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John Harle
on Michael Nyman

- talking to Pwyll ap Sion

This interview is an extended version of the chapter 'Performing Minimalist Music' from the Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Post-Minimalist Music

PS: It's probably through your work with Michael Nyman during the 1980s that you became best known as a performer of Minimalist music.

How did you get involved with the Michael Nyman Band?

JH: It was specifically because of some of the music I'd heard being played by the first Nyman ensemble - his Campiello Band - that Michael and I met and we talked about saxophones in the band. Michael has been an important influence on me. He is always incredibly perceptive, sharp and precise. He once described my playing as 'hard-edged, vocal romanticism', and I think that's a true reflection of what I do. At heart, I am a romantic both as a player and as a composer, which is of course very unfashionable!

PS: Would you say that particular physical demands and challenges are placed on the performer when playing Minimalist music?

JH: Certainly in the case of the Michael Nyman Band, which depended on a kind of raw energy. When I was lead saxophonist there was an urgent, all-out, almost brutal, physical connection with Michael's music that lived on quite a dangerous edge. The music was presented in a semi-classical context, including a formal seating arrangement - but with a band of totally physically committed players that sort of blew the formality away. My main concern in the band was adding my personal energy to the overall sound, and, as far as many in the audience were concerned, the power and sound of the Michael Nyman Band became a component part the musical content itself - Michael may disagree, but I think one has sometimes to listen to Michael's music played by more conventional ensembles to agree that the band added a strength to the music that became part of the music's aesthetic.


Michael Nyman

PS: Were you listening to Philip Glass's music during the 1970s and early 80s? Was he an influence?

JH: Certainly. I have a very worn out LP copy of the Glassworks album somewhere. Prior to that I'd been interested in many of the ideas and ensembles mentioned in Michael's Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond book - the Scratch Orchestra, Portsmouth Sinfonia, and so on. So I was very aware of it. At the same time, during the late 1970s, I was regularly playing freeform, experimental jazz at a venue in the East End.

But my main classical compositional influences in the early days were Harrison Birtwistle and Dominic Muldowney, with whom I worked consistently during the late 1970s and early 80s as a member of the National Theatre Music Department. In film music, I worked Stanley Myers. I was orchestrator and co-composer with Stanley in the 80's, along with what seemed like a golden generation of Stanley's 'helpers' - Hans Zimmer, Nick Glennie-Smith and Harry Gregson-Williams.
All these influences added up to a very mixed bag, and it was only in my thrities and forties that I began to make a personal sense out of all these potent influences.

PS: Would you say that a large part of this music's ability to communicate hinged on the right kind of execution and articulation? Maybe it's an obvious point to make, but the effect would surely have been very different in the wrong set of hands?

JH: Yes, and I think that the transference of minimalism into real orchestral contexts wasn't always successful, as the core of minimalism itself seemed to rely on the musicians 'living the music' all the time, which orchestras don't really have the time to do.

Michael's band in its heyday reminded me of the Duke Ellington band, but with less freedom in the interpretation of the music. These were completely individual players who were molded together and stayed together for a long time. Once the lineup was relatively settled, I think Michael started writing for the sound of the person rather than the instrument. He wrote for individuals such as violinist Alexander Balanescu and myself. In pieces such as his Zoo Caprices for solo violin, Nyman was writing particularly for a virtuoso, which he also did for me in the saxophone concerto Where the Bee Dances. But in the band, he wanted our sounds, but as part of an overall vision of gut-wrenching, formidable, epic power. The most exciting sound for me personally was with Alex on first violin, Liz Perry on second, myself and Andy Findon on saxophones, and Michael of course on piano - I think this became the Michael Nyman Band sound.
But I'm biased.

PS: Would you say that this sound came about immediately or gradually? Nyman has mentioned that his musical style appeared fully formed, in one complete package, when he composed In Re Don Giovanni in 1977.

JH: I think there's a huge difference between the band and Michael himself as a composer. In your book on The Music of Michael Nyman you talk about what he does in terms of the process of taking apart bits of Mozart and pointing out musical elements that are skimmed over in the original. In Mozart's opera Don Giovanni you might hear a passage and think 'oh, how nice', but you wouldn't hear that section of music gutted like a fish, but with forensic precision - taking the harmonic and rhythmic core, adding the bass line, then the melody on euphonium - breaking it all down then building it up again. That's Michael all over, and it's an amazing achievement. And to think that it's regarded as 'minimalism' is a bit of a stretch in my view! It's both aesthetic and analytic genius.
And unlike so much music that seems to pass us by, the power of Michael's music is that the musical changes occur at a pace at which audiences can really absorb them.


Michael Nyman

PS: These gradual changes allow the listener to shape the music as it happens in real time?

JH: Yes. Another composer who is fascinating in this way, although he comes from a seemingly different world, is Ennio Morricone. A couple of years ago I produced and arranged an album of his music called Morricone Paradiso (EMI Classics).
It was an astonishing experience. There was no sheet music so I just had to sit down and transcribe quite a lot of fairly obscure Morricone. I think that he has the same ability as Michael in shaping time. It's incredible how he can present a four bar sequence which lasts for, say, eight minutes, and you never really realize it's that same four bars repeated over and over - stretched, condensed, turned inside out. I think it's the ability of composers such as Michael and Morricone to pace their music at the audience's speed of absorption of musical information, whilst simultaneously playing with audiences' expectation of repeat in harmonic sequences on a subliminal level that makes them special.
This is a research area that is in need of development - maybe John Sloboda could help here!


Ennio Morricone

PS: So if the composer is doing this anyway, what then is the role of the performer?

JH: The approach for me is to become more 'meditative', and to rely on a subconscious 'drive' in performance. The ideal situation is for both audience and performer to be 'outside' the music, looking in. In sixteenth-century Italian music theory this was viewed as a higher state of perception and was called Grazia. It was defined in a book by Baldessare Castiglione called Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), published in 1528. He said that there had to be an absolute balance between two qualities: one was decoro - technique and instrumental ability - and the other an absolutely quintessential Italian expression called sprezzatura, a kind of improvisational flow in itself, an extemporization in a brilliant way. At times these two elements combine to produce a state of Grazia. It's a state where there's complete connection between the audience and performer: they are all looking in at the music itself. The music is the centre, the focus of both musician and audience, and when this happens a sort of levitation takes place as the music rises above all those present, taking on a life entirely of it's own. It's sort of scary in a way, but totally unforgettable.

I think it's possible to attain this in minimal music, but also the concept of flow is important here, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. In an article in his book Music, Magic and Mysticism, John Zorn outlined the same conditions needed for flow to happen. It's this moment of recognition where a kind of 'possession' of the soul takes place. One is being taken over by a force that is greater than one's self - where time stands still, where concentration is total - but it also has the feeling of a kind of absence from both the experience of composing or performing.
Zorn wasn't referring to minimalist music, but I believe that flow is a feeling you can certainly get when performing and listening to minimalism. I believe that each performance can vary immensely depending on the ability to recreate the conditions in which flow happens. For me, composing is about being courageous enough to attempt to abandon one's conscious self, and this is very similar to how minimalist music should be performed when it's performed well. One of the reasons why the personnel in many minimalist ensembles contain composers is that there is this unconscious recognition for this kind of flow, perhaps more than with non-composing players. 

PS: Is it a case of abandoning one's conscious self when performing all music?

JH: I think so. I've performed a lot of Dowland and I'm conscious of doing it all the time with his music. In fact I have an amazing Elvis Costello live recording from the Royal Festival Hall of him singing my arrangement of Dowland's 'Flow My Tears', which I hope to release quite soon - there's no question that this flow is present in Elvis Costello most of the time. That's also true of Marc Almond who I have worked with for the last two years. It's akin to a posession of the soul without doubt.

PS: You've talked a bit about John Zorn, whose music comes from a jazz background. Are there connections between jazz and minimalism?

JH: No, not really. I think the differences lie in the area of 'control'. In minimalist music there are always limits in terms of how much freedom is allowed. Control is an interesting subject in musical performance. Michael Nyman would never allow improvisation in his pieces - the only exception being his Waltz, which is on the Michael Nyman Piano Records album. Moondog hated the idea of performers diverting from what he had written. And Steve Reich certainly didn't like it, as I know to my cost.
A lot of minimalist composers seem to want to keep complete control over the musical flow, but 'human' musicians can't easily do that however hard they try.
It's something that cannot happen completely unless a composer abandons human interaction in order to attain a kind of musical 'ideal' - like Raymond Scott or Conlon Nancarrow.

PS: As a performer can this situation place the performer in a kind of musical straightjacket, or do they emancipate the performer?

JH: With Michael Nyman, the band was the mouthpiece of his music, and however high and mighty one was as a player, there were limits to how much freedom there was. And that was absolutely fine. The older I got the more I came to understand that.

PS: Since your days with the Nyman band, your career has branched out in a number of different ways, with composition playing an important part. What was your route into composition?

JH: I suppose when I started to make a particular sound on saxophone, mostly soprano sax, I suddenly realized that if I was going to frame the playing properly then I had to compose a particular music for it. Much in the same way that Dave Heath did with the flute. As a saxophonist, one is blessed with an instrument that knows no boundaries, and therefore one's spheres of potential activity are wide.

PS: How strong can the minimalist influence be felt in your compositional style?

JH: My initial influences as a composer came from areas in which I'd worked or was working as a player. So pure minimalism was undoubtedly an early influence in concert pieces such as Foursquare (Saxophone Quartet, 1980) and The Bell Jar (Double Reed Ensemble, 1985), and possibly had a recurrence in the outer movements of The Little Death Machine (Saxophone, Orchestra and Tape, 2005).

In my more mature style, after my opera Angel Magick (1997) minimalism has almost no place, as what I have wanted to express isn't a concept, or to see a piece of music as a monad, but to express perhaps more varied and darker emotions.
Maybe I wasn't clever enough to do that within a minimalist ideal!
My own world is therefore nearer to a neo-romanticism, or an Arcadia. Sometimes it's a dark version of Arcadia, but a magical, timeless place nevertheless. My approach in producing my own and other peoples' work is totally affected by my vision of Arcadia.

The placement of musical objects in acute juxtaposition, and in a timelessness where ancient and new coexist, probably has its roots in Dada. This is certainly the case with my own Berliner Band in the '80's, and its various shows performing Satie, Nyman and my own scores to early silent movies by Man Ray, Fernand Leger, Moholy-Nagy, and so on. Dada has been a huge preoccupation, and culminated in Lulu and After, a show part-recreating the Cabaret Voltaire - with Hugo Ball and simultaneous poetry alongside my own music. So there are certainly connections here with the interests of minimalist composers in the Dada movement, such as Gavin Bryars and Michael.

PS: What do you think, as a performer, is one trying to communicate in minimalist music?

JH: For me, I'd say that the success of performing of minimal music very often depends on the level to which the performer understands how the music itself is constructed, and therefore how the musical elements need to be presented to an audience. On a technical level, the performer should strive for a clarity. On an emotional level they can mould the musical processes into a personal interpretation if they have enough free head-space.
On a personal level, I think in a general sense I'm trying to communicate that 'things are not what they seem'. In Michael's case, 'found' or 'recognisable' musical objects (as in the case of Don Goivanni) would be played passionately, but reorganized and reordered, almost like a form of Brechtian alienation.
This was particularly true of Michael's use of the voice, and specifically when writing for the soprano Sarah Leonard. She had a very pure, wonderful voice that could be ripped from opera or practically any other vocal genre. Leonard did most of the difficult vocal parts on my music as well as Michael's, such as the BBC Silent Witness theme. She was extraordinary and I think sometimes quite unaware of her own power.

The audience would be in a constant state of not knowing the next turn the music would take. Michael's's genius is that he can make those turns at a pace that takes the audience with him.
The other element that I've been very aware of when playing minimalist music is the 'rhythm of expectation' that one sets up in an audience. This has extended to 'being in the moment' enough to repeat mistakes (especially rhythmic mistakes) when they happen, in order to not upset the perceived flow for the audience. It's at this point that the performer has to operate within the highest form of self-awareness.

PS: Are there any significant differences between recording minimalist music and playing it in a live context?

JH: Rhythm is the most important aspect of a live performance, whereas intonation is for me probably the most important (I would even say, 'obsessive') aspect of a recording. The differences are really revealing. Concert performances bring in the visual as well as aural, and there is benefit in seeing the precision and focus of the players.

Recorded versions of minimalist music surely take the greatest level of trust and abandonment of time from the listener. Steve Reich's Drumming was a vinyl album I never listened to, yet seeing his ensemble perform it in London was one of the most electrifying musical experiences of my life.
Sequencers and DAW-based music have changed the was that we perceive repetition nowadays. We're used to perfect repetition! That might be exciting from an OCD point of view as a producer, but it's fucking boring to listen to.
Chucking huge amounts of audio and MIDI around on Logic or ProTools is an accepted way to create repetition nowadays - but that wouldn't work on most minimalist music - especially Michael Nyman's.
I sense that recording true minimalism is probably more about capturing 'live' sound and energy - not about the CD as a different process.

PS: Lets look at minimalism in film. If one looks at Nyman's music for, say, The Draughtsman's Contract, it's rarely used to underscore dialogue but rather to connect scenes or introduce a new setting in the film.

JH: Yes, it's like entr'acte music. But the music and the film itself was conceived separately for The Draughtsman's Contract, as I understand. Greenaway wanted to make a film. Michael wanted to write some music. And its strength is that it actually gives us a piece of music within a film rather than something that burbles along nicely underneath the dialogue.

PS: You've worked extensively in the area of music and visual media. How effective would you say is minimalist music in the area of film?

JH: Minimalism can be a compositional device without that composer being a 'minimalist' composer. But it's a very powerful device. The success of minimalism in film cannot be overestimated, and for good reason. It's great music for music editors to cut to. Its episodic nature lends itself to growth and story-telling, while in film post-production it's used as an underscore probably more than any other genre. It can burble along under dialogue magnificently.
In the case of Glass, its slow revelation of harmonic structure and development carries on at a subconscious pace that's perfect for forgetting that it's there, and its success in creating a meditative state in film is an indicator of the levels on which it can work best in concert music. You don't need patience to hear minimalism in film, sometimes over very extended periods.

The difference between the US and European film scenes accounts for a lot of the difference between the understanding, productivity and commoditization of minimalism since the early 1980s. Mainstream US film companies were very often the first to truly accept minimalism because it was close to some existing US film music anyway, and the minimalist discipline brought several non-film composers into the film world. The fact that minimalist music has become part of the film mainstream has resulted in its commoditization, so it no longer has the 'outsider' status afforded to it in the 1960s and 70s.

In those days minimalists were often perceived as folk-artists or primitivists. They existed apart from the mainstream, and Michael's account in Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond bears this out. There was a rejection of romanticism and modernism, but the lack of traditional musical literacy in some minimalist composers made its aesthetic essentially a cross-disciplinary one. Art and music were combined, but the difference is that you can walk into a gallery and look at a room of Carl Andre and think 'Oh, that's minimalism', then either stay for a whole day or walk out.
Minimalist music, however, takes time to experience - usually quite a lot of time...

Pwyll ap Sion is CD reviewer for Gramophone magazine. His book The Music of Michael Nyman was published by Ashgate Press in 2007. He is co-editor of The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music with Keith Potter and Kyle Gann.