Temper, temper Mr Nyman

Dear me, Mr Nyman. Calm yourself down.

It has been reported in the Telegraph recently and elsewhere that Nyman has recently thrown his toys out of the pram on being told the Covent Garden will not be commissioning an opera from him. In petulant style, Nyman is reported as having ranted on Facebook about not wishing to pay his taxes to a nation that does not wish to support his work.

As a composer-colleague of mine observed on Wednesday, Covent Garden are turning composers down a lot of the time, and why should Nyman be any different ? Simply because Nyman is already an established and successful composer doesn’t mean that a major national opera house should take work from him by default. Covent Garden declared that Nyman’s musical language ‘is not what we want to pursue in our next commissions,’ before adding that this is not a dismissal of Nyman as a composer.

It does seem appropriate that British musical institutions support home-grown composers; and Covent Garden do so – earlier this year saw the premiere of Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune, and last year it was Turnage’s Anna Nicole, whilst the Linbury has in recent years housed Luke Bedford and James Macmillan premieres. So he can’t throw that at them.

Whatever your views about Nyman’s music, it does seem rather childish to adopt an ” I’m British, therefore British opera houses should commission me” attitude, which rather smacks of childish temper-tantrums. Especially when your shouting and stamping can be heard all the way from your home in Mexico City.

Come along, Michael; other composers have been disappointed too. Just get on with it.

Crusade for the New: there’s more than just the classical canon

Glance through most classical music festival programmes or most popular requests for pieces played on a classical radio station, and there’s an excellent chance that you will see familiar works from the mainstream, classical repertoire: Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart.

Whilst the venerable classical tradition of such composers will always have a place in the concert repertoire and the listening library, it is also important that audiences are introduced to, even challenged by, contemporary music, the music of their time.

The endless recycling of Great Masters is a self-rotating roundabout that can ultimately lead nowhere: there’s no development, nor indeed perhaps any desire for it. When festival-organisers and radio programmers know that a particular tranche of long-standing popular favourites will almost guarantee ticket-sales or healthy listening-figures, there’s a great reluctance to programme modern or challenging works that may drive audiences away.

But modern music need not be viewed with suspicion, with fear that audiences will be put off by recent works. Contemporary music has the capacity to embrace contemporary issues: ‘Soldiers of Heaven hold the sky’ from Nixon in China,

or The Death of Klinghoffer, and Dr. Atomic by John Adams show opera grappling with political issues of the twentieth century. And it can do so with a musical language that reflects its age: from the car-horns in Gershwin’s  American in Paris to the sirens in Antheil’s Ballet mecanique or the sampling keyboards playing non-musical ideas in Steve Reich’s City Life, contemporary music has the language and the sound-world to reflect modern life, and make us view it afresh. It can be fun and funky: think of Michael Torke’s bouncing dance-ryhthms in the percussion concerto, Rapture,

or Michael Nyman’s bright textural writing in Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds.

It can be spiritual and reflective, as in the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel,

or the work of the late Henry Gorecki, or Sir John Tavener.

Of course, music from previous eras can always have some relevance to the current political or social climate: Mozart operas being set in underground car—parks or Shakespeare plays staged in council tenement blocks can always draw contemporary relevancy from a work. But that can also be seen as imposing contemporary resonances on a work from a previous age. Contemporary music, like contemporary art, doesn’t need to have such meaning impressed upon it: it’s engaging with such issues directly. And it often does so in a refreshing, vibrant way that makes you re-evaluate its subject-matter.

As Ezra Pound famously put it, ‘Make it new.’ It’s time to trust that audiences are willing to be open to new music addressing contemporary issues, and to crusade for the new.

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(Audio extracts via LastFM).

In defense of Minimalism

Everyone’s heard the criticism: minimalism is tiresome, repetitive, banal, boring, uninventive, uninteresting. It never evolves, never goes anywhere, the pieces drive you nuts. I admit, there are some pieces of minimalism where this is the case.

But then I remember there’s the shimmering colours of Music for Eighteen Musicians,  the bright sunlit textures of Glass’ North Star, the appealingly understated beauty of Glassworks, and I disagree.

Music for 18 Musicians: London Sinfonietta

There’s real colour here; the repeating figures gradually extend and overlap, creating an exotic soundworld which is always evolving, not remaining static. In later works, Reich embraced the audio sampler, creating textures of out sampled urban sounds in works like City Life, a modern take on musique concréte.

Minimalism has even expanded, if you’ll allow post-Minimalism to be included, which is how John Adams’ thinks of his composing, to embrace political issues in opera, as in Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

Glass has written soundtracks to mainstream cinema, for films like The Illusionist and Kundun, using his minimalist language; whilst his solo piano works have a genuine beauty in their stark simplicity.

British composer Michael Nyman remains popular through ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ from his soundtrack to The Piano (even though other works, like The Musicologist’s Scores, premiered at the Proms in 2009, are inifintely better).

Of course, Minimalism’s reliance on repetition and recurring harmonies or harmonic cycles will not appeal to everyone; perhaps because you have to listen to the music in a different way. You have to expand the time-scale of your listening, and follow the tiny nuances as a phrase lengthens by a single note or changes its rhythm; you have to follow the evolution of the melodic lines, of the rhythmic patterns, and follow one against the other to see how they interlock, and appreciate the vertical sonorities created as a result. Contrary to how most people might think one listens to Minimalism – simply letting it wash over you – you have to listen to it actively, attentively; you can’t just wallow in it, otherwise it will feel unchanging and never-ending. You have to be alive to the tiny changes to be aware of how the music is evolving; it demands concentration.

And the music can dance, too: boy, can it dance. Listen to Adams’ ‘The Chairman Dances,’ an orchestral showpiece distilled from the final act of Nixon in China; compulsive fox-trotting.

There’s more to minimalism than meets the ear; try it. As the old television advert for a powdered tea used to say: you might like it. Lazy listeners might say it’s dull: listen for yourself, and then tell them they’re wrong.

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