The power of the cadence

An interview with Michael Nyman By 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 I think that's the composer I really am. It's the old game of repetition and 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 were composers and are still composers (people like Michael Parsons, Chris Hobbs and all that crowd), and then became a composer and ceased to be a commentator. Also I think I ceased to have a connection with those composers who I would say were my peers (even though I wasn't a composer). What's interesting is talking about the kind of career path - Gavin and I have had a career path which has amazed 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 will out-career us all. I don't think it's a case of me or Howard or Gavin being careerist, because in the old days there was nobody more careerist than Chris Hobbs. Chris was much more of a careerist than John White. 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's mine or anyone else's, I still can't unfix myself from being part of that culture. What I find I do in interviews. . . when I read other people's interviews, with say Steve or Phil, all they talk about is Steve or Phil. Steve may talk about Perotin, he may talk about Kurt Weill, but he doesn't talk about Phil and he 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. The only person who talks about me is Gavin. There's a recent interview in the Independent where there seems to be a lot of resentment and envy, which I find really bizarre, because he's the bloke who's started from where he did start, not having had a classical background, he's the guy who got the international opera, and I haven't. And I never speak ill of my colleagues - we're not in competition. I find 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 being friends. When we do meet, occasionally, he doesn't recognise me as a composer. There's a story about some mutual friends at a dinner when Harry said he's really very pleased for me with The Piano being as successful as it was, he said he can remember me when I had to pick up rotten vegetables and fruit at the Portabello Market (I didn't have two pence to string together) and I used to get money babysitting for 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 overlapping situations between me and Harry since I've been a composer. One is that I did a ballet which was choreographed 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 Harry knew 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 my music. He's never talked about that because he obviously doesn't think what I've done is particularly interesting 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 I wouldn't be anywhere that I'm not. But I'm cut off from that world, and also the Michael Parsons-Dave Smith world, that has remained very close to the original principles - the composers whose music would lead out of the last chapter of the book, and which could be described in another chapter without deviating 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 various repetitive piece which were related to the stuff the PTO were doing, and it just developed the way it developed. I don't exactly look at those guys as being dinosaurs, but I do see why I align myself with Gavin - 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. There should 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 uncomfortable writing the preface, because on the one hand I didn't want to write the last twenty-five years, and on the other hand I wanted to put it in some conceptual, theoretical, musical, social, artistic context that it wasn't in, and I couldn't get my head around doing something other than basically describing where it came from, and what my position was. My position in that world was really rather interesting - there's nobody 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 doing reviews of Maxwell Davies, Stockhausen, Boulez, Messiaen and all that stuff. Then I went to Cornelius Cardew's Paragraph 1 - the second performance at the Wigmore Hall (the first performance was at the Cheltenham festival) - I was just entranced by the aesthetic world, the musical world which was being described 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 music which was - well, a bit kind of dismal, quite simple, quite open to inexpert performers. The thing just touched me, and opened up a new sound world, and a world of musical objects and objectivity, which I knew 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 I knew John Tilbury . . . I'd like to dig out that review and just pinpoint it in time. I think I was reviewing a Maxwell Davies piece, which may have been Eight Songs for a Mad King, and I'd been deeply into all that post-serialism stuff, and I was very disciplined, and very much a purist. So I knew all about Tavener 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 NeoExpressionist 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 the Maxwell 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 whole crowd. 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 on Radio 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 Scratch Orchestra we performed In C - I was aware of Terry Riley. I did the pulse part. Given what I've become as a composer, I thought it was quite interesting that I should have been given the pulse, Cornelius designating 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 my music, I've written about certain kinds of landscape imagery, such as with MGV. 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-musician would have been given that role. It's interesting that in the Scratch Orchestra anyone could have done anything. When we were did In C in the Scratch Orchestra (and I'm not sure precisely when that was), I don't think 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 through Cornelius and the Scratch Orchestra, and Steve Reich came through Radio Three. So it wasn't until 1970 when Steve came to London and I interviewed him that he put the four composers together: him and 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. But what 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 an ironist, but only as a resultant process. Obviously when I work with Greenaway we appear to be both supreme ironists. He may have been an ironist and I became one by accident, by association. One thing that I really liked about the PTO was this sense of . . . I had an acute knowledge of the classics, but also an 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. I suppose it has to do with the idea of the readymade. The perception of the cliché, the presentation of it and the processing of it, and I suppose the academic in me - that I'd done my Bach fugues, I knew about Baroque music, and I'd read Steve Reich's Music as a Gradual Process, so I was interested in all these elements. I was interested in cliché for what it was, what it represented in musical culture, where it came from, what it expressed in itself and what it expressed in our selection of it. So the selection was radical. So all this stuff, the Albert Ketelby, the Scott Joplin, that stuff that I started doing when

the Campiello Band started. Yeah, so I suppose there was a lot of irony, and grotesquery really interested me. Do you think the cliché was a way of making musical material automatic? It was. I'm not sure where the love of repetition came from, unless it was just something which was in the air. But I was never much interested in and I'm still not interested in John White in his more discursive moods, or these discursive rewrites of Romantic piano sonatas. Romantic piano sonatas that are sort of wrong, filtered through a late-twentieth-century set of goggles. I'm interested in the images, and in getting those images moving as quickly as possible. And in a way of amplifying images, not amplifying them acoustically but by repetition. I actually think that I'm a really old-fashioned nineteenth-century composer who is into . . . when we studied Lizst and tone poems and Romantic symphonies, we called it dramatic metamorphosis. You probably remember that! So you take Les Preludes or Lizst's 2nd piano concerto, 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 I think that's the composer I really am. It's the old game of repetition and difference that I'm playing.

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