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O.C. Music : Minimalism's Maximum Power : Composer of 'The Piano' Is Coming to Costa Mesa


In the days before the first American appearances by his 17-year-old Michael Nyman Band, the composer of the music from "The Piano" was rummaging through his cellar in London and turned up some interesting things.

One is the program for his own first U.S. gig, at the Kitchen in New York City in 1980, not with the band but with American sidemen. Nyman also has found his note-filled copy of Peter Greenaway's screenplay for "The Draughtsman's Contract" (1983), a film for which he wrote the score and which catapulted both him and Greenaway to a level of international fame neither had imagined.

"We certainly didn't expect the film to have the impact that it did," Nyman said on the phone from his home. "I know he was surprised, and I was. You think that after one success you become streetwise and cynical. Yet again, I didn't expect that the music for 'The Piano' would have the impact it did."

That film's soundtrack recording held the top spot on the classical crossover charts for six months. "I didn't write it with a view of making any sort of 'popular' impact," Nyman said. "Sounds bizarre, but that's the case."

The programs he has selected for his tour with the band--which stops at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Thursday--represent still more rummaging of a sort: They cover the range of his composing career from "The Draughtsman's Contract" and his never-recorded "The Fall of Icarus" to a concert suite based on music written for "The Piano," to be augmented in Costa Mesa by members of the Pacific Symphony.

The programs will vary from venue to venue during the band's dizzying 16-day, 14-city trek, a breakthrough for Nyman generated by the hot "Piano" soundtrack. The pieces to be played in Segerstrom Hall will afford an overview of nine years of his work--some of the world's most dynamic, iconoclastic music-making.

Reviewing "The Piano" soundtrack in the New York Times, K. Robert Schwarz said, "It has always seemed surprising that Nyman has not achieved the popularity in the United States that his near-contemporary and stylistic peer Philip Glass has."


But though Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams and other American composers led the charge in the '70s for the style called Minimalism (a term, ironically enough, coined by Nyman, in his former life as a music critic), a consensus is emerging that the Nyman Band delivers the most powerful concerts of Minimalist-inspired music anywhere. (Nyman himself now avoids the Minimalist label.)

"Everyone who only knows the band from recordings is overwhelmed by the impact of the band live," Nyman said with pride.

Perhaps the only ways to prepare are with the live recording of the band in Tokyo ("The Essential Michael Nyman Band," Argo Records), which suggests the superhuman, propulsive, raucous nature of the music, and the newer "Michael Nyman Live" album (Virgin), recorded in Spain in May with the same nine- member band that is coming to Orange County. (A 14-member group also tours).

With the addition of such virtuosi as John Harle on sax ("the most important classical soprano sax player in the world," Nyman calls him), Andrew Findon on baritone sax and Kate Musker on viola, Nyman (who always conducts from the piano) and company have come a long way from their genesis in 1977 as an accompanying ensemble for a National Theatre production of Carlo Goldoni's "Il Campiello."

What started as musicological research for Nyman's composer friend and National Theatre music director Sir Harrison Birtwistle turned into a "kind of street band that didn't exist in Venice in the 18th Century," Nyman said. "So I just used my imagination. We made the group sound as raw and rough and loud as possible without amplification, and combined diverse instruments from completely different periods--Medieval-era rebecs and 20th-Century saxophones.

"Here was this fantastic sound unlike any other, and I felt rather sad that it would end when the production did. I don't know why or when I was forcibly struck by the idea that this group should stay together.

"I realized that we had no original material. So, of necessity, I became a composer. One of these early pieces, 'In Re Don Giovanni,' is a sort of paradigm of what I've done since. It became a model for rhythmic patterns, for an energy level, and a way of framing classical music in a 20th-Century context. It's exciting to have it on the new 'Live' album."

Nyman said Greenaway recognized "quite generously and honestly that that piece showed how it was possible to make something simultaneously period music but with late 20th-Century ideas and aesthetics."

The piece thus informed the music for "The Draughtsman's Contract" and led to a tight filmmaker-composer collaboration similar only to that of Federico Fellini and Nino Rota. Thursday's concert will include pieces not only from "Draughtsman" but from Greenaway's "A Zed and Two Noughts" and "Water Dances," adapted from Greenaway's short "Making a Splash."

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