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November 25, 1997

Modern Composers

Michael Nyman: After Extra Time. After Extra Time; The Final Score; Memorial. (Caroline, CD # 1127 2) 1996.

This 1996 album contains three independent but related works written by English composer Michael Nyman (b. 1944) from 1985 to 1996. Nyman is probably best known as a composer of music either written for or used in a number of movies, including the hugely popular score for the Jane Campion film The Piano. Movie fans may remember Memorial, one of the works on the present album, from its very effective use in Peter Greenaway's 1989 movie The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

A former music critic himself, Nyman confounds critics who need to categorize and group composers. Though his composing style, with its repetitive, modular elements, is often compared with that of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, Nyman rejects the comparison. His music has been described as having a "gangly, homespun sensibility far removed from Glass' sleek, compartmentalized arpeggios." Performances of the Michael Nyman Band have been likened to "a village band swaggering through a Purcell overture, but with one or two musicians fallen out of sync. One hears Scottish folk songs harmonized with chords that shift from Delius to the Beatles, delivered by a brass section courtesy of Petula Clark's Greatest Hits."

An inveterate recycler of his own work, Nyman says that "Every piece I write...has within it materials, ideas, or scrapings in the corner which can be observed in a different light" and incorporated in a new work, often in a completely different way. This doesn't mean his music is repetitive or unoriginal, but that he is not afraid to work and re-work material in ways that run a risk of upstaging earlier work. He says that this way of working is "like a glass of water where you listen to something that appears to be full, and suddenly something is added and miraculously makes the glass double its capacity.... You make the audience think they're listening to the ultimate representation of that material, but then you add other things and the whole focus, color and attitude changes."

The title After Extra Time refers to the British term for overtime in a ball game; the scores of extra-length soccer games are reported with the denotation (aet). The three pieces on this album all relate in some way to soccer (which the Rest Of The World in their benighted folly insist on referring to as football). The first of the three, also titled After Extra Time, "could also be designated as Riff Athletic v. Riff Rangers," says Nyman, "since each team features its own riffs...and its own playing style."

Memorial, the third and shortest work of the group, "is one section of a large-scale work dedicated to the memory of the Juventas fans killed in the Heysel Stadium in June 1985" when fighting broke out between fans of Juventas and Liverpool. Its unrelenting, brutal base portends disaster even when the melodic and harmonic lines over it carry no hints of trouble. In the latter part of the work, a single soprano voice floats above the small orchestra as both a cry of anguish and a lament. Memorial is a powerful statement on a modern tragedy.

You can hear Memorial by Michael Nyman on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, December 4, at 7:30 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green

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