People: No ivory tower for this pianist

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I'D ASSUMED - feared might be a better word - that Michael Nyman would be like his music. If you've seen The Piano or almost any Peter Greenaway film, then you'll have heard it: precise, elegant, a bit remote, the work of someone I thought might not be very easy to be with. I'd also been sent photographs of Nyman by his publicity people; they showed a black-clad, unsmiling figure in thick-framed, exaggeratedly retro glasses, the overall effect of which was, I hope he won't mind me saying, rather sinister. And since I was going to talk to Nyman because he had written the score for a new science fiction film, I sensed I could be in for an alienating experience.

The first inkling I had that this might not be the case came when I went to see the film, Gattaca. I'll leave the expert critical appraisal to Matthew Sweet (see Section 2, page 6); suffice to say that I enjoyed it, and Nyman's music was one of the main reasons. Far from being cold and other-worldly, it was both accessible and affecting.

Certainly there was nothing about the person who came to the door of his north London home that would put anyone on their guard. Michael Nyman looks like Mole in Wind in the Willows - a rotund figure with an air of distraction, and slightly shambolic in his great big tracksuit bottoms and sweatshirt, every bit the man who works from home and can slop about as he pleases in between sessions at the grand piano that dominates his large, knock-through front room.

It turns out that the commission to write the music for Gattaca came not as a result of the tricksier Greenaway or The Piano scores, but because the director, Andrew Niccol, liked the soundtrack Nyman wrote for the more recent Carrington. "The idea was that I would help to humanise the story," Nyman explains. As it was, there was a passage he describes as "up-tempo, tongue-in-cheek, characteristically Nyman" which nearly fell foul of the producers, "who couldn't understand it".

As with many composers who make a speciality of film scores, Nyman is resigned to his other work - mainly concertos and string quartets - going largely unnoticed. The discrepancy, in terms of audience appeal, is extraordinary. More than three million people bought the album of the soundtrack to The Piano; a collection of Nyman chamber pieces released at the same time sold 30,000. "It's as if people aren't actually buying me; they're buying the film." But then it was the chance to write film scores that got Nyman's musical career going, at a time when he had turned his back on composition altogether.

A grammar school boy from Chingford, Nyman grew up in the 1950s listening to jazz as well as classical music - it was the secondary modern kids who were into rock 'n' roll, he says - and studied at the Royal Academy of Music. But Nyman was out of step with the experimental orthodoxy of the time. "It was almost as if there was creative censorship. If you liked Britten or Walton or Shostakovich, which I did, then you'd had it. I couldn't come to terms with it, so I just stopped composing."

For 10 years Nyman worked as a musicologist and music critic. Encouraged back into the fold by Harrison Birtwistle, he took the chance to write a film score before he began collaborating with Greenaway. New ventures come along all the time now - he's recently worked with Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy, and Damon Albarn of Blur, for whom he has arranged a World Cup song.

Nyman, of course, was a celebrity football fan long before they became fashionable. He supports Queen's Park Rangers, currently languishing near the bottom of the First Division. That, of course, should have reassured me. Why would anybody have anything to fear from a humble QPR fan?

IT'S well known that literary London is a viper's nest of bitter rivalries and mutual loathing. As for when two authors hit upon the same subject, one is surely entitled to expect that murderous intent will be in the air. Both of which assumptions have been challenged by two authors whose names are currently all over the books pages - Matthew Sturgis and Stephen Calloway.

Aubrey Beardsley, the great fin de siecle decadent, is the figure that unites them - and, if they weren't such decent people, would divide them too. The centenary of Beardsley's death in 1898 was always going to prompt a reappraisal of the man whose distinctive, flowing black-and-white illustrations are among the most enduring images ever produced by a British artist. Sexual scandal and death at the age of only 25 added to his appeal as a subject. Sturgis duly set to work on Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography, just published by HarperCollins, at the same time as Calloway's Aubrey Beardsley (V&A Publications) began to take shape.

In such situations authors normally steer well clear of each other. Sturgis and Calloway, however, met regularly for lunch, in a spirit of gentlemanliness that one thought had deserted the book world. "There was a sense of wanting to keep one's discoveries to oneself," Sturgis tells me, "but at the same time it was tempting to share them, not least because Stephen was obviously the only person in the world to whom they would mean as much." And the books differ in approach; Calloway has produced more of an illustrated biography.

Last Monday - the exact centenary - the Sturgis and Calloway camps gathered for a celebratory dinner. The toast: ars longa, vita brevis. And here's to harmony among writers.

Taking tea with Mr Livingstone

I CAN now put a figure on Ken Livingstone's popularity. It reaches me courtesy of a school auction of promises, one of those fund-raising schemes whereby parents bid for just about anything other parents think they can provide - from piano lessons or a couple of hours' gardening to a shiatsu massage or a home-cooked dinner for four - with all proceeds going to the school.

At Salusbury School in Queen's Park in north-west London last week, one of the lots on offer was a tour of the House of Commons plus tea with Mr Livingstone. The price it fetched: pounds 100, beating by pounds 5 the next highest bid - for a will drawn up by a solicitor parent. It also made dear old Ken worth twice as much as a trip to the top of Canary Wharf, five times as much an hour in a flotation tank, and nearly 20 times as much as a large chocolate cake. He should feel proud.

FOR years the search has gone on to find blemishes on the saintly character of Sir Cliff Richard. But I now have the story we've been waiting for: CLIFF'S TAKEN DRUGS! Yes, it's true - because I've just read about it in The Complete Eurovision Song Contest Companion, a splendid history of that unique event, newly published by Pavilion Books.

In 1973, Cliff went to Luxembourg to sing the British entry, "Power To All Our Friends". He was so nervous on the day of the competition that he took a Valium to calm himself down. The pill, however, sent him to sleep on the way to the concert-hall. "The risk of a 'Cliff on drugs' headline had never been greater," the authors report, and it was all anybody could do to wake him up. Alas, the performance was only good enough to put Cliff in third spot.

This is just one of the many gems unearthed by Paul Gambaccini, Tim Rice, Jonathan Rice and Tony Brown in the book, which gives breakdowns of all the voting in every Eurovision since the contest began in 1956. I particularly like the sections on voting bias, revealing which countries are most and least likely to vote for which others. This shows that Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands are the countries the United Kingdom is least likely to vote for, and that Greece, Spain, Iceland, Cyprus and Italy are the countries least likely to vote for the UK. It amounts to a subliminal political tract. Essential reading for any Foreign Secretary, I'd have thought.

When Cook lets it all boil over

AND on the subject of Robin Cook ... I can't help feeling that, leaving aside his politics, it's his petulance that undermines his reputation. There was an example the other night when he was a guest on Newsnight. A number of distinguished eastern Europeans had been imported to discuss the enlargement of the EU with the Foreign Secretary. In a notable act of counter-diplomacy, he refused to join them in the hospitality room, but the really bad moment came when a technician accidentally spilled a full glass of water over his august presence. Mr Cook threw the sort of wobbly that causes cringe-making embarrassment.

Contrast this with a similar incident involving someone who, on the face of it, is a much more fearsome figure than even Mr Cook - Margaret Thatcher. When, at the height of her premiership, she was given dinner in a London club, one of the waiters decided to make a personal political statement by dropping a potato in the prime ministerial lap. Having executed this to perfection, he waited to savour the explosion. Instead, Mrs Thatcher looked up at him sweetly, slipped the potato on to her plate, and said: "Don't worry, dear, nobody's noticed."

A JOKE doing the political rounds ahead of this week's welfare reform Green Paper: Frank Field to the much derided Harriet Harman: "What we need is a new Beveridge." Ms Harman: "I quite agree. Tea or coffee?"

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