By Cyril Wong
Minimalism. What is it, really? A music? Just an idea, perhaps? One definition goes: “The stripped-down, diatonically tonal, pattern-repetitive style that arose in the '60s.” “Minimalism” went on to influence various streams of musical styles and genres after its inception, which could never have happened without what the minimalists did first.
A serious and well-known practitioner today, long after Steve Reich and Philip Glass, is Michael Nyman, the man popularly known for his soundtracks for movies like The Piano, Gattaca, and Ravenous, in which he had a fun time working with Damon Albarn from Blur, although he hated the film, being the non-violence pacifist that he claims to be (he said so after the concert). He was commissioned by Birtwistle to arrange 18th century Venetian Songs for a play. A band was formed to play these which later became known as the Michael Nyman Band, while Nyman himself started to write the Band's material, parts of which were performed last night.
But why does it feel so unsatisfactory to term Nyman’s music as Minimalist? Sure, he coined the word for a chapter in his book, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Minimalism: repetition, but with a difference. A simple idea really, which also means it is terribly profound, for how can a repetition be one with a difference; can it still be called a repetition then? Derrida would tell you that signs in language make sense because each sign is repeatable (or iterable, the word he would use) in different contexts. Try thinking about how we make sense of the world in general (the deconstructionists would say that the world is made up of language). When a note is repeated, (“na na na,” sings Kylie), time changes, the context is ever-shifting, ever-progressing, nothing is quite the same the second time, or the third. Repetition. With a difference. But still repetition. A simple idea? Yet it is the very basis of our ability to comprehend the world, to enjoy its patterns and our satisfaction at deriving order from them. But why is this so? Why repetition? Maybe herein lies the end of logic and sense, and, perhaps, the beginning of spirituality.
In Nyman’s music, there are influences of jazz or Scottish-folk elements, and the scale of the tonal imagery is cinematic, sweeping, lyrical; hardly a paring down of music to Minimalist elements. Yet what is essentially Minimalist about his music is his preference for linear melodies, repeated pitches and rhythmic motifs for long passages of time, for seamless tonalities wiped clean of abstract, European-oriented systems like Serialism. Despite the rich, folk to jazz influences, the emphasis is still on an emotionality, an expressionism, and – that idea again – a Minimalism. There are intonation inconsistencies, mis-entries, and the violinist even forgets to come in. But such mistakes cease to be significant when the audience realises what the true emphasis should be – the Minimalism, the raw, untamed propulsion of spirit and musical passion; how much fun everyone on stage seemed to having, how intense they all were (although it did look at times that they were trying to warm up to the music while they were playing). Nyman, when he first came on and started with music from Campion’s film, his fingers casually spilled over the keys, one moment precise, the next jarring, violent, notes are misplayed, but the point of it all is that driving motion forward in terms of rhythm, melody, expressionism. The music is not only that of a mute pianist’s inner voice, it is the music of Ada’s world as depicted in The Piano: passionate, brutal, gentle, wild and sprawling (watch the movie).
Diva-style, Nyman walked off the stage with hands behind his back, a slight limp in his step, to the sound of applause, as the rest of the musicians came in. When he came back, they commenced straight away with “The Claim,” a piece of the American West, with images of last frontiers, gold rushes, romantic pioneering adventures, golden deserts and untamable wilderness. Musicians made strange hooting noises on stage as if to cheer the music on. Throughout the concerts, the saxophonist tapped his feet, while a violinist practically leapt out of her seat like a Cecilia Bartoli on strings.
Next came “After Extra Time,” a piece written to commemorate the 1996 European Football Championship held in England (Nyman hates the current Beckham-and-the-rest-of-the-lot by the way; he calls them “workmen”). According to Nyman, musicians are divided into two teams, like in a soccer match, with trumpet, horn, bass trombone and violins on one side, flute, soprano sax, alto sax, viola and cello on the other, while piano and bass play with both teams. This and “The Final Score,” which is a homage to Nyman’s football team, Queens Park Rangers in West London, bear the soccer allusions. But the same orchestration of mixed ensembles to create a fused, non-soloistic sound, often playing in rhythmic unison, occurs in both pieces with results of intense aural pleasure. “The Final Score” brilliantly plays with varying a four-note bass line, and the accumulation of overlapping, rhythmic and motivic possibilities.
“Memorial,” a homage to the deaths at the Heysel Stadium tragedy in Brussels on 29 May 1985, and used by Greenaway (who uses Nyman in a lot of his films, many of which Nyman actually does not like) for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, is a long ride that manages to manoeuvre the audience into a whole range of emotions without missing a beat. The changes in rhythm occur before anyone expects them, and the transition is so smooth your heart does a double-take, just as instruments stir up a storm of motivic differences and variations. If Philip Glass’ concert in Singapore at the University Cultural Center was a bore due to his lack of emotionality and the sheer datedness of the instruments’ sound, the Michael Nyman Band was instrumentally robust and opulent, ranging from poignancy to absolute, lap-slapping excitement, to blessed-out delightfulness. In particular, the notes of the soprano saxophone rang out like a angel’s high note at all the right moments in the midst of the rich, orchestral textures.
For encore, the band performed “Drowning By Numbers,” the piece they had done the night before, used for another Greenaway film, a piece that ended the night with a simply bright and sparkly note.
The Michael Nyman Band plays at the Victoria Concert Hall on 18-19 Jun 2002 (8pm). Tickets are available from SISTIC.