Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best Thing I Heard on Christmas: Michael Nyman doing "Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds"

Not THOSE shepherds! Nyman originally wrote this peppy Purcell rip for Peter Greenaway's 1982 movie The Draughtsman's Contract, but we heard it last night in the 2008 documentary Man On Wire, which is fantastic, go Netflick it now. (You can stream it!) Here's the Youtube with superior sound:

--and here's a live performance, which is nice because you can see who's playing what:

When I played Nyman’s career retrospective overhead at work some years back, I got one of two responses:
“It sounds like movie music.”
“It sounds like Philip Glass.”

These made sense, because it was movie music, and because Nyman wrote the book, literally, on Philip Glass and his cronies (Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond), and some people blame him with first describing music as “minimalist” back in 1968.

Ever since I first heard him, though (in Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover), I’ve heard a lunatic parody of Baroque music. Nyman’s stuff is more compact, driving, and repetitive than most movie music, and it employs Baroque circle-of-fifths ground basslines, rather than the 3 or 4-chord pop basslines of Glass’s tunes. "Chasing Sheep" features crazy horns jumping unexpectedly out of the texture on dissonant passing tones, a caffeinated pogo-stick beat, and a weird double-time “B” section, but the whole thing manages to be gorgeous anyway. Nyman’s repetition and aversion to development gives his music a static quality, which goes well with Greenaway’s contemplative, often monochromatic imagery. Be warned: after it loses the Baroque edge a quarter-way through, Nyman’s 2-disc retrospective goes downhill, with only a couple minimalist-y exceptions along the way. (He also wrote some more generically pretty stuff for The Piano.)

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