When Michael Nyman put his first band together - "a rough and ready group" - for a performance in the National Theatre foyer in 1977, he had no game plan. "The ambition was to have enough material to play at the next concert," he says. "Things change for the better. They develop." The minimalist composer has since undertaken a bewildering variety of projects, including scoring films for Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion, writing works for the concert hall, and setting the poetry of Paul Celan to music.
And now, Nyman has written a work for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Melody Waves, scored for traditional Chinese instruments, cello and double bass. The orchestra will perform it alongside Tan Dun's music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and a multimedia concerto.
Melody Waves features an extremely loud percussion section. "It is as if there are two separate pieces," Nyman says. "I have encouraged the percussion players not to vary the ferociousness of their attack according to what they hear. It does create a disturbance. Percussion music is usually used as a rhetorical device to reinforce what is going on in the rest of the orchestra, but here it is unrelated to the orchestra."
Nyman first heard the Singapore Chinese Orchestra a few years ago while in Singapore performing with his band, and intended to marshal its forces for a toy piano concerto. A return visit to Singapore last year "to take a closer look at the orchestra and the instruments" changed his mind. "I found the whole sound-world so fascinating," says Nyman. "Melody Waves is a showpiece where Western minimalism meets a melodic Chinese tradition. It could only have been written by me. But writing for the orchestra has forced me to rethink because of the totally different instruments available."
He is still coming to terms with some of the instrumental sounds and possibilities that this collaboration brings. New instruments at Nyman's disposal include the sheng - "a huge mouth organ like a miniature pipe organ that the player has on his lap" - and "a whole section of plucked instruments, the names of which escape me". He wants to create more pieces with the orchestra, and to combine some solo Chinese instruments with the Michael Nyman Band. "I have gone beyond just writing a piece stimulated by the newness and the strangeness of this instrumental world that has become available to me. This piece is bolder than anything I have written for European orchestras.
"Indeed, the next time I am commissioned to write a Western orchestral piece, my experience with this Chinese orchestra will mean that it will never be the same again."
Barbican, London SE1 (020-7638 8891), 1 April; The Sage, Gateshead (0870 703 4555), 3 April. Michael Nyman's opera, 'Man and Boy: Dada', is out now on MN RecordsReuse content