2. Introducing Michael Nyman

Michael Nyman is an English contemporary composer, perhaps most popularly known for his score for the film The Piano.

He has created work for all manner of ensembles and solo instruments, and is well established as a screen composer.

Nyman is sometimes credited with the first use of the term ‘minimalism’, when he applied it to a work by Cardew in 1968 in a review.

The work we are playing and studying ‘In Re Don Giovanni’ was originally written for the Michael Nyman band in 1977. This piece is an adaptation in minimalist style of some material from W.A Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni.

Extract from Chester Novello, Michael Nyman’s publisher’s website:

“IN RE DON GIOVANNI was written for the Campiello Band (which later grew into the Michael Nyman Band) in 1997, and was first performed at the National Theatre, London, early that year. The piece is a deconstruction of the first sixteen bars of the ‘Catalogue Song’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is still in the repertoire of the Michael Nyman Band and is available on ‘Michael Nyman – Live’ (Virgin Venture CDVE 924).

“The arrangement for string quartet was made at the request of Alexander Balanescu for the Bicentenary of Mozart’s death in 1991. It was first performed by the Balanescu Quartet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 11 June 1991.”

Some article extracts on Nyman

An extract from the article on Michael Nyman in Grove Music Online:

“While his use of quotation suggests parallels with the early work of Bryars and Christopher Hobbs, the techniques of layering, stratifying, reordering and superimposing that Nyman uses to transform his material more closely resemble those of film and popular music production.

“Though Nyman draws on his knowledge and experience of American minimalism, distinctive elements of his musical language set it apart from those influences. He has spoken of his more ‘intuitive’ approach to process, in which ‘the ear rather than the process is the initial and final arbiter’ (1977, p.7). Moreover, the prominence of the bass in his music, as well as suggesting the influence of rock, creates a harmonic stability and rootedness more characteristic of the European tonal tradition than of American minimalism. It is this often curious confluence of classical harmonic functions and rock rhythms and textures that provides Nyman’s music with a rich and effective fusion of the codes of ‘high’ and popular art.”

An excerpt from the article ‘Quotation as a structural element in music by Michael Nyman’ by Maarten Beirens, from Tempo 61 (242) 25–38, 2007 Cambridge University Press. (This quotation from p 38):

“The tension resulting from this perpetually shifting discourse between Nyman and his musical source succeeds in establishing a sense of defamiliarization – a situation in which Mozart’s music is simultaneously evoked and contradicted. While this defamiliarization involves different solutions to modifying or reducing the borrowed material into a form that is suitable for the use in a new composition, the technique of deconstruction takes this idea one step further. Deconstruction brings out the dismantling of the original model as the main focus, if not the goal, of the piece. In Nyman’s earliest quotation piece, In Re Don Giovanni (1977) the first 15 bars from the Catalogue Aria (‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo…’) from Mozart’s Don Giovanni are literally taken apart and gradually assembled again. Nyman begins with the most abstract material: the harmony, which he delivers (like Mozart) in steady eighth-note pulsation (bars 1–15). Then he adds the bass line (bars 16–30), then the counterpoint that in Mozart’s original is given to the first violins, which introduces an imitative exchange with the bass line (bars 31–45) and finally he adds the melody that in the aria is sung by Leporello (bars 46– 60). Every single note in In Re Don Giovanni is by Mozart and every single note from the original is used in the new ‘arrangement’. Nyman’s only input as a composer is subjecting the given material to a strict process of elimination and reconstruction. Evidently it is the notion of composition as process that introduces a tangible aspect of the minimalist aesthetic here, although the outcome is strikingly different from Reich’s absolute music.6 The result sounds like an analysis of the Mozart piece, its components slowly being put together again almost as if trying to demonstrate how the music works, just as someone might take apart a clockwork mechanism and lay out all the separate components.

“In Re Don Giovanni still preserves the integral appearance of the original, even though this is achieved through a process of gradual reconstruction. In other cases, however, the deconstruction leads to the definition of raw basic material that is subsequently used as building blocks, with which entire new musical configurations can be constructed. This approach can best be labelled as montage, for it consists, like the cinematographic technique, of cutting up the basic material and creating a new coherence from the loose units.”

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