Something Moor than minimalist

So what did Michael Nyman do after The Piano? Philip Sweeney went to Morocco to find out
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For 700 years, between the arrival of the first Arab invaders in AD711 and the flight of the last defenders of Granada before the all- conquering Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain - or Al Andalus, as it was then known - lay under Islamic rule. Musically, the equivalent of the arches and patios of Moorish architecture is the ala, that body of raga-like song suites (or nuba) originated at the medieval courts of Granada, Cordoba and Seville, and still preserved in Morocco by a dozen Andalus orchestras composed of lutes, rebab fiddles, violins, qanun zithers and percussion.

Since a ground-breaking co-operation in 1983 between the flamenco singer Enrique Morente and the Orquesta Andalusi de Tetuan, Spanish interest in Andalus music has been growing. So it was in response to a commission from the Seville Expo 1992 that Michael Nyman entered upon what he now calls "a model collaboration of its kind" with the composition of The Upside Down Violin, a work written for the unique combination of the Michael Nyman Band and the Andalus orchestra from Tetouan, under its founder Abdessadaq Chekara.

The collaboration got off to a shaky start when Nyman visited Granada to hear the Orquesta play, and failed to get his brand-new DAT recorder to work. He still agreed, however, to write a piece on the basis of their commercial cassettes and sheet music which the Orquesta could rehearse in Morocco. He would then visit them, record the result, and finish the work by adding parts for his own band.

What with finding it difficult to match the Orquestra's sheet music to its sound, and having to overcome the strangeness of writing without harmony in the Andalus style, Nyman produced his music rather painfully while working simultaneously on the score for The Piano. He then sent the sheet music and a cassette to Tetouan, before following in person a month or so later.

"I went to Chekara's house to meet the musicians and we sat round and drank tea and after a while I said, `OK, let's hear the piece.' `We haven't rehearsed it,' they said. `We couldn't relate your sheet music to your tape. Why don't you play it?' "

Nyman began, somewhat despondently, plonking out the phrases one by one on an old piano and then, he says, "the most remarkable musical experience I've ever been involved with" happened. "One by one, the musicians began tentatively to join in... The penny dropped" - and the process that was to culminate two months later in a triumphant debut for The Upside Down Violin before 5,000 people in the Seville Expo's Grand Auditorium got seriously under way.

"The thing is," Abdessadaq Chekara tells me, "we're used to working less quickly than Michael. At first it was difficult, but his music is very, very good. It's part of our repertoire now."

We are sitting in the Tetouan apartment of his brother Abdellah, lute player with the Orquesta, and Nyman's "sort of musical soul mate". Although mid-week, with no big weddings or official receptions to play for, a 10-strong nucleus has assembled to entertain me over mint tea and cakes. They launch into a sprightly rendition of the fast movement of The Upside Down Violin, ornamenting Nyman's stately melody with Arabesque string flourishes. Nyman's description of their joint performances - "Chekara milking the applause for all it's worth" - springs vividly to mind. My only regret is the absence of the "upside down violin" itself, a big still- life with musical instruments which Nyman saw, hung inexplicably the wrong way up, in Chekara's house.

n Orquesta are in the foyer 12.30-2pm; with the Nyman Band, 8pm, today at the RFH, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-928 8800)