‘MICHAEL NYMAN’ = Bird Anthem; In Re Don Giovanni; Initial Treat/Secondary Treat; Waltz; Bird Song List; M-Work – The Michael Nyman Band– MN Records

by | Jun 14, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

‘MICHAEL NYMAN’ = MICHAEL NYMAN: Bird Anthem; In Re Don Giovanni; Initial Treat/Secondary Treat; Waltz; Bird Song List; M-Work – The Michael Nyman Band– MN Records MNRCD123, 41:17 ***:

By now, most have heard of Michael Nyman or – at least – have heard some of his throbbing, trademark sounds even if you cannot place a name with the sound. This disc is actually a CD reissue of Nyman’s second album in his new compositional mode and with his own performing ensemble, the Michael Nyman Band (its predecessor being the Campiello Band, also headed up by the pianist-composer.)
Nyman is, indeed, an interesting person with a background in music criticism and analysis and very unique composer. Nyman freely acknowledges the influences in his music that stem from Baroque music, through an overtly minimalist filter.  He began exploring these compositional styles and possibilities in his use of what Nyman also describes as a “totally fake ‘Venetian’ street band.”  In fact, the first version of Nyman’s “street band” was used in a score he wrote as incidental music to a Bill Bryden production of Goldoni’s “Il Campiello”.
So, this disc provides an important and historic view of what later became Nyman’s trademark style. If one has heard of Nyman and wants to check out his music, this may be either a good place to start – or, conversely, a risky first venture.
For example, a few of the pieces that have since become staples of the MN Band touring repertory are here; most notably In Re Don Giovanni, which morphs the first sixteen bars of the “Catalogue Song” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni into the pulsed and driving work that defines his early style. (This particular recording was also Nyman’s first sampled and remixed work.)  Listeners may also have some familiarity with his Bird Anthem that uses a choral chanting of bird names in a sort of mock pompous feel. (This was later used by Nyman in his score for “Man with a Movie Camera”.)
There are also some “hard core” works here that even Nymanites might not be familiar with. Initial Treat and Secondary Threat are reworkings of two movements from his 5 Orchestral Pieces (modeled after the Webern Five Pieces.) Each of these movements independently is probably familiar to some and well worth exploring. A very different – even somewhat jarring – listening experience can be had in the Waltz (from 1978). There is a constant “chattering” running through this work that sounds almost like a flock of gulls in a town square while a fairly simple melody nearly struggles to be heard above the din. This is, however, intentional as Nyman had hired Evan Parker on saxophone and Peter Brőtzmann, bass clarinet, to improvise wildly in tracks that were later mixed in by Nyman’s producer and sound engineer, David Cunningham.  The effect is, indeed, surreal and a bit nerve wracking but Nyman has often juxtaposed the “rough” with the simple.
Bird List Song, from 1979, is from a soundtrack to one of the composer’s earliest affiliations with Peter Greenaway, “The Falls.”  A soprano intones the names of birds (like Cassowary or Bobolink) on a high A – barely within her comfort zone; for effect.  The accompaniment contains the most curious mix of trombone long line melody and an electric guitar riffing over driving pulsing keyboards and strings.
M-Work is the longest work here and, very interesting. This piece takes its title from the title of a film score The Masterwork but also alludes to Mozart, from whose Sinfonia Concertante elements of the slow movement are borrowed. A very ponderous ominous beginning gives way to a chattering, ticking mélange between flutes and electronic keyboards only to be intruded on by the melody. In a trademark way, the music vacillates, unexpectedly, between the light and the dark; the perky and the ponderous. This really is a fascinating piece.
I admit I am a “Nymanite”. I first became aware of his music through his work with Peter Greenaway and have admired his ability to also compose music that is plaintive and restful, if not sad, such as the film scores to “The Piano” or “The Claim.” I do still love the pulsing, aggressive and, occasionally, strident sound of his early work, like some of these. I recommend this disc heartily to others like myself who already know what you get with Michael Nyman. As I mentioned, if this album would be one’s first introduction; it may hook you (like my earlier experiences) or it may cause you to back away; which would be too bad. Nyman is one of the late twentieth century’s (and beyond) most unique and fascinating voices whose style has morphed over the years.
—Daniel Coombs

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