As Michael Nyman silently took his place at the piano stool, any notion of an amiable saunter through the composer’s back-catalogue with cosy anecdotes about Peter Greenaway or Jane Campion had already been dispelled.
I had gone into this performance at the RNCM thinking it would be clips of films in which Nyman’s music has featured. Yes, his film soundtracks featured heavily, but were accompanied instead by a selection of shorts from his Ciné Opera series – a collection of works filmed by the composer in various locations around the world. His short films were an acquired taste, sure, but they were nothing short of compelling. There was also a freshness to his performance, mainly because many of the pieces are better known played by Nyman’s band, with its familiar combination of strings, reeds and older more obscure instruments. This was simply piano, and all the better for it.
The opening (unaccompanied) film featured footage of staff preparing an arena for the parading of a slaughtered bull – several minutes of inefficient sweeping and re-touching of powdered boundary lines culminating in the undignified sight of the dead animal being dragged round the ring. It set the scene for the rest of an uncompromising programme of films.
My favourite was close-up footage of what seemed to be a Mediterranean version of Paper, Scissors, Stone. As the bewildering game reached fever pitch, it became compulsive viewing, with the accompanying performance of An Eye for Optical Theory (from The Draughtman’s Contract) ramping up the tension. Nyman does tension better than most, just watch Man On Wire for a recent example.
One film fixed on a pair of train buffers during a train journey – inanimate metal parts given a whole narrative by the piano soundtrack, as they almost almost touch/kiss. It’s tantalising. When they finally ’embrace’, there’s a odd sensation of relief and elation. Odd, because it’s only a couple of brass fittings which have shunted together momentarily. That’s the power of Nyman’s music. It has a primal instinct to it, often repetitive layers upon layers giving a metronomic almost hypnotic quality. When combined with these seemingly mundane filming choices, the music forces you to find meaning. We want to find meaning; instinctively we are hard-wired to look for a narrative and Nyman gives us the perfect soundtrack with which to do this. But he doesn’t manipulate or signpost. Even his most recognisable piece, The Heart Asks Pleasure First from The Piano, was given an almost angry rendering. There was little sentimentality in this performance, despite the piece’s obvious intrinsic beauty.
That’s not to say there wasn’t subtlety or emotion here. Slower pieces like Candlefire had a sad simplicity which was incredibly moving. Big My Secret (also from The Piano), was accompanied by a film of beach front huts on the South of France, each with the name of a Hollywood star or director. An endless parade of the great and good of cinema history, it played out like the ‘In Memorium’ section of the Oscars; celebratory and melancholy in equal measure.
In between each segment of music, Nyman stood up, slowly walked to the front centre of the stage, and purposefully bowed. Bravo sir.
Review and photographs by Chris Payne
Where: RNCM, Manchester
When: October 29 2013
More info: http://www.michaelnyman.com/