My Favourite Londoner
This is a piece I wrote for Time Out London which ran in the back of the magazine a while ago, and I think what I wrote still stands. One thing I would have added (but didn’t because of length) was the issue of faith. Nyman’s Jewish heritage has informed of his several major works and is key to their interpretation. In fact, reading about the background of his inspirations is often as fascinating as the pieces themselves.
‘I first saw Michael Nyman’s band busking in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. They were playing raucously without amplification. I’d always considered modern ‘classical’ music either too abstract and cerebral for my tastes, but here was a disciplined group sweating, sawing and hammering out a raw sound capable of stopping passers-by in their tracks. I’d never heard anything like it before, and followed their progress over the years.
I started bringing friends along. Several of us became groupies, following the band around town from Euston to Greenwich Park, cheering the players like athletes. Whenever they started a piece, you could never be sure they’d all finish at the same time. It was nerve-wracking to watch. The performances constantly subverted expectations; Nyman’s tail-coat and grand piano suggested the classical, but his music could have supplied the soundtrack for Hogarth’s London riot-mobs.
If the first half of the 20th century was about melody and the second half about rhythm, Nyman is the only composer I can think of who truly combines both. I saw a rough cut of ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ and his music propelled every scene. His scores humanized Peter Greenaway’s most misanthropic films and provided the dazzling highlight of â€˜Prosperoâ€™s Booksâ€™ (a film still unavailable on DVD). Even after his grandest concert Nyman would always be sitting in the foyer, happy to sign programmes. He provided live accompaniment for A Propos De Nice and Man With A Movie Camera, had a birthday party at the Hackney Empire, influenced everyone from The Divine Comedy to the Flying Lizards, collaborated with Damon Albarn and composed a tribute to Noel Coward made up of Londonâ€™s bells.
Perhaps his sound proved too overpowering for Hollywood. His excellent tracks for ‘Practical Magic’ were removed, his score for ‘The Piano’ was overlooked, but he continued to defy convention, composing for video games, operas, requiems, legendary Indian performers, demanding experimental pieces, TV commercials, crowd-pleasers, an animated version of the Anne Frank story, even music to accompany the launch of the TGV train. He’s astonishingly prolific, and constantly reinvents his own work, which can make collecting his music a frustrating experience – at the last count I had 55 CDs by him.
His music is often a reflection of the capital’s driving pulse, and it feels as if he has always been here, in the parks or near the river. He can be seen in London venues every summer. One memorable South Bank production featured angels on a giant waterwheel and a man dancing with televisions on his feet. The event was barely publicised, but was a sell-out. I kept thinking; how did so many people find out about this? How did they know it would be this bizarre and exciting? Maybe they figured that, with Nyman’s name on the bill, the evening couldnâ€™t be boring.
Iâ€™m nervous of meeting my heroes. I once turned down the chance to meet JG Ballard in order to save us both from potential embarrassment. Michael Nyman and I have almost met many times. I looked forward to interviewing him for a documentary, and when the time arrived I was abroad, so I ended up doing it by proxy, asking my questions through an interviewer down the phone and playing back the footage. Perhaps itâ€™s better that way with heroes.
Like all great Londoners, Nyman gets it in the neck from critics who glibly underrate him. He is accused of plagiarising the masters, of courting popularity and being elitist. Such criticism is to be expected when someone writes without prejudice or precedent; whether the subject is a kidâ€™s show, a football match, politics, sexuality, the death of a friend or mental illness, heâ€™s interested in understanding people from the heart, the gut and the brain.
It seems to me that Nyman has brought modern techniques of sampling and reordering to classics in a way that completely reinterprets and reinvents them. He can allow you to hear Purcell or Mozart in an entirely different way, but he also capable of shocking you out of indifference. His concert audiences are a representative mix of London in age and ethnicity; people clearly come away challenged and delighted. He is an original voice and, for me, one of the most bloody brilliant sounds of London.’
PS. I still never meet my heroes (partly because I’m too shy) but Nyman is unavoidable at his gigs because he hangs out with the audience before and after his shows. Top man. You can hear some of his music elsewhere on the site.