February 2005 Scotland on Sunday

Michael Nyman

AS far as Michael Nyman was concerned it was going to be just another collaboration. There was nothing new about writing for contemporary dance for a composer who has routinely associated himself with artists of other disciplines. Prominent among his collaborators is filmmaker Peter Greenaway for whom he scored The Draughtsman’s Contract, Drowning by Numbers and The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. He also teamed up with Blur’s Damon Albarn on the soundtrack to Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, with Indian master mandolin player U. Shrinivas for an album in 2003, and with Jane Campion for her film The Piano.

So to work with choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh should have been par for the course. He’d worked several times in the world of contemporary dance with luminaries including Siobhan Davies, Lucinda Childs and Stephen Petronio and, indeed, he’d collaborated once before with Jeyasingh on her company’s first production, Configurations, in 1988.

But Jeyasingh had a condition for him. She insisted on an electronic score and suggested Nyman should work in conjunction with Jurgen Simpson, a Limerick-based composer of German-Scottish extraction. Nyman says the impact of the experience has been profound.

“I could say that it’s a wonderful opportunity to work with Shobana again, which is true, but actually the major discovery came about because she wanted an electronic score,” he says, taking a break from the first-night chaos of Flicker’s debut in Manchester. “It’s not my usual form of sound. I’m sort of aware of it, even if only as an avoidance tactic because I find most electronic music tiresome in the extreme. But it has totally thrown my composing process in the air. Even if there wasn’t a dance work, it has opened up worlds to me which are very suggestible. There’s a lot more work going to come out of this association between me and computers.”

Nyman’s late discovery of the potential for computer-generated music is surprising. To the casual listener – and with so many film scores to his name, Nyman has a lot of casual listeners – his music has a similar aesthetic approach to the loops and repetitions of electronica. Typically, he will take a phrase from an existing score and extend it, in various forms, over a whole orchestral piece. This, coupled with his concentration on rhythm – not to mention the ferocious attack of the Michael Nyman Band – creates an insistent form of contemporary classical music that’s not a million miles from the energy of popular music.

Now that Jurgen Simpson has introduced him to the practicalities of using computers, it will not only affect his own work, but more than likely, it will feed back into the genre he’d previously dismissed. “Jurgen said he thought the electo-acoustic world were going to find our music really interesting,” he says. “I said, yes, I was sure these studio-based academic composers like Simon Emmerson would be either fascinated or dismayed that I’d invaded their world. He said, ‘No, not those boring old farts, I’m talking about electronica. This could easily go out on Warp Records, it’s related to what the Aphex Twin does.’ Suddenly, at the grand old age of 60, I feel I have a new audience and a new outlet for my work.”

His baptism into electronica began with him writing a short piece of music with the Logic computer program. He took it to Simpson and they started “messing around” with rhythms, textures and structures. “Within half an hour not only had we found a fantastic communication process and working method which was thrilling, but we’d basically knocked the piece on the head. We’d discovered what we needed to discover in half an hour: subsequently there was a lot of work to be done on the score, but the basic generation of material happened in a very short space of time. The end result was remarkable.”

Jeyasingh made further tweaks to the 25-minute piece – which features live semi-improvised guitar – to fit the needs of her dance. Flicker is about the way we make selective use of our past experiences when projecting a character for ourselves into the future. It’s about the artificiality of identity and our capacity for deception. Jeyasingh is fascinated by the various, sometimes contradictory roles we play, not least because, as a British Asian with a grounding in Indian dance and a long career in contemporary choreography, she has so many competing influences on her own sense of identity.

It seems only appropriate, then, that her influence has provoked Nyman to re-invent himself. She did something similar on their first collaboration when she gave him carte blanche to write what he wanted but added the caveat that the music had to adhere to the demanding mathematical rhythms of bharata natyam, one of the oldest dance forms of southern India. It was a serious challenge even to Nyman’s methodical mind, but the result, String Quartet No 2, has turned out to be one of his most enduring works.

As for reinventing himself in the future, he is not short of opportunity. The premiere of his opera Love Counts will be at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, Germany, in March; he’s touring with his band in April; and, in the same month, his opera Man and Boy is staged in Prague. In a move to gain greater artistic control over his output, he is launching his own record label, MN Records, at the end of March. After Man and Boy, the score for Flicker is likely to be one of the label’s first releases. But who’s to say what direction he’ll go in next?

“This collaboration has changed the way I look on the musical instruments I’ve been working with for 30 years,” he says. “Suddenly saxophones and strings seem very fat and flat. I’ve steered clear of electronics in the past because of the inorganic nature of the sounds, but now computer sound-modelling processes mean there’s a graininess to the electronic sounds which are rather thrilling.”

Flicker, MacRobert, Stirling, Thu 10 Feb and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Sat 12 Feb

© Mark Fisher 2005/2009

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