Updated: Nov 9, 2021
This is a long introduction to an original piece of music. To skip to the music, go to the end of the blog post.
My love affair with Michael Nyman began in graduate school. The Princeton Film Society screened something called The Draughtsman's Contract, which still strikes me as the strangest film I have ever seen. A perspective artist is commissioned to do 12 drawings of a stately home in the 17th century, while the ladies of the manor are secretly planning to use him for the production of a male heir. No actors I have ever seen in any other film are in it, the costumes are extraordinary, the symbolism is surreal (a naked statue of a boy comes to life, bites into a pineapple, and spits it out - that's the final image of the film), and it is of course directed by Peter Greenaway. I became mildly obsessed with the film in the late 1980s, renting it on VHS in Vancouver, driving it across the Canadian border to my friend Cheryl's house in Corvallis, and using her friend's new dubbing technology to record it onto a blank videocassette, and then sending the video back to Canada by mail with a letter of apology and a check for the 20-day late fee.
The music was what drew me to the film. Hypnotic, abrasive, unapologetic, sneering: it was everything I wanted (it) to be. Later, when I found a cassette tape of the soundtrack at the Ohio State University Library, I discovered the titles of the tracks: "Bravura in the Face of Grief." "Sheep Are Best Left to Shepherds." "A Watery Death." They were all lines from the film. The pieces were scored for bass, alto, tenor, and treble saxophone, with occasional angry arpeggios from a dual-keyboard harpsichord. It was tremendous. I still have a cassette copy of that tape, and the old videotape, though I have the means of playing neither.
Now Peter Greenaway is a household name, for his weird conversion of The Tempest into an aerial urination contest in Prospero's Books and the deeply psychotic film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. I have dragged more girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, and even my sainted wife to Greenaway films than I care to remember. Drowning by Numbers. A Zed and Two Noughts. The Falls. (Poor Janette - she got the 3 1/2 hour one based on ornithological acrostics. Reader, I married her.) Everyone has hated them. Nyman wrote the score for most of them, and so he has become well-known (or notorious) too. Jane Campion's The Piano is scored to his music, and every now and then when I play something from it at the Riverside Hospital somebody stops and says "Isn't that from Amelie?" Gattaca is his, and a sentimental set of songs for The Diary of Anne Frank. There's a CD of the Russian pianist Valentina Lisitsa playing from The Michael Nyman Songbook which I have worn out doing puzzles in the basement. I highly recommend it.
The one piece not on the CD, and not in the Michael Nyman Songbook, is the title of this blog post. "Memorial" was written for piano, saxophone quartet, strings, and an instrument called a theremin. When the theremin part begins, the saxophones perform something that Nyman calls a "New Orleans Wail." For maximum effect, "Memorial" should only be heard at full volume on a very good sound system in a car. Buy the soundtrack to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (hereinafter abbreviated as TCTTHWHL) and play it. The piece is ten minutes long. Turn the sound up at about 8 minutes in, when the theremin comes in. Or wait until the end of this blog post and give it a whirl.
What is a theremin? You know: the wind instrument tube thing that they use in science-fiction movies. "Memorial" was not written for Michael Gambon's character's death in TCTTHWHL (he was The Cook), though it is used for that scene in the film. Peter Greenaway went to his long-time collaborator and said "Michael, I need something slow and sad and unearthly and heartbreaking that is also funny. Can you do that for me?" And Nyman said, "As it happens, Peter, I've already written something like that," and put on a recording of a piece he had composed for a tragedy in Heysel in 1985. Greenaway realized immediately that it was perfect for his film, and lengthened the ending so as to accommodate every note of Nyman's music.
Those of you who know that I am a Liverpool fan will have guessed where this is going. The Heysel Disaster was the forerunner to Hillsborough, where 96 Liverpool fans died from a crush in a crowd on April 15, 1989. In the earlier disaster from 1985, the question of blame is harder to assign. A wall fell down and crushed 39 Juventus fans to death. 14 Liverpool fans were convicted of manslaughter, and all English teams were banned from European play for six years, and Liverpool for seven. Shockingly, the game was still played that day. You can hear the fall of the wall in the music that Nyman wrote to commemorate the Heysel Disaster.
If Heysel was a Disaster, Hillsborough was a Tragedy. The parallel to the events of the Capitol on January 6 of this year is exact: fans were crawling over rooftops, crashing into a building, overrunning a police force that was mentally and physically unprepared for the crowds. Investigations into the Hillsborough Tragedy are still ongoing, 32 years later. The same will be true of the Capitol Incitement. Except that at the Capitol, the events were not nearly as bad as they could have been. At Hillsborough, four minutes into the first half of the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, they were exactly as bad as they could be. Fans choked standing up, were trampled to death, were pushed into chain-link fences designed to protect the players from hooligans in the stands. The Liverpool striker Peter Beardsley hit the crossbar and the crowd surged forward. That surge killed with sudden unexpected force. When a ball goes into the goal, there is a cheer from one side, and you generally know what has happened. When a ball misses, there is a groan, and you generally know that something worth seeing has passed you by. But when a ball hits the crossbar, you hear both a cheer (thank goodness! it missed) and a groan (damn it! so unlucky) - AND YOU CAN'T INTERPRET THE SOUND. I know this because in a past life I have heard World Cup matches on tape delay in outdoor restaurants in Budapest, where the time-lag between neighboring tapas bars can be as much as 3 seconds. Whenever the ball hit the woodwork we rushed to the other bar. The perplexity was what drove us. The sound simply could not be deciphered. That, I am convinced, is what happened at 3:04 PM on April 15 in the small depressing neutral site in Sheffield where the game was played. It is because of Hillsborough, and the reaction to it from the town of Liverpool, that I am a lifelong Liverpool fan.
And what does this have to do with Michael Nyman? Because when Hillsborough happened, "Memorial" was resurrected for a second time, in a version with a soprano hitting the high notes instead of a theremin. The piece was performed in a concert to commemorate the victims just last year. "Memorial" has become the dark side to "You'll Never Walk Alone," Gerry and the Pacemakers' goofy hit from Carousel which begins and ends every home game. Not every football team has a funeral anthem. But we do.
And so, I decided to learn how to play it. This wasn't easy, since no piano score exists. It was up to me to find the orchestral score, and create a piano reduction that kept all of the important notes in the original and none of the unimportant ones. I found the score fairly easily, through an orchestra sheet music site that still sends me weekly updates after I used their 7-day free trial to download the PDFs of the orchestral score to Michael Nyman's piece. They had blocked the downloads but I could take 32 screenshots and print them out anyway. Here are the first two of them:
From those 32 screenshots of the orchestral score I made a rough copy of what the 2-handed version would look like. I played each bar against a CD copy of the old cassette copy of the OSU recording of the soundtrack of TCTTHWHL, checking for variations. The CD sometimes skipped, and the cassette it had recorded lost two bars in the middle, which threw me off for a week. Down in the basement, next to a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, I played my version of "Memorial" on a Roland SynthPlus 80 synthesizer with an octave missing given to us by a neighbor whose wife had been in a rock band but was now leaving for work in public relations in San Francisco. Like a musical archeologist, I was finally able to piece it all together.
A clean copy of my first attempt turned out to be a scribble of erasures, as the pedal line underneath one staff got mixed up with the ledger lines on top of the next. The saxophones play 64th notes (hemi-demi-semiquavers), which were both too fast to play on the piano, and too hard to write into the score with any clarity - each bar was taking an entire line, and there were 92 bars of music. I turned the 64ths into sextuplets, and devised a shorthand to print the saxophone licks:
Over the Christmas holiday, I decided to go for broke and transcribe the whole thing in ink using architectural sketch pens. That took four hours a day for three weeks. Here is the result:
There's a signature page on the back, but you're welcome to play it for free..
The next thing to do was to record the piece. So here that is too. I made two mistakes recording it last week, but then I sliced the tip of my finger off with a knife trying to cut up some garlic, so I'm not going to record it again. Make no mistake: this is a time of global mourning, brought to us by the United States of America. The destruction brought to our country by the COVID-19 virus now numbers half of one million people. People are still freezing to death in Texas. Jobs were permanently lost in the last presidency for the first time since the Second World War. Our borders are war zones; our elections require external monitors. One of the two major political parties is a cult that gives credence to pernicious lies and stands against universal suffrage. If ever we needed a Memorial, it is now. Go ahead - click on the URL below, and then press play. It will make you feel better.
This recording is an original - nothing like this exists. It is mine, and now I am giving it to you. So listen to at least the last two minutes (start at about 8'00"). To hear the recording, you can also click on this picture. It will take you to the music library webpage.
To hear the recording, you can also go here: https://www.sebastianknowles.com/memorial.
Or here: recording.
(Janette - see if you can get an organist to play this at my funeral. It's never too soon to start planning these things...)