OPINION: Michael Nyman Syndrome

@edking2210Words by Ed King

I call it the ‘Michael Nyman Syndrome’.

A few months ago (long enough to now comment without reprisal) Hans Zimmer came to the Barclay Card Arena – performing scores from ‘a career spanning over 150 films including The Lion King, Gladiator and the recently released Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.’

Hans Zimmer is phenomenally successful, arguably on the top rung ‘of Hollywood’s major composers’ – scoring many of modern culture’s most successful, tear jerking and Academy friendly motion pictures.

Tickets sold. Tickets sold quickly. Our accreditation came through literally hours before the show (side stepping a city wide fervour I haven’t seen since a relatively unknown Coldplay were booked at Ronnie Scotts… and then released ‘Yellow’) and an arena sized herd crashed through their 9-5 fences to be the first online.

We covered it. It got a great hit rate. Reports came back (ours & others) of a mesmerising night, full of passionate nostalgia and dramatic intent. Apparently when The Lion King got its fifteen minutes, amdist the litany of blockbuster riffs, the whole arena exploded at the ‘immediately recognisable… opening bars’.

Pockets of Birmingham (it’s fair to say) were in awe. Outside of an editorial remit, I had little interest. I shall explain.

A few years ago I happened across an Icelandic composer called Ólafur Arnalds, accidentally finding his oh-so-cheery titled album …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, on Spotify. I had been replaying the The Piano soundtrack, a score my mum introduced me to (around the same time I was collecting tape sets and A4 flyers from The Depot) and Arnalds’s debut LP was suggested to me courtesy of the metadata hungry nanobots behind the music site.

I fell, head over heals, in love with the compositions – a once hardcore drummer creating the most beautiful laments through keys and string. It haunted me. I let it. I listened to nothing else, until one Wednesday afternoon I found myself standing on Harborne High Street crying at clouds with my earphones in. I hadn’t been so overwhelmed by a genre since the rave ‘scene’ of the early to mid 90’s, and continued to explore the tendrils of Related Artists until my Library over floweth. Artist after artist, label after label, I was discovering music again. And it was good.Hanz Zimmer @ Barclay Card Arena / By Michelle Martin

From Ólafur Arnalds I went to Ludovico Einaudi, with a short stop off at Jóhann Jóhannsson and Nils Frahm – spending a few solid months going through the Italian maestro’s extensive discography. Then it was on to Fabrizio Paterlini and Giovanni Allevi, gulping down the originality of the former (whilst retching at the saccharine of the latter) before heading north to Max Richter and the superb German imprint, Denovali Records.

Through the Denovali roster and the collaborations they’ve supported, I spent a few happy months following breadcrumbs in the snow – eventually getting a little lost in the electronica crossovers from Max Cooper, Tom Hodge and Franz Kirmann. Then the guiding lights of Bersarin Quartett and the phenomenal Poppy Ackroyd (whose debut LP delight, Escapement, I am listening to whilst writing this op-ed) brought me in from the glitch cold, before sending me back to more homegrown artists such as Dustin O’Halloran, Peter Broderick and Helen Jane Long – with O’Halloran’s sublime Lumiere still pretty much stuck on repeat.

There were others, or course (there always are) but from this hopscotch of countries and composers I began to develop an idea of what worked, for me, and what didn’t. I don’t like cheese (…Allevi lasted about a weekend), I’m married to keys with strings as my mistress, there is no place too gloomy or too inspiring, please don’t sing – you’re only making it worse (Broderick) and a blanket of ‘glitch’ can ruin an otherwise warm and fuzzy experience. And above all else, I want to believe it firsthand.

So forgive me, but I have somewhat damp blue touch paper when it comes to scores written for film soundtracks.

I can enjoy them, to a point, but I just don’t believe them. Film scores can be memorable, uplifting and all the things good music should be, but they are not grown from an autonomous seed. They were born for a purpose – one fervently tied into the commerce, industry and studio that are signing its commission. Its artistry set up, like promotional copy or professional head shots. Like a pop song. And before you explode in an adult sized defensive strop, or prepare to battle your way out of an imaginary corner (this I call the ‘Harry Potter Syndrome’) this is me, my opinion, what’s in my head. I am not telling you what to have in yours. I don’t want to fight the Barclaycard Arena.

Its simple and visceral. I’ve never watched Broadchurch and yet I know, firmly, what Ólafur Arnalds‘s music means to me – from his stripped back compositions of Found Songs to the emotive maelstrom of …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness. I know what makes me stand in the street and sob. And it’s not an animated lion cub.

and-they-have-escaped-the-weight-of-darknessSo when I go to The Glee Club and see a queue stretching around the upper floor of The Arcadian for an Ólafur Arnalds concert, I am a little disheartened when the soundtrack to Broadchurch makes up about a third of the set. It saddens me when I talk about the finger danced beauty of O’Halloran’s ‘We Move Lightly’ and I’m met by blank stares, until I explain “…it’s by the guy that wrote the music for the TV show Transparent.”

Max Richter penned The Blue Notebooks, which I used to listen to during monsoons in south India, but my friend knows him from Ari Folman production credits. Philip Glass is significantly more than The Fantastic Four and the next time someone says, “…like Enrico Morricone” I might just punch a wall and go home. And why so petulant..? At the end of this murky rainbow is Danny Elfman and Randy Newman, and nobody wants that.

But my journey started with 15 second chunks of Michael Nyman and the syndrome of fast track compositions he spawned in my head. It took a number of years (and the Gattaca soundtrack) until I stumbled across Ólafur Arnalds – but now that I have, I don’t want fostered music or 3rd hand inspiration. I don’t want an album that conjures images of a naked Harvey Keitel or a social dystopia. I want flesh (not Keitel’s). I want to know an artist for their work – not their response to someone else’s creative brief.

So whilst I tether my high horse to the Symphony Hall, I urge the audience that ransacked the Hans Zimmer merch stall to do the only thing I can legitimately ask of them. The only thing I can legitimately ask of myself. Explore.

The world has some stunning composers in it today, with institutions and ambition creating more by the year. And now the Michael Nyman Syndrome that had me locked in for so many years has passed, I can begin to appreciate them too.

‘Lyre’ by Poppy Ackroyd


Ed King is Editor of Birmingham Review & Birmingham Preview. Follow him @edking2210

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