Michael Nyman & Motion Trio: Acoustic Accordions (pt. 1)

Acoustic Accordions

Dear Matt:

Let’s not bury the lead, here: this week, you’ll be listening to neo-classical minimalism played on accordions.

Alright. Now, let’s take a few steps back. Michael Nyman is an English composer whose career took off in the 70s. I think of him as England’s response to Philip Glass. Both are generally classified as composers of ‘minimalist music,’ though Glass disdains the term. Nyman is thought to have coined it.

Minimalist music, to oversimplify ludicrously, uses small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns. It can yield strikingly varied musical results, depending on the bag of tricks possessed by a given composer. Steve Reich does minimalism by way of phasing. Glass does it (in spite of himself) by way of additive and subtractive processes. Nyman tends to do it by swiping bass lines and chord progressions from the likes of Purcell and Mozart and just repeating them over and over again with textural variations. The source material makes it feel more ‘classical’ than any of the other minimalists, but it still has the same directness and drive.

Nyman writes a lot of music for his own band, which has a really distinctive sound that informs the way he composes. A big part of that sound is that they do not play in tune, to such an extent that I can only assume it’s deliberate. Their terrible intonation gives the impression of a troupe of Saturday morning cartoon characters having found themselves in a Victorian novel and trying to act naturally. It’s fascinatingly grotesque.

The esoteric little album I’ve chosen for you this week does not feature the Michael Nyman Band, but I feel that you should know what they sound like, just for context. So, I’m appending a 12-minute prelude to your assignment proper. (After last week’s tripartite Amon Tobin marathon, I feel no guilt whatsoever.) That prelude is the tremendous funeral march, Memorial.

Like most of what you’ll be listening to this week, Memorial appeared in a film by Peter Greenaway, a director that Nyman collaborated with on 11 films. Greenaway’s directorial sensibility is so painterly that in the movie Memorial appears in — The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover — he had his actors wear different costumes in different rooms so that they’d fit the colour scheme. His movies represent a perfect blend of the very modern and the very Baroque, making Nyman the perfect musical counterpart.

(Apparently, Greenaway is at least partially responsible for Nyman’s constant Baroque references. He often requested that Nyman reference very specific pieces by composers like Heinrich Biber.)

Now. On to Acoustic Accordions. The Motion Trio are three Polish accordion players who you’re more likely to find playing Penderecki than polka. This album finds Motion playing Nyman’s music with the composer himself plunking along on the piano (with occasional interjections from Nigel Barr on trombone and euphonium). It mostly consists of music that was originally written for the Nyman Band and featured in Greenaway’s movies.

There are two notable exceptions: Nyman takes a solo piano turn on “The Heart Asks Pleasure First,” which is from the movie The Piano (very much not directed by Greenaway) and is probably his most famous melody. And, the album’s final track, “Silence,” actually has nothing to do with Nyman at all, except in an anxiety-of-influence sort of way. It was written by the Motion Trio’s own Janusz Wojtarowicz, an accomplished composer in his own right. Wojtarowicz is also responsible for the arrangements on this album.

I have lots to say about this music. I could get really analytical. But, it strikes me that this album, obscure as it is, comes completely unencumbered by cultural baggage. So, let’s run with that. I’ve given you the context; I’ll let you supply the opinions.

As always, I do hope you like it.

— Matthew

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