Nyman and Kureishi: A strange collaboration

The author Hanif Kureishi and the composer Michael Nyman have teamed up. Their mission: to tell 'stories of everyday horror'
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The Independent Culture

If Kureishi seems oddly ignorant of the progress of the work, which will be performed by the London Sinfonietta under Nyman's direction, it is because his role ended a while ago. He taped interviews with six people, including his three children and his cousin Didi, and handed the results over to Nyman. It was then up to the composer, whose wide-ranging oeuvre includes the soundtracks to 11 Peter Greenaway films, several operas and a violin concerto, to cut and edit the tapes, and write and orchestrate the music to accompany the spoken words.

For Nyman and Kureishi, whose association goes back to 1978, when both worked at the Riverside Studios in London, the commission represented something new. "I've spent 30 years making songs and melodies," says Nyman, in between airports, "but the Hanif project goes way beyond that. This is the first time in my life I've used human narratives synchronised with music."

Kureishi affects flippancy: "I'm not aware of anyone having put spoken words with music in quite this way before," he says, "maybe because it's a daft idea." He enthuses about their developing of the project, though. "I remember going round to Nyman's house, playing the tape of the voices and then him playing the piano, and it was terrifically exciting to hear how the sounds changed the meaning of the words."

The two concur that the piece is about remembering. Out of the six interviews Kureishi sent him, Nyman selected three, those with "Bill", "Jeremy" and "Didi". Kureishi had sat down with his interviewees, and asked them simple questions. Where were you born? What was your school like? What did your parents do? "This went all the way up to their relationships," he says. "When people spoke, they surprised themselves. That's what I wanted to get - people telling you things they've never said before, even though they're things that have determined the rest of their lives."

Didi, whom Nyman has given her own 15-minute "aria", spoke for the first time about being raped at the age of 12. "Her father was a psychologist who ran a school for autistic children in Somerset," says Kureishi, "so Didi was brought up in this very middle-class family but also in a rough, quite druggy part of the West Country. She spent some time in a psychiatric hospital, had many abortions, five children and numerous tattoos." This was the 1950s, and Asian immigrants were a rarity in the British countryside. "I think she felt very isolated and got very fucked up. When she was talking about the rape, she said, 'I've never told anyone this before', so there's something powerful about the way she tells it."

The tales of Bill and Jeremy, two British men in their sixties, have been turned into a "duet" by Nyman. "I've juxtaposed them," says Nyman, "because there's a contrast in their upbringings and voices - Jeremy is a literary toff who grew up on a hill farm in India, and Bill is working class, from near Wormwood Scrubs - but there are parallels too." Jeremy talks of his father running off with a younger woman, and Bill of the time his mother left home to live with another man.

Jeremy's seems the more exotic story. He fell in love with another man, but as homosexuality was still illegal, he married the sister of the object of his affections instead. Sessions with the experimental psychiatrist RD Laing failed to "cure" Jeremy of his sexual orientation, and years later, after a successful publishing career (and long after his marriage), he appeared in Don Boyd's 2004 documentary Andy and Jeremy Get Married.

Bill's life is less dramatic, but possibly even more poignant. An odd-job man who worked for Kureishi's agent, Bill told of his wife's struggle with agoraphobia. After her mother died of cancer, Bill's wife did not leave the house for 20 years. "Bill would go shopping and send the kids to school, while his wife just stayed at home," says Kureishi. "Then Bill started to get her to go out. He would walk slowly around the streets at night, holding her. I was very moved by this story of his devotion and her terror."

Nyman was particularly taken by Bill's diction. "His delivery was brilliant," he says. While the piece will consist of composed music and an edit of the three voices, Nyman has also isolated Bill pronouncing the word "remember". "He kept on saying it, maybe 20 or 30 times. I've sampled each one on to a keyboard and I'm going to play them in on the night."

The title I Was a Total Virgin came from the interview with Jeremy. "When it comes to living," says Kureishi, "everyone's a total virgin. Whatever happens to you, you're never quite prepared enough for it. It comes across in the interviews - they are almost as surprised at what happened to them as you are."

This reminiscing about what Kureishi calls "stories of everyday horror and strangeness" is what most appealed to Nyman. "I came to the interviews naked," he says. "I wasn't there. I never had a chance to talk to Hanif about how he chose the subjects. So I focused on a way to reduce them to a 45-minute piece. It's as though Hanif gave me a libretto, but it was far too big, and I had to carve something out of it."

Nyman is still working on the piece when we speak. Kureishi tells me he has just one request that I should pass on to his collaborator. "Tell Nyman," he says, "not to let the music drown out the words."

'I Was a Total Virgin' will be premiered on 10 May at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700). FuseLeeds06, various venues (www.fuseleeds.org.uk) 6 to 13 May