MUSIC / Competitive scoring: Nick Kimberley talked to Olympic composer Carlos Miranda about writing for a cast of thousands and an audience of millions

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IT USED to be said that Britain's best chance of an Olympic gold medal lay with the middle-distance men. Now that Cram, Coe and Ovett have had their day, perhaps we should turn our attention to the long-distance events. Long-distance composition, that is.

If symphonic writing were an Olympic event, Nicholas Maw would certainly be a medal contender with his 95-minute Odyssey, current holder of the title 'Longest single span of Western orchestral music'. But he would meet some stiff opposition from the Chilean composer Carlos Miranda, who has written the music to accompany tonight's Olympic opening ceremony. With 10,000 athletes from 172 countries, it's the largest ever mounted. So perhaps there's a touch of irony in the descriptive label which Miranda has given his work, scheduled to clock in at just over 90 minutes: he calls it a 'symphonic divertimento'.

Clearly Miranda has not been fazed by the prospect of writing music for so many moving bodies. He has, in fact, worked regularly with dance companies, including Ballet Rambert and Lindsay Kemp, and has provided music for several theatre pieces directed by Nuria Espert, including The Tempest and The House of Bernarda Alba (seen here at the Lyric, Hammersmith). Perhaps the Olympic ceremony is best viewed as a symbolic and balletic tableau on the grand scale.

And certainly any problems he had in composing his divertimento were closely related to the problems of composing for dancers. With 172 national teams taking part, Miranda's main concern was to prevent the ceremony just turning into a huge parade. 'The music has to make the teams march as quickly as possible]' he says. 'And the challenge was to do a piece which was not 2/4 all the way through. So I've also used rhythms like 3/8, 3/4, 6/4, 6/8 and 4/4. The organisers were a little startled when they heard my maquette. They said they wanted more percussion, to make the pulse more evident. My greatest triumph has been to convince everybody that you can march to a combination of rhythms. But I've seen videos of various Olympic parades, and you find that, whatever music they play, the athletes always find their own rhythm anyway. My main concern is for the audience not to get bored.'

So Miranda has employed electronics to complement his orchestra. The electronic instruments have been mixed in West Sussex, the orchestra will play live in the stadium: not quite global perhaps, but truly international. It has been a long haul: 'I started writing for the symphony orchestra about seven months ago. That was a piece for the entrance of the Spanish team, and it took me quite a long time: it's very Richard Strauss in style, very dense and a lot of notes. I wanted to avoid trying to characterise the different nations. People suggested that, on a synthesiser, you could sample different kinds of folkloric pieces, but my idea was different. I've done a piece which is a promenade through pictures of an exhibition of Spain, if you like.'

Was he concerned that this might lead to the kind of pseudo-Spanishry of Carmen, say? 'I quite admire Carmen] And it's very admired in Spain. I know what you mean, though: it isn't the real thing. But it evokes the spirit of the real thing. If I can get anywhere near what Bizet did, or Ravel in Rapsodie espagnole, I'll be very honoured. There are various moments which evoke the folklore of Spain, tunes which nobody knows where they come from. The project was to suggest, say, the greatest moments in Spanish folklore. It will be difficult for anybody who is not Spanish to identify them, although they might identify some of the pieces which are anonymous - for example, Lalo used a piece very similar to one I use in his Symphonie espagnole, and Sarasate has also used one of the more well- known tunes. There is also a little bit of Albeniz and Granados. But I didn't want to go further because I didn't want to have problems with copyright. If the Olympics were in Britain, I might have used a morris dance, or an Irish jig, something like that.'

If the scale of the ceremony itself is huge enough, the scale of the audience almost beggars belief: not merely the thousands in the Olympic stadium, but the thousands more who will be watching on television. 'At the dress rehearsal I was looking at all those thousands of little heads and thinking, 'How many other thousands of millions of heads throughout the world will watch?' It's very difficult to grasp. But you have to be aware that everything that people see on TV is dispensable. People remember it as much as the carton of milk they threw in the rubbish bin.'

But Miranda is a man of the theatre, and music for the theatre is all about fugitive moments, the specific musical detail subservient to the larger spectacle. Although he has composed concert music, he prefers to reach his audience by other means: 'I'd rather have my music involved with lighting, make-up, dance. An incredible number of people have had access to my music - I don't think I would have had as much contact with them if I'd written symphonies for orchestras to play.'

Once the Olympics are past, he has other projects - a piece to celebrate the Miro centenary in 1993, which will involve collaboration with a choreographer, a painter and a contemporary music ensemble ('very Diaghilevian'), and a new collaboration with Lindsay Kemp (their first new work together since 1986). 'We are adapting Perrault's Cinderella into a kind of gothic operetta. It's a very caustic Cinderella - not like panto at all. After this Olympic chapter, I would welcome something more intimate, more introspective.'

Working with Kemp on a 'gothic operetta' might not be everyone's idea of something 'more intimate, more introspective' but, like everything to do with the Olympics, it's all comparative.

Olympic opening ceremony, 7pm tonight BBC1

(Photograph omitted)