Slowly chewing it over
Monday 18 May 1998
Royal Festival Hall, London
The two new works in Wednesday's programme by the Michael Nyman Band consist of short movements, themselves - for the most part - severely sectioned into brief, sometimes alternating, fragments which accumulate material more than they speculate upon it.
Overwhemingly, of course, they repeat it, so an awful lot depends a) on the durability of the basic material itself, and b) on the degree of imagination with which it is varied harmonically, instrumentally and so on. Though all this can be credited to the limitations of writing for films, other music on the programme suggested that Nyman's infamous shortwindedness is indeed endemic, rather than imposed.
Kenji Eno's "Enemy Zero" is a Japanese interactive video game on CD-ROM, its main character a Sharon Stone-lookalike called Laura. Plundering his own 1981 piece "Birdwork", the composer has produced a six-movement suite fleshing out the lean, mean Nyman of old with bloated and cynical layers of Romantic cannie: a piano solo of pastiched awfulness here, a smoochy indulgence of chromatic sidesteps there.
Things weren't helped by the playing of the composer's band, which lacked the raw energy and rhythmic bite previously typical of it: the amplication was sometimes tinny, the tone of the string section oddly thin; the first movement of "Enemy Zero" speeded up as it went along. The performance of "3 Quartets" - which now strikes me as one of the composer's better recent efforts, enhanced by the quirkiness of a frequent five beats to the bar - was rhythmically insecure, its ensemble strangely uncertain in a piece the band must have now played many times. The first violinist - scarcely a match for the characterful leadership provided by his predecessor, Alex Balanescu - lethargically chewed his way through the concert. I didn't know you could chew and play the fiddle at the same time. Mastication without modulation.
At least the Smith Quartet's performances of selected movements from the Fourth String Quartet, which opened each half of the programme, had more vigour and subtlely but even this group isn't as punchy in its present line-up. Though the Quartet's collection of twelve short movements, emphasising the composer's various interests in folk music, continues the shortwinded tendency without the film-music excuse, it does at least find more room for modulations, or at least for a more effective range of the chromatic shifts and alterations with which Nyman is now apparently attempting to transcend the limitations of his style.
If the music from the recently-released film Gattaca (about a society of genetically engineered people, directed by the New-Zealander Andrew Niccol) is anything to go by, such manoeuvres can do little to bring new life to a composer who now seems as much on autopilot as was his band on Wednesday night. Here, in the form of another six-movement suite, it fails the two-point acid test detailed above by subjecting some of the most thematically vapid, harmonically insensitive - and largely mind-numbingly slow - material I've ever heard Nyman produce to the thick treacle of a treatment by an engorged version of his band.
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