If you get the chance to see The Michael Nyman Band in concert we can thoroughly recommend the experience. Their current show was aired in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and is in two parts. The first part covers Michael Nyman's music for the films of Peter Greenaway and the second part is a unique performance of his music for the 1929 film "Man with a Movie Camera". The original Michael Nyman Band was formed to play the composer's theatre music for "Il Campiello" and the group were based on the concept of a Venetian street band with both period instruments and modern ones to give them more volume. The Band became the Michael Nyman Band as we know it today when those period instruments were replaced by their modern equivalents and amplification was introduced. Although the instrumentation can be varied to suit the occasion, the typical line-up is String Quartet, three saxophones, trumpet, horn, bass trombone, bass guitar and piano. Thus the band itself and Nyman's style of music are both grounded in classical musical traditions but with a distinct modern feel to it.
The first part of the performance includes music from "The Draughtsman's Contract", "Drowning by Numbers" and "Prospero's Books". Each of these highlight Nyman's approach (guided by director Greenaway's requirements) of "deconstructing" pieces of music to extract a repetitive bass line and then reconstructing a new piece based upon this into something similar to the ancient forms of Chaconnes and Passacaglias. The tracks for "The Draughtsman's Contract" are based on sequences taken from the work of Henry Purcell and put through this process. The tracks played on the evening were the rousing opener "Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds" (most familiar from its frequent use on television), "Queen of the Night" and "An Eye for Optical Theory". For "Drowning by Numbers" a similar approach was used on musical fragments from Mozart's "Sinfonia Concertante" to create tracks such as "Trysting Fields" and "Knowing the Ropes". For "Prospero's Books" Nyman used different approaches to construction though the end result still generally consists of his trademark repetitions of harmonic phrases with varying themes and accompaniments. Though this description sounds dry and mechanical, the resulting music has a lot of drive and energy which is very enjoyable and seems to create an almost physical impact on the listener.
The second half of the concert also features Nyman's film music played by him (on piano) and his band, yet it is an altogether different experience. "Man with a Movie Camera" is a film made by Dziga Vertov in the USSR in 1929. As stated during the opening titles, this film was made "without theatre" meaning that the actions weren't scripted and performed. Instead it is a montage of shots showing normal life for the citizens of various Russian cities at that time. It is almost documentary in nature but the artistry comes from the choice of subject, the setting up of the shots and the editing together of the result. Vertov applied a number of typical film-making techniques on the film with freeze frames, slow motion, fast motion, reverse motion, stop motion animation, unusual camera angles, superimposed trick shots and split screens. His choice of scene covers a broad range of everyday life: people, shops, factories, traffic in the streets, leisure activities including sports and seaside scenes, beauticians and hairdressers, weddings, funerals, divorces and births, in total a phenomenal and breathtaking range. Initial shots show the city asleep before the first stirrings of morning leading to a typically busy day, and the juxtaposition of certain shots are clearly the filmic equivalent of metaphor. The camera and cameraman are an integral part of the film showing the entire process of filming, from all sorts of angles and vantage points, on stationary tripods and from moving vehicles, and even shows the editing of the film itself. It's not such a poetic title, but perhaps "Man with Two Movie Cameras" would be a more accurate description. Although this was all filmed 74 years ago in a country under the influence of an increasingly restrictive Communist regime (Lenin's picture is visible in some shots), the overall impression is that though the superficial details have changed, the essence of everyday life is just the same as today. Though fashions are different and there has been "progress" in the technological sense, these people are convincingly just like us.
The film is in Black and White and silent, so the band play Nyman's music throughout its 68 minutes duration. Although the music was carefully crafted to the film, as is Nyman's frequent practice it was not all written from scratch. Some of the themes, figures and harmonic patterns used were borrowed and adapted from Nyman's existing portfolio. Fans may recognise a number of sections such as the eerie "Digital Tragedy" theme and the more lyrical "Love" theme from the Video Game "Enemy Zero". The film music goes through phases which match the general pace of the onscreen action. The music may be relaxed and reduced to string quartet augmented by flute and piano for the sections showing people at ease, but becomes more lively using the full band for the hustle and bustle of the street life and factory sections. No doubt the changes in pace also help with the practical considerations of giving the players some respite. Suggesting that string players should bow constant semi-quavers for more than an hour is asking a bit much! However, the pace of the film does generally quicken towards the end. As the edits on screen seem to become shorter and summarise the film so far, the music likewise becomes more intense ending with a climax of visual and auditory stimuli. The Glasgow audience who had given polite applause to the various works in part 1, broke into rapturous applause and a spontaneous standing ovation for part 2. Such is the cumulative power of Nyman's music.
There have been a number of releases of the film "Man with a Movie Camera" on DVD with different soundtracks. The one with the Nyman soundtrack only seems to be available on the UK Amazon site at the moment. We also recommend some CDs which demonstrate the playing of the Nyman Band:
Note that we also provide some Sheet Music recommendations for piano on the Michael Nyman page, many of these covering music performed on this show. Some members of the Michael Nyman Band have been with the group since the beginning though there have been some changes to membership over the years. On the night of the concert in Glasgow the members of the Band were as listed below, which may be different on some of the recordings noted above. In particular, the soundtrack on the "Man with a Movie Camera" DVD has the band augmented by a Soprano voice.