9 February, 2009Issue 8.3EuropeFilm & TVHistoryMusicThe ArtsTheatre

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Michael Nyman à grande vitesse

Scarlett Baron

nyman-mugshot2Michael Nyman
Videofile
De La War Pavillion, Bexhill-on-Sea
Sat 24 Jan 2009 – Sun 15 Mar 2009

Michael Nyman
DGV: Danse à grande vitesse
The Royal Ballet
The Royal Opera House, London
31 Jan 2009 to 21 Feb 2009

Friday 23 January marked the beginning of a season of Michael Nyman events at the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea. The opening night featured a preview of “Videofile”—an exhibition of digital photographs and video footage collected by the composer over the last 15 years—and a concert that brought together Nyman’s piano-playing and the voice of British soul singer David McAlmont.

One of Britain’s most successful living composers, Nyman has reached his widest audience through his film scores. He became a household name in 1994 when the music he composed for Jane Campion’s The Piano became a global hit, eventually selling over three million copies. The Piano music’s phenomenal success has had mixed consequences for Nyman’s reputation. While the rush of publicity that followed the soundtrack’s enormous commercial success was certainly welcome, the wider public’s enduring perception of The Piano as Nyman’s central achievement has syphoned attention away from the rest of his musical oeuvre—an extensive and growing body of work that was rewarded by a CBE in June 2008.

Nyman is anything but the one-trick pony that The Piano’s enthusiastic reception may suggest. His music systematically straddles generic boundaries, mobilising classical sounds within crisp, well-paced contemporary rhythms, splicing the tonalities of British baroque with those of present-day rock and pop. His cothe-pianompositions revel as much in the moving understatement of a clutch of notes arranged for the piano in simple, repetitive patterns, as they do in the layering of swift, impassioned arpeggios, or in the thundering pulse of deep bass vibrations.

Nyman’s versatility is obvious even if one considers only the works that have emerged from his cinematographic collaborations—a mind-boggling 75 scores in total—which propelled him to global fame. The seeds of this long-lasting relationship with the medium were sown in 1967 when Nyman worked with Peter Greenaway on a short film entitled Five Postcards from Capital Cities. The two men went on to cooperate on seventeen further projects. Experimental, witty, intellectual, and often deeply bizarre, they include The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) and Prospero’s Books (1991). Nyman has also worked with Neil Jordan (The End of the Affair, 1999), Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, 1997), Laurence Dunmore (The Libertine, 2005), and Michael Winterbottom (notably on Wonderland, 1999, and A Cock and Bull Story, 2006). Most recently, Nyman’s music provided the tense, alternately quivering and taut accompaniment to Man On Wire (2007), James Marsh’s documentary about the spectacular tight-rope crossing between the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers executed by Philip Petit in 1974.

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Prolific though it is, Nyman’s work with the film industry is but one of many strings to his musical bow: he has, for instance, composed a number of operas, provided settings for literary texts, and seized opportunities to write for church bells, the ballet, a fashion show, the opening of a new train line—even for a video game. And Nyman has recently shown signs of wanting to wow the world by more than music alone. In 2008, he published Sublime, a book of over 1,900 digital photographs. From 24 January 2009, the De La Warr Pavilion “Videofile” exhibition offers viewers the chance to see some of these photographs, as well as to gauge Nyman’s début as a video artist through a selection of footage recorded by the composer during his travels around the world.

In 2003, Nyman wrote a score to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 masterpiece, Man with a Movie Camera, a cinematographic collage of vignettes of Russian life captured in all its multifarious variety—in towns and villages, homes and factories, in city halls and on city benches, at moments of birth and at times of mourning. In a 2003 BBC interview, Nyman described the movie as “possibly the best silent film I’ve ever seen” and “without doubt, the best film I’ve ever been associated with”. In “Videofile”, Nyman himself has become the man with the movie camera, and he has learned a few tricks from the revered Russian master.

The gallery’s first room is devoted to an installation called Love Train. The piece consists of a single, continuous ten-minute close-up of the iron buffers cast between the carriages of a moving train. Nothing happens: these buffers love-train-still-2draw together, draw apart, almost—but never quite—touching. This could be an anodyne railway scene: it is not. Locked in by the physical constraints of the train’s clunking, mechanical structure, the buffers tread water, dance, and stroke in a ballet of rehearsed, forever postponed embraces. There is something hypnotic and poignant in the nearness of the buffers’ misses—in the irregular, faltering, and wholly inadequate caresses of these excrescences of inanimate matter. An excerpt from the Nyman sound archive enhances the effect. The music encourages metaphorical interpretations: the iron buffers, like arms extended, become invested with symbolic significance, representing the hesitations and uncertainties, tenderness and transience of human relationships.

Mechanised motion was also one of Dziga Vertov’s passions. “Videofile” features other nods in Vertov’s direction. Tea Factory replicates the Russian filmmaker’s fascination with machinery and industrial working conditions. A lone female worker appears amid a metallic jungle of spinning cylinders and screeching pulleys: human movement is silenced, dwarfed by crushing, grinding, mechanical forces. All of the sounds in Tea Factory are location sounds: none of Nyman’s music intervenes to lyricise the deafening noise of giant rotating sieves, threshing combine harvesters and gyrating turbines. Tea Factory seems intended as a tribute to sound under all its manifestations, at least as much as a document witnessing exceedingly noisy working conditions. Tea Factory provides an illustration, by default, of the transformative power of music: there can be no doubt, as many of the other videos in the gallery demonstrate, that the viewer’s experience of the film would be utterly different if its images were set to music.

While a great many of Nyman’s films and photographs betray an absorption with the everyday and the chance encounter, one double piece, entitled Witness 1 and Witness 2, explores darker concerns. The topic matter is the Holocaust. Witness 1 features police photos of gypsies interned in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Faces appear hauntingly, filtering like holograms through a veil. In Witness 2 pictures of Polish Jews killed at Auschwitz fade in through images of the wooden slats from which their camp accommodation was made. The beautiful oscillations from fading-in to fade-out are masterfully executed. The Witness dyad is an elegiac visual poem, which blends with Nyman’s music in a way that is moving without being sentimental. The closing shot, of Nazi railway tracks, makes for an arresting and emotive reversed echo of the tenderness evoked by the railway images shown in Love Train.

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The second part of the Bexhill launch, a concert, provided exemplification of the composer’s openness to collaboration and confirmed a readiness to bring his music into dialogue with the world of pop. The first half of the event featured solo piano renditions of a number of Nyman’s most successful tunes, most notably from the soundtracks to (somewhat inevitably) The Piano, Wonderland and Gattaca. For Nyman’s admirers, there was scope for disappointment in the composer’s choice of a programme so confined to Nyman’s most established hits. Yet the audience’s pleasure in the music—at least some of which was attributable to the concentrated, delectable sharpness of Nyman’s performance—was tangible. After the interval, David McAlmont sang to Nyman’s piano, with vocals and lyrics entirely his own. The latter were characterized by a plainness verging on the banal. This simplicity was probably deliberate, and certainly accords with minimalist aesthetics, yet at times the insipidity of the wording imperilled an otherwise artful blending of sounds. In spite of this, the alliance worked well overall, with the astounding high-pitched clarity of McAlmont’s voice bringing something fresh to Nyman’s more familiar pieces.

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Nyman is not only at Bexhill. He is also at the Royal Opera House. In 1993 the French company TGV (or Train à Grande Vitesse) commissioned Nyman to write a piece to mark the opening of a new train line between Lille and Paris. The outcome was MGV: Musique à Grande Vitesse, a 26-minute piece featuring elating, propulsive, rhythms that put a certain joy back into the idea of transport. In 2006 Christopher Wheeldon adapted MGV for the ballet and named the result DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. DGV is at the Royal Ballet throughout January and February.

DGV is an absolute triumph. Wheeldon’s 26 dancers dgv-cropped(one for each minute of Nyman’s music) crowd the stage, conjuring a highly uplifting sense of mass movement. The piece is fiercely energetic. At the outset, arms flourished in waving gestures evoke the anticipation of departure. As the journey begins, horizontal lifts executed across the stage generate a sense of dashing forward movement. Dancers glide ethereally from one end of the stage to the other, spinning and swaying in stylised recall of train mechanics.

Throughout their execution of a swift and vibrant choreography, DGV’s dancers convey a surreal sense of weightlessness and suspension. But DGV also comprises some astonishing slow movements—with even some brief moments of total arrest—again, these varying velocities adumbrate the stopping-and-starting that characterises train travel. At one breathtaking point the music stops abruptly and the lights go out, leaving the central couple silently suspended, mid-lift, in the surrounding darkness of a metaphorical tunnel. There are also moments of tenderness and delicacy, which recall the coupling motif of Nyman’s Love Train video.

In its final stages, the piece returns to a mode of frenzied, exalting speed. Extra drums, installed in the stalls situated closest to the stage, contribute to an exhilarating sense of an approach to destination; the choreography matches these demanding rhythms— building up to a viscerally thrilling conclusion.

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Nyman’s postmodern polyvalence is everywhere evident in his latest offerings. His determination to experiment with new partnerships and his commitment to the conjugation of art forms show no sign of abating. Forty years may have passed since he embarked on his composing career, but the Nyman of 2009 is still very much an artist creating and evolving à grande vitesse.

Scarlett Baron received her DPhil from Christ Church, Oxford. The Interviews editor for the Oxonian Review, she is currently a Prize Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.

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For information see:

Michael Nyman’s website

The Nyman-related programme of events at the De La Warr Pavilion

The DGV page on the Royal Opera House website