Drowning by numbers

Michael Nyman's Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs Royal Festival Hall, London
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Years ago, in a Play for Today about trainspotters, a virtuoso violinist was shown practising his instrument. As he dispatched each exercise with easy mastery, you heard an interior monologue of him reciting railway timetables, fitting both the notes and the list of stations to the rhythm of a choo-choo. Listening to Nyman in extenso - and Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs is a piece of nearly two hours in length - can be a bit like that. The strings saw and the horns parp, there's a place for everything and everything is in its place, but what unscrolls in the listener's mind, and perhaps in the player's, too, can seem to be nothing so much as an endless series of engine numbers, coded together quite arbitrarily.

While a search for meaning might well be pointless, and much music has got along quite happily without it for centuries, Nyman's yoking the notes to a text suggests that there might be a mystery to solve somewhere. When the text is as canonical as Shakespeare's The Tempest, you might be forgiven for wondering what it's all about. Sorry, I haven't a clue.

It didn't help that the words were, as Nyman wrote in his programme note, "very heavily and idiosyncratically edited". Nor that their meaning tended to be lost somewhere between the plum-in-mouth diction of the singers (excepting the marvellous Hilary Summers, who was crystal clear throughout) and the harsh sibilance of the overly bright and aggressive sound balance. Nor that Nyman employed a kind of "total football" approach whereby the three singers suddenly switched roles, Miranda passing to Prospero, say, while still appearing to hold the ball. And it wasn't even a game of two halves; after the interval, it was occasionally difficult to dispel the nightmarish thought that Nyman was simply doing it all again, so similar were the textures and so repetitious the themes.

One watched with a kind of building nausea, seeing the pile of manuscript pages on the leader's piano get thicker on the left and thinner on the right, only for the remaining pages to unpeel as slowly as an onion-skin. Just when you thought the lacquer of the Steinway was in sight, another sheet remained to be turned.

Given that Nyman has already had one go at The Tempest, on the soundtrack to Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, isn't it time someone declared a moratorium on his use of the text and called "Nyman! No!"

Originally written for Karine Saporta's opera-ballet La Princesse de Milan in 1990, re-edited for the Argo recording released last year, and perhaps tweaked again for this performance, Noises represents relatively unreconstructed Nyman, being as systematic, and as mercilessly driven, as much of his Greenaway work, with less tenderness than the music for The Piano and after. Certainly, the movements unwound with the regularity of a clockwork toy - quick, slow, quick quick slow - and if the head had a hard time keeping up with it all, the heart fared even worse: I've felt more emotion faxing a letter. At least until the last sheaf of music paper joined the telephone-directory-thick pile on top of the piano, when joy, pure joy was in our hearts.