The music of Michael Nyman has really been getting under my skin these past few months, so when the opportunity came along to see him and his eponymous band in Zurich, it was a no-brainer to make the journey there from Geneva. This was my first visit to Zurich for thirteen years or so, but it doesn’t seem to have changed much in the meantime.
The Michael Nyman Band are engaged in a protracted bout of touring this year, in celebration of their 40th anniversary as an ensemble. Although I’d seen this group in Vienna in 2014, playing Nyman’s soundtrack to Battleship Potemkin, this was the first time I’d caught them in a formal concert setting. The acoustics at the Schauspielhaus were bright and clear, while the hall itself was beautifully intimate. There were more than a few empty seats in evidence, although I was pleasantly surprised by the number of children in the audience. I live in hope that I can one day persuade my son to accompany me to a concert of this kind of music rather than the trash he’s currently listening to, but I’m not holding my breath.
Anyway, those who turned up were treated to what was effectively a Nyman Greatest Hits set, with many pieces culled from the Essential Michael Nyman Band CD on Argo that has been on such heavy rotation around these parts of late. I highly recommend this set as an introduction to Nyman, brimming over as it is with precise elegance and winningly persuasive tunes.
Nyman’s music is a seductive, utterly unique blend of minimalist textures (Nyman was, after all, the first person to use the M-word in relation to music) and gorgeous romantic atmospheres. Evoking at once the wistful melancholy of Geoffrey Burgon’s Brideshead Revisited theme, the pastoral eccentricity of Penguin Cafe Orchestra and the formal rigour of Philip Glass, it is hugely enjoyable and sumptuously listenable. Pieces like “Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds” and “An Eye For Optical Theory” exert a heady fascination on the listener that remains compelling even when divorced from the Peter Greenaway films for which they were originally composed.
Nyman’s peerless band eschews the bottom end (no percussion, only an unobtrusive bass guitar) in favour of strings, woodwind and brass. With Nyman himself on piano, the instrumentation brings a biting clarity to proceedings that heightens the raw emotional heft of Nyman classics such as “Time Lapse” and “Knowing The Ropes”. Lurking near the back was saxophonist Andy Findon, last seen by me in the folk rock group Home Service – an association not as surprising as it may at first seem, given the undercurrents of directness and simplicity that ripple through the work of both groups.
There’s a subversive, carnivalesque quality to Nyman’s work, inscribed in its sly humour and bolstered by his associations with folk like David Cunningham and the Portsmouth Sinfonia. It’s a mood that sits awkwardly with the stuffy conventions of the concert hall. It wouldn’t have hurt Nyman to undercut the formality of the evening with a few words to the audience every now and then between songs, but he did nothing of the sort. His back turned resolutely to the audience throughout, Nyman’s stony-faced demeanour softened only at the very end, as he shared a smile with the band during the curtain calls. A final solo reading of his most famous piece, the gorgeous main theme from The Piano (otherwise known as “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”), and he was gone.