Michael Nyman‘s work as a composer and film-score writer has never really inhabited jazz territory, but below the formal chugging surface structures of his compositions lie some improvisational ideas that have a lot in common with jazz. Furthermore, his current projects “The Glare” and “Nyman with a Movie Camera” both meld into the world of jazz and improvised events.
The former is the title of a 2009 album in which singer David McAlmont added his own lyrics inspired by contemporary news to extant Nyman compositions, giving a new dimension to the songs, especially in this rare live performance. The latter was a new film, edited from Nyman’s copious amateur footage documenting his life, travel and band tours, as a conscious homage to the Russian experimental film-maker Dziga Vertov.
In 2003, Nyman wrote a score for Vertov’s late 1920s movie “Man with a Movie Camera” (image above) to be played live at the London Film Festival. At the Barbican, visual artist Max Pugh – familiar to jazz concertgoers as part of the Yeast collective – had cut Nyman’s own footage and a smattering of Vertov’s original images into a striking new film, its visual improvisations timed precisely to fit the score written for Vertov’s original.
The jazz content came in the first half from McAlmont’s extraordinarily beautiful voice. I can’t think of a singer who can tackle subjects as odd as euthanasia, drug smuggling in Laos and teaching geography with such a ravishing beauty that you are captive to every word. Against the somewhat relentless backdrop of Nyman’s dum-dum-dum-dum scores, McAlmont’s vocals soared and flew, with the slight proviso that the Barbican’s creaky sound system rendered him so low in the mix that in the main part of the house, some of his lines were inaudible. Here Nyman might have directed his musicians with a little more sensitivity to dynamics, but maybe he was so preoccupied with keeping the da-da-da rhythms going he couldn’t raise his hands from the keys to signal his players.
The movie was a different prospect. At one time, apparently, the plan was to show Vertov’s fim in parallel to Max Pugh’s. That would have made for a real multi-media experience, but in the event only the new film occupied the screen above the players. Anyone who’s seen Pugh’s visual improvisation – for example on the “Future Sounds of Jazz” tour a few years ago with Soweto Kinch and Jason Yarde – will know the basics of his technique. Images are established, repeated and often referred back to as the film progresses.
Here, although he took his main cues from Vertov’s trams, busy streets and Muscovite eating and shopping, the material occasionally became repetitive, and the transitions between sections on, for example, machinery and markets, didn’t have the smooth visual transition that one might have expected from the score. A camera dolly operator was an overused image, as was a portly Balkan traffic policewoman. There was some powerful visual juxtaposition using brief snapshots of abandoned shoes, roll calls of inmates and skeletal huts at Auschwitz / Birkenau, intercutting these with the bodes of dolls on a market stall or people in motion on trains.
There was an equally memorable sequence on machinery, bolstered by some of Nyman’s most energetic chugging. Overall, Pugh’s invention flagged slightly towards the end, and it would have been instructive to see whether the peaks and troughs in the score would have fitted Vertov’s vision better.