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MICHAEL NYMAN talks to John Leeman about his opera Man and Boy: Dada


Michael Nyman has been touring the UK promoting his CD, The Piano Sings, which inaugurated his own new label, MN records. I met him in the Café/Bar of the Sage Concert Hall, Gateshead on 7 November 2005 shortly before he was about to perform on stage. We talked about the CD of his latest opera, recently released on the same label and which I was to review . Below is an edited account of our meeting:-




JL: Do you see the CD as a sonic experience in its own right rather than as a representation of what is primarily a piece of musical theatre?

MN: Oh absolutely - sometimes itís a great joy to have operas put on the stage because it shows youíre taken seriously as a producer and as a director and as a caster and lighting designer; and I constantly say that opera is what I want to do more than anything else because it does combine all these elements, but when you have a bad production, badly directed, badly cast , badly sung and badly lit, and the designs are not very good, you thinkÖhmmÖ why do I do this? I write operas in the same way I write film music Ė I do write it to be substantial and self contained although there is a desire to have a bit of video there Ö a bit of stage trickery. There is a sense with a lot of contemporary operas that you donít need to bother so much about the music but I try to make the music as authoritative as possible, so if you listen to the CD you get a picture of whatís happening on stage, the music is strong enough to create the stage picture, strong enough to create the emotional life; and with Man and Boy strong enough to create the pre-history.

I think Iím a very good opera composer. When I read reviews of other peopleís operas Ė new operas Ė you read that the music was just the sound track to what was happening on stage and what the libretto tells you. When I saw Man and Boy I was very much aware that I had created a music which the characters inhabited. Iím doing what operas do - you know, if you listen to Don Giovanni - composers created a world that is unforgettable, that is so operatic, and I think thatís what all opera composers should do, and you can either do it or you canít Ė just as either you can write a good film cue or you canít. You do it by instinct and it either works or it doesnít, and I seem to be able to do both, but I think that although people might say that I spend a lot of my life accompanying other peopleís images and the music is perhaps secondary, I think Iíve actually trained myself up to partly write film music to create an opera world which takes you somewhere where youíve never been before, where the libretto doesnít tell you where to go because The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and also Facing Goya and Man and Boy are not like - you know, The Silver Tassie or whatever Ė there isnít a story, a story there where people are doing things which in a way obligates you to write a certain kind of music. Just as in The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, abstraction was the name of the game Ė I could start from wherever I chose and so to a slightly lesser degree I can with Man and Boy although there has to be the love interest, there has to be the tea time music, there has to be the rather rigorous single harmony music for when Schwitters is planning his war time tale. And the other thing the music does in an opera, which I think I do better than anyone else, is being able to switch - I mean in a way that people canít do in films and I donít think you can do in literature, but itís still the same medium. To be able to switch from Schwitters saying/singing about the destruction of his world and his life and his wife and his painting by the Nazis ....and then the woman says "we can have a cup of tea", not only by montage but also by creating musical identities which are so contradictory. You can just switchÖ..

Yes, youíve got the ability to do these emotional short cuts which generates a powerful concisenessÖ

Yes, exactly, and two things amaze me, or surprise me, or intrigue me about the score and that is partly the ability to make this emotional switch and the other thing is that Iím still, from an orchestration point of view, amazed at where this chamber music came from. It was something to do with not using the Michael Nyman Band, not having the saxophone block and using individual instruments I donít usually use like oboes and bassoons and my pet hates, and thereís no big brass section. Because of that Iíve been forced to write a music which is much more to do with the establishment chamber orchestra feel. Whereas the Michael Nyman Band is like a twelve piece ensemble, this is a kind of nonet, very much in an older tradition.

(On the subject of chamber orchestration, I related to Michael Nyman my experience on first hearing the music which was that, a minute into the opera there starts a passage which convinced me he was alluding Ė or paying tribute Ė to Richard Straussís only chamber opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, specifically the commedia dellí arte scenes. Not only were there textural connections but clear melodic and rhythmic similarities (dum diddle dum dum). He said heíd never thought of that and I said how lucky it was that I met him to clear it up because I would have made a fool of myself by declaring, in my review, this to be obviously the case.)

But he then said:

Yes, but sometimes I can allude to things without knowing, and the interesting thing is that when I write an opera like Man and Boy I generate a whole bunch of material regardless of where itís going to go - what itís associated with - so that dum diddle dum dum was just something that came to me and then I realised that as itís comedic, itís also neutral enough to constantly add different bass lines..

Yes, it becomes a very strong leitmotivÖ

Yes, exactly

There is another thing Iíve got to ask you: about your inveterate collecting which obviously connects up with Michael and the fact that at the time he doesnít know why he collects bus tickets, so presumably this idea of creating order out of chaos is a retrospective thing.

Well yes: whatís interesting about that is something I discovered that Schwitters actually said in 1919 and Michael Hastings (librettist) has picked up on it. But I was just a kid and I collected everything, and it had nothing to do with order out of chaos. I mean itís kind of bizarre, my brother collected everything. But psychologically maybe there was somethingÖ.

But being a collector and list Ė maker, as you were, does that not help to root things down that otherwise might take off, or destabilise oneís life.

(Michael Nyman does not look entirely convinced)

It is a need for order. Iíve got a theory about your music in connection with that. I wonder if it is why you love Purcellís ground basses.

Well exactly..

because they anchor down something that wants to take off.

I know, yes..

Bach doesnít compose his grounds like that, in the sense that his melodies donít subvert the bass by going across the joins in the way that Purcellís do.

Yes. This is something I feel a bit ashamed about when I began working with Purcell, because Purcell does go across the joins and I donít. If you look at something like Queen of the Night (from Purcellís The Fairy Queen) where he modulates: heís in B minor and then he goes to D major in the middle which Bach would never have done ...

You see, the way I sometimes hear your music, and particularly in this opera, is that when the characters are trying to take off - in the context of what theyíre doing - your basses seem to become even more rooted. For example when Michael and Kurt are riding the bus, the boy suggests an adventure, that they go to "the end of the line" Ė what a metaphor! Ė youíve got a very strong, vigorous ostinato that is very propelling but in its simplicity also seems to pin things down, as if to remind them to keep their feet on the ground

Yes, yes ...

(We had to finish there, since Michael Nyman was being reminded by his entourage that he was due on stage in a couple of minutes)


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