giovanni", "Queen Of The Night" from "The Draughtsman's Contract", two-thirds of the divine "Water Dances", a new collaboration with a group of Moroccan musicians "The Upside-Down Violin" and a concert arrangement of his music from "The Piano", which is a vast improvement on the disparate and unfocussed original work. The Michael Nyman Band play with consummate verve throughout, and enough rapturous applause is included to provide sufficient sense of occasion. It doesn't beat the aptly-titled "The Essential Michael Nyman Band" set of re-recordings as the Nyman disc to own, but for Nyman disciples who haven't been fortunate to see him in concert it's indispensable.

MICHAEL NYMAN After Extra Time (Venture)

"After Extra Time" is Michael Nyman's 1996 concept album about football, believe it or not, in which Britain's best known modern composer takes in subjects ranging from the Heysel Stadium disaster to his beloved Queen's Park Rangers, all presented through the medium of pulsing modern classical systems music. Although more focussed than much of his recent work it falls some distance short of a return to the glory days of his Peter Greenaway film soundtracks, edging out towards being patronising at times, for example the opening solo that seems intended to evoke brass band music a la the Hovis adverts' interpretation of Dvorak, which seems too much lazy shorthand for 'plucky working classes' for my liking. Not a terrible album, but equally not one I'll be returning to much in the future.


Seasoned observers of Britain’s most famous modern composer may have noticed that whilst his public profile edges more and more to some kind of minor league rock star status (an entry in "The Great Rock Discography" - a white one, come to that, not grey, as I’m sure Ms O’Rak would have no hesitation in pointing out - collaborations with The Divine Comedy and writing works about football) the actual music he’s been responsible for in recent years is retreating towards more orthodox classical traditions, and, dare I say it, pretensions.

His latest release contains recordings of "Double Concerto For Saxophone, Cello and Orchestra" commissioned by Mazda UK (irony seekers may derive some amusement from the fact that Nyman doesn’t actually drive), "Concerto For Harpsichord and Strings" and "Concerto For Trombone and Orchestra", written for the BBC. Such imaginative titles betray the paradigm shift he seems to have undergone over the last few years: ten years ago he was writing stuff called "The Man Who Mistook His Violin For A Bee" to be performed by ensembles of Moroccan street urchins...well, I exaggerate, but very little. Certainly there seems to have been a New Orthodoxy creeping into his work during the last few years.

Musically, well, he’s writing material that sits a lot more comfortably with classical traditions, witness the fact that these pieces are performed by orchestras rather than his own small ensembles. He’s digressed from the tight little riff-driven pieces that soundtracked Peter Greenaway’s films throughout the 80s - which, stylistically, extrapolated orchestral music into the 21st Century in a similar manner to what Wire were attempting to do with punk/pop/rock/call-it-what-you-want on their first three albums - to sprawling concertos that contain one part rattling good tune (often liberated from other areas of the Nyman canon) to many parts standing around passing time waiting for said rattling good tune to arrive. Lucrative, no doubt, but ultimately vacuous: not since "Miranda" from the "Prospero’s Books" soundtrack, released way back in 1991, has he come up with anything that genuinely had soul, fire, or passion, something that made the listener think that they were experiencing some brave, new, experimental kind of music. His soundtrack work was always much more than mood music, it was frequently integral to the whole cinematic experience. Nothing on "The Concertos" would distract your attention from - or to, come to think of it - advertisement images of happy nuclear families in shiny new Japanese hatchbacks. Which is a shame, coming from a composer who’s lowered his ambitions from music for a new millennium to (wait for it, it’s bound to happen, he seems to be taking any king’s shilling these days) music for the Millennium Dome.

MICHAEL NYMAN St Thomas' Church, Salisbury 5 June 2002

Although the days when I used to only take my Michael Nyman albums off to put my Phillip Glass albums on are long past, I jumped at the opportunity to see Nyman and friends in this unusual venue as part of the Salisbury Festival. Queuing in the downpour that seems to accompany my every visit to the city we noticed a Land Rover Discovery parked outside St Thomas' Church with the registration number P1 ANO: the only thing that scuppers the perfection of this anecdote is the fact that, during a BBC documentary about a work commissioned by Mazda a few years ago, it was noted that Nyman doesn't drive, and a Land Rover doesn't seem to be the most appropriate of vehicles to be chauffeured around in, unless there are a deal of muddy, ploughed fields in the vicinity of Nyman Towers.

Although not a complete classical concert neophyte, I was still pleasantly surprised to receive a programme on the way in, with - joy of joys! - a setlist! A similar document would have helped enormously when I went to see Bob Dylan the previous month. Beginning an evening's worth of personnel shuffling, Nyman's string quartet took the stage, accompanied by soprano Sarah Leonard, and launched into a version of "Miserere", from the soundtrack to Peter Greenaway's gory but great "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover". And it seemed as if Nyman had, in his own way, done a Dylan, the arrangement juxtaposing the floating sensation of the version presented on "The Essential Michael Nyman Band" (still the best one-stop Nyman shop, in my opinion) with much fevered string-sawing. (Memory fails me in attempting to remember whether this featured on the original soundtrack recording.) The quartet trotted off and Nyman himself arrived at the piano to assist with a few slight pieces from the "Prospero's Books" soundtrack, introduced by Leonard rather than the composer, who didn't utter a word to the audience all night. Unfortunately they didn't include the fantastic "Miranda", a masterclass that packs just about everything that's great about Nyman's music into four hyperactive minutes. Leonard left the stage to the man, who trotted out three excerpts from "The Piano" (well, he'd probably have been lynched if he hadn't!). My mother seemed affronted that he had to employ a score, and was disappointed by what she regarded as an emotionless performance by rote; I was more concerned by the fact that, despite saying Steinway & Sons on the box the instrument he employed sounded horribly clanky. Without getting into a pointless debate along the lines of "My hi-fi does a better impression of a piano than that!" it has to be said that, well, my hi-fi does a better impression of a piano than that. I couldn't determine whether it was due to a combination of natural and amplified sound - there were certainly microphones dangling in the vicinity, although it later appeared that they were aimed at the quartet rather than the keyboard - but something seemed wrong, both in sound and performance. The first half of the concert ended with a performance of "String Quartet No. 1", which featured a great deal of trademark Nyman scraping and sawing in a piece that went unrecognised by me until a lift from "Unchained Melody" arrived halfway through and triggered the realisation that I had in fact heard it before. What it gains in live performance is the sense of the real physical exertion required, the faces of the quartet contorted with the effort required to carve out Nyman's huge, craggy outcrops of melody. It all spirals to a delirious peak that proved to be the highlight of the night and, possibly paradoxically given the grinding repetition involved, ended all too soon.

Post-interval the ensemble performed two songs from the opera "Facing Goya", neither of which left anything in the way of indelible impression - I can't even recall the instrumentation employed. More memorable was "On The Fiddle", a piano/violin relocation of more fragments of Nyman's Greenaway soundtracks, consisting of "Full Fathom Five" (from "Prospero's Books", performed in its original form earlier in the evening), the frenetic "Angelfish Decay" ("A Zed And Two Noughts") and "Miserere" (again!). Continuing his habit of never writing a new melody if there's one knocking around the canon ripe for further exploitation, there was something naggingly familiar about at least one of the two songs performed from the currently-under-development soundtrack to an animated film about Anne Frank. Final piece "The Ballad Of Kastrior Rexhiep", whose provenance I have been unable to uncover, tipped proceedings off the cruel and unusual end of the scale, being a gruelling close to the evening, although its lyrics about tiny Serbian flags on bottle openers (I'm paraphrasing, but probably not too much) afforded a few welcome moments of possibly unintentional light relief.

Strange night then. Great venue, although perching on cold, hard pews for two hours reminds the spectator that it wasn't built primarily for comfort, and the strange clankings coming from Nyman's piano suggested that the venue's acoustic qualities weren't too high on the requirements list either. Some fine music, some that sorely tested the patience, and some that, although never less than note-perfect, seemed to be dispatched in a disappointingly perfunctory manner.