David McAlmont/Michael NYMAN
The Glare [35:31]:-
Take the Money and Run
Secrets, Accusations and Charges
City of Turin
In Rai Don Giovanni
Going to America
Fever Sticks and Bones
A Great Day in Kathmandu
Underneath the Hessian Bags
Michael NYMAN (b 1948)
Songs for Tony (1993) [17:25]
David McAlmont (vocals)
Michael Nyman Band; Nyman Sax Quartet (Songs for Tony)
rec. Olympic Studios, 9-10 June 2008
MN RECORDS MNRCD 116 [52:58]
Fans of Michael Nyman will have followed the career of our UK ‘house minimalist’ from the early EG albums, his film scores with Peter Greenaway and beyond, and more. The success of the Michael Nyman band is also something of a phenomenon in the art music world: the characteristic sound of growling or singing saxophones and brass, chugging piano and electric bass, Alexander Balanescu’s soaring violin, all contributing something to numerous ensembles which have since followed.
All artists need to find new directions, to evolve and strike out into paths which refresh their creative processes. Mention has been made of a ‘new genre’ being created with The Glare, but with albums such as Philip Glass’s 1986 Songs for Liquid Days and others, these kinds of collaborative exchange between ‘art’ composers and popular performing artists have cropped up before and since Mozart met Anton Stadler and Stravinsky was introduced to Woody Herman. In this case, Nyman has forged a collaboration with vocalist David McAlmont - famously re-connecting through Facebook in order to move into something more ‘pop’ in conception without losing that essential Nyman identity. My expertise on the subject of McAlmont’s musical pedigree is alas non-existent, but the quality of his contribution to this project both as a performer and composer of both lyrics and tunes can take plenty of superlatives. There is a serious theme and message in these songs, from the media Glare of the title, to their global news-themed content. I’ve read some of the rave reviews, and while I have to say I don’t actively dislike this album there are aspects of it which make me uneasy. This leads me to conclude that it is a qualified success and possibly more a work ‘in progress’ and likely to lead to other more interesting projects in the future, rather than achieving ‘classic’ status in its own right.
Basically, what we have are a number of Nyman compositions with an extra vocal part grafted on top. Where the accompaniment is more sparing and the vocal part has a better opportunity for emotive lyrical expression this can work well. Secrets, Accusations and Charges and Friendly Fire are good examples, where Nyman’s gently undulating piano and sustained strings create a nice mood, and the effect of the lyrics can be freed from more rigid rhythmic frameworks and extend McAlmont’s range of colour and emotion. Where band and voice mesh less effectively are the more groovy and urgent tracks, where we would be more used to hearing the kind of soaring operatic voice which is equal to and penetrates through the band’s playing in stunning pieces like Memorial. While McAlmont is an excellent vocalist he is, by comparison with someone like Sarah Leonard, more of a crooner and therefore reliant on microphone technique to compete with the massed forces of the Michael Nyman Band. Nothing wrong with this as such, but the result in this recording is Band shoved further back in the aural picture - in the next room with the door half open, and Singer doing karaoke on your living room carpet. For my own personal worst case of this I have to mention In Re Don Giovanni. This I loved on the Live album, and as a result I suppose I will have to admit to being less well disposed to hearing it messed around with, but like Gounod shoving a tune on top of Bach’s Prelude in C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I it just seems ‘wrong’. Just as every note in that Bach prelude has a melodic function and is most definitely not an accompaniment, so In Re Don Giovanni - re-titled In Rai Don Giovanni on this album - suffers McAlmont’s vocals like a wasp buzzing around your head in a summer park.
This effect is sometimes not really helped by the production on some tracks. Going to America has the backing musicians in a bone-dry studio, vocals given cheesy reverb. This only serves to enhance the ‘grafted’ nature of the collaboration and doesn’t quite fit to my ears. Yes, it can be a good idea to change the aural picture from time to time, but this kind of tinkering seems a bit like scraping the bottom of a not very deep barrel. Most of the vocals are straight solos, but this track has some brief multi-tracked moments of chorus which work well enough.
There are no lyrics given in the foldout sheet for this release, but most of the words are easy enough to follow, and you can resolve any doubts by reading everything on Michael Nyman’s own website. No lyrics are required for Songs for Tony for saxophone quartet. I’ve heard this piece often enough in concert, and this is a cracking performance. My only complaint is that there are no access points between the various movements. My only other only complaint is that it does seem something of an add-on to the end of the songs, filling out the playing time and with the title being the single tenuous identifying factor it shares with the rest of the album. My idea would have been to take the work, or something similar - Nyman has more than enough instrumental material - and create a number of intermezzi to fit between the songs, turning the album into more of an integrated whole and heightening the effect and impact of the Glare songs by releasing the ear from the voice for short periods. I’ve worked with this kind of treatment and seen it linked effectively to visuals in live performance, creating more of a dramatic narrative to a concert or recording rather than having just a procession of ‘numbers’.
So, I’ve had my few moans about this album, and must now await the sticks and stones from its ardent fans on my own Facebook page. To move onto more positive comments I would say the melodic choices made to fit with the Nyman pieces are pretty good on the whole. There are some powerful messages in the lyrics, and what you most certainly get is well composed real music played by proper musicians. None of the Nyman pieces have been ‘remixed’ to any great extent as far as I can tell, and there is thankfully no ‘pumping-up’ of anything by adding rock beats or cheesy electronics. There are many moving and beautiful moments here which avoid or allow us to forget the chimera nature of these creations. These are foundations on which I feel he can build - short of writing some new songs. This might well be more of a stepping stone to more satisfying projects in the future, and I do hope this will prove to be the case.