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The power of the cadence

The power of the cadence

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Interview with Michael Nyman
Interview with Michael Nyman

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Robert A. B. Davidson on May 10, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The power of the cadence
 An interview with Michael NymanBy Robert Davidson
"You take Liszt's
 Les Preludes
and the whole thing is shot through with this one theme that reappears in different guises. Take away the late-twentieth-century minimalist repetitive trappings, and Ithink that's the composer I really am. It's the old game of repetitionand difference that I'm playing."
Michael Nyman:
I'm in a strange position of being the composer and the commentator, who starts off as the commentator and the joiner-in. When I wasn't a composer I joined in with people who
composers and are
composers (people like Michael Parsons, Chris Hobbs and all that crowd), andthen became a composer and ceased to be a commentator. Also I think I ceased to have a connectionwith those composers who I would say were my peers (even though I wasn't a composer). What'sinteresting is talking about the kind of career path - Gavin and I have had a career path which hasamazed a lot of us and annoyed probably a lot more. . .
 Robert Davidson:
You could probably also include Howard Skempton in that 
 And Howard - but Howard being the quiet one has kind of crept up on the blind side and maybe willout-career us all. I don't think it's a case of me or Howard or Gavin being careerist, because in the olddays there was nobody more careerist than Chris Hobbs. Chris was much more of a careerist than JohnWhite.So I've got to deal with being the composer who was a commentator, and the commentator-no-longer who is composer. Although I'm not a commentator and though I don't write about anything, whether it'smine or anyone else's, I still can't unfix myself from being part of that culture. What I find I do ininterviews. . . when I read other people's interviews, with say Steve or Phil, all they talk about is Steveor Phil. Steve may talk about Perotin, he may talk about Kurt Weill, but he doesn't talk about Phil andhe doesn't talk about me. He'll talk about Gorecki ripping him off, which is a lot of unhistorical bollocks. Phil may produce Gavin's music on Point records, but I don't find him talking about it. Theonly person who talks about me is Gavin. There's a recent interview in the Independent where thereseems to be a lot of resentment and envy, which I find really bizarre, because he's the bloke who'sstarted from where he did start, not having had a classical background, he's the guy who got theinternational opera, and I haven't. And I never speak ill of my colleagues - we're not in competition. Ifind the idea bizarre.
 Are you in competition with people like Birtwistle?
  No I'm not. I'm totally out of that.
You are friends aren't you?
 I was friends with him, but what's interesting is that once I started being a composer, we ceased beingfriends. When we do meet, occasionally, he doesn't recognise me as a composer. There's a story aboutsome mutual friends at a dinner when Harry said he's really very pleased for me with
The Piano
beingas successful as it was, he said he can remember me when I had to pick up rotten vegetables and fruit atthe Portabello Market (I didn't have two pence to string together) and I used to get money babysittingfor him. "I think it's really great for Michael" he said, "but don't expect me to listen to that sort of music, and don't expect me to like it."
I thought coming from Harry was very generous, but it's curious that there's three or four overlappingsituations between me and Harry since I've been a composer. One is that I did a ballet which waschoreographed by Ashley Paige, and Harry subsequently did one, and one of the last times I saw Harry(maybe ten or fifteen years ago) he asked me what it was like working with Ashley. And then Harryknew that I'd worked with Oliver Sacks, and rang me up totally out of the blue asking about Sacks, because he wanted to do an opera based on Sack's book 
 A Leg to Stand On
. He didn't ask me about mymusic. He's never talked about that because he obviously doesn't think what I've done is particularlyinteresting or particularly valid, so I'm cut off from that world.I'm not sort of painting myself into a corner. I think I'm pretty happy, and I've done pretty well, and Iwouldn't be anywhere that I'm not. But I'm cut off from that world, and also the Michael Parsons-DaveSmith world, that has remained very close to the original principles - the composers whose musicwould lead out of the last chapter of the book, and which could be described in another chapter withoutdeviating from the principles.
These composers (whom I've been seeing) do take an interest in your current work You are doing  something different. . .
 Well, musically I'm doing something different, not because of any career choices - it's just aesthetic preference: that's the way it came out. You start with something like
 In Re Don Giovanni
and variousrepetitive piece which were related to the stuff the PTO were doing, and it just developed the way itdeveloped. I don't exactly look at those guys as being dinosaurs, but I do see why I align myself withGavin - we've tested our work in the commercial world, commercial in terms of audiences, festivals,record companies, and promo, and Tom Waits and
The Piano
and all those kind of high-risk associations. But the other guys have stayed still for some reason which is kind of curious. Thereshould be somebody around, maybe it's you, who should be writing about this. I have to write a new preface for the reprint of the book 
So it is coming out again?
 It's coming out with Cambridge University Press sometime this year. I found it very uncomfortablewriting the preface, because on the one hand I didn't want to write the last twenty-five years, and on theother hand I wanted to put it in some conceptual, theoretical, musical, social, artistic context that itwasn't in, and I couldn't get my head around doing something other than basically describing where itcame from, and what my position was. My position in that world was really rather interesting - there'snobody around the scene since then who was as privy to as much of that world, as personally involved.
 How did you come to be part of that world?
 I became involved in it through journalism. I started writing for the Spectator in '68, and I was doingreviews of Maxwell Davies, Stockhausen, Boulez, Messiaen and all that stuff. Then I went to CorneliusCardew's
 Paragraph 1
- the second performance at the Wigmore Hall (the first performance was at theCheltenham festival) - I was just entranced by the aesthetic world, the musical world which was beingdescribed in that piece. I'd known about Cardew obviously, but I hadn't necessarily heard his music.What I had heard was really like Stockhausen and all that stuff. I found that he was writing musicwhich was - well, a bit kind of dismal, quite simple, quite open to inexpert performers. The thing justtouched me, and opened up a new sound world, and a world of musical objects and objectivity, which Iknew nothing about. I suppose after the performance I must have talked to people about it. I don't think I knew Cardew, I don't think I knew Michael Parsons, I probably didn't know Gavin, I don't think Iknew John Tilbury . . . I'd like to dig out that review and just pinpoint it in time. I think I was reviewinga Maxwell Davies piece, which may have been
 Eight Songs for a Mad King 
, and I'd been deeply intoall that post-serialism stuff, and I was very disciplined, and very much a purist. So I knew all aboutTavener Fantasy, and the puritanicalness of that music, and especially Max's music.So when he came up with something that was as outrageous and impure and inferior as I thought
 Eight Songs for a Mad King 
, I went for it and did a hatchet job on it. It may have been
 Revelation IV 
, I don't
know. And in the middle of this review, I made a link between the Maxwell Davies and the Cardew:"how refreshing to turn to Cornelius Cardew."Here were these two worlds: here was an overblown, heavily overcaked, over-made-up Neo-Expressionist world, which I was then comparing and contrasting unfavourably with this pure, dismal,grisly, whiter-than-white world of the Cardew, with a different sense of space, a different sense of time. . . and I just fell for it hook, line and sinker. I got personally involved with that crowd, and left theMaxwell Davies-Stockhausen new music thing behind (though I probably carried on reviewing it) and became personally involved and involved as a performer with Scratch Orchestra, Portsmouth Sinfonia.. . In 1970, got to know Steve Reich, subsequently Phil Glass, Feldman, Earl Brown and that wholecrowd.
You knew
Come Out
quite well by then.
 I knew
Come Out 
in '68. I certainly remember when I heard it and how I heard it - unexpectedly onRadio 3 at the time, just played without any explanation whatsoever, where it came from, who he was,and it was one of those overwhelming moments. But nothing else happened. I know in the ScratchOrchestra we performed
 In C 
- I was aware of Terry Riley. I did the pulse part. Given what I've becomeas a composer, I thought it was quite interesting that I should have been given the pulse, Corneliusdesignating me as pulse player. I didn't know what the hell to do, and his one performing direction was"imagine you're on a train journey and you're passing telegraph posts" - it's just a series of telegraph posts that change. I suppose that set me up with various things. Quite often when I've written about mymusic, I've written about certain kinds of landscape imagery, such as with
. That image of Cornelius' with the train and the telegraph posts always comes to mind. So obviously I was always perceived as being on the musical side of the Scratch Orchestra, because I don't think a non-musicianwould have been given that role. It's interesting that in the Scratch Orchestra anyone could have doneanything.When we were did
 In C 
in the Scratch Orchestra (and I'm not sure precisely when that was), I don'tthink I related what Terry Riley was doing with what I perceived Steve Reich was doing in
Come Out.
 I don't think I made that connection at all. Because Terry Riley was a connection that came throughCornelius and the Scratch Orchestra, and Steve Reich came through Radio Three. So it wasn't until1970 when Steve came to London and I interviewed him that he put the four composers together: himand Phil (who we knew nothing about) and LaMonte and Terry. I never thought about that before -that's a new idea.It's very easy for me to talk about 1968, early 70s stuff, up to the book, and that's when it stops. Butwhat I've done as a composer's all been since 1976.
 I would like to talk about when you were using early instruments and early music. What is the meaning of that for you? Something to do with John White's "meta-irony"?
 I'm not sure if it was meta-irony or just my training - I had a full blown training as a classical musician,B.Mus and all that, so I knew the classics and I don't really think irony came into it. Maybe I am anironist, but only as a resultant process. Obviously when I work with Greenaway we appear to be bothsupreme ironists. He may have been an ironist and I became one by accident, by association. One thingthat I really liked about the PTO was this sense of . . . I had an acute knowledge of the classics, but alsoan acute knowledge of cliché. And I was very aware of, in film terms, in soundtrack terms, or other terms, of cliché and how one could encapsulate a whole musical style in one image.I suppose I was really very attracted to the sense of exaggeration, to the perception of the cliché. Isuppose it has to do with the idea of the readymade. The perception of the cliché, the presentation of itand the processing of it, and I suppose the academic in me - that I'd done my Bach fugues, I knewabout Baroque music, and I'd read Steve Reich's
 Music as a Gradual Process
, so I was interested in allthese elements. I was interested in cliché for what it was, what it represented in musical culture, whereit came from, what it expressed in itself and what it expressed in our selection of it. So the selectionwas radical. So all this stuff, the Albert Ketelby, the Scott Joplin, that stuff that I started doing when

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