BRIEF PROGRAMME NOTE
How do art, genetics, ethics and commercialism interact with each other? Facing Goya examines different aspects of this question from different historical and moral perspectives. The unifying focal point is the skull of the artist Goya, which was found to be missing when his coffin was opened a century after his death. The principal character, a modernday Art Banker, travels through different centuries examining the changes in attitude towards these issues.
FULL PROGRAMME NOTE
Facing Goya is an opera. The work is driven by music, by imagery and by drama. There is narrative, there are characters and there is dialogue. Things happen through action and interaction. But this is not an opera in the conventional 18th or 19th century sense of the term. The narrative has a linearity - the hunt for Goya's skull - yet the action leaps from location to location, zigzagging through three centuries. The characters do not drive the narrative through interpersonal relationships, projecting their personalities and steering a plot; rather they are vehicles for the delivery of facts, bombarding the listener with information about people, ideas and history. Long dead scientists and their discredited knowledge, political theorists with dangerous schemes and artists, particularly Goya, with vision, images and insight into the human condition are all woven into the fabric. Contemporary science, genetics, DNA and human cloning are also included in the story. The meaning in the work is generated by the fundamental elements of opera - music, imagery and drama - but it is the music that unifies everything and binds together the whole.
The essence of Facing Goya is divulged through manifestations of revelation. Some of these revelations are fanciful or dangerously misguided: the disclosure of falsehoods in 19th Century science with its prevalent ideas that the exterior could reveal the interior. That the size of the brain, the angle of the face or the shape of the ear was an indication of the character, personality or ability of the individual. Some manifestations are profound: the dangers of totalitarianism, of the state attempting to control the nature and value of art; the dangers of huge, multinational corporations attempting to control scientific discoveries, to patent individual genes and to clone personality, talent or human spirit. Some revelations are purely factual: the opera begins by declaring that Goya's skull was found to be missing when his coffin was opened at the cemetery of Chartreuse, in Bordeaux, in 1878.
The music is also revelatory in that it is open and accessible. The compositional methodology is not obscured by an opaque, modernist system invisible and inaudible to the listener. The overall musical form is episodic. Discrete, self-contained units flow sequentially with some occasional thematic reoccurrence in separated episodes. Melodies and harmonies sporadically reappear within a grand, mosaic like scheme, constructed from blocks of musical material that are laid end to end utilizing a multi-faceted, crystalline logic - a logic that defies any straight-through, developmental thread.
For the most part, the music does not emotionally reflect the subject matter of the text, as might be the case in conventional opera. The music rarely gives clues as to what a character is actually singing about. But this is not to say that the music lacks passion; indeed it has all the hallmarks of a Nyman score – strident pulse articulated by shifting, complex metre, rapturous harmonies and a tenacious sonority carved from the extremes of instrumental register. The absence of emotional cohesion between music and text is instead an echo of Erik Satie's advice to Claude Debussy, as reported by Jean Cocteau, "Believe me", Satie said "we have enough of Wagner. Quite beautiful; but not of our stock. We should see to it that the orchestra does not grimace when characters enter on the scene. Look here: do the trees of the scenery grimace? We should make a musical scenery, create a musical climate where the personages move and speak - not in couplets, not in leit-motifs: but by the use of a certain atmosphere of Puvis de Chavannes'. Facing Goya shadows Satie, not Wagner.
Nyman's approach to composition follows on from the 'Experimental' music tradition that he defined in his book 'Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond', originally published in 1974, and republished in 1999. His technique is firmly rooted in melody, harmony and rhythm. He writes tunes, the structures of which are often grounded in diatonic, tonal harmony. This 'New Tonality' germinated in Britain during the late 1960s as a reaction against the abrasive dissonance, generated through the post-war, European techniques of total serialism, as manifested in the works of Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio. The return to consonance began in America, migrated to Europe and became known as minimalism. This term itself was coined by Nyman in 1968, in an article, in the Spectator magazine, about the influential English experimental composer Cornelius Cardew. Minimalism re-examined melody and functional harmony and re-established pitch as a primary structural element in music. But this wasn't simply a direct return to an 18th or 19th century soundworld - the composer John White, a colleague of Cardew and Nyman, has clearly articulated the situation: "The analogy that comes to mind is very much that Zen thing about people who acquire enlightenment leading a perfectly normal life again -. but a couple of millimeters off the ground, and so it's possible to listen to Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherezade now with absolute delight, because I listen to it as though it had no prehistory. Whereas before Cardew there was an obsessive toffee-like consistency in musical history that glued everything into place in a rather soggy, unadventurous way."
In the late 1960s and early 1970s British experimental composers were embracing compositional techniques that lay beyond the boundaries of modernism and broke the avant-garde thread that could be traced back to the Renaissance. One of those techniques, now an archetypal characteristic of post-modernism, was that of appropriation. Composers looked to the established repertoire for source material and made pre-existing material their own, often through experimental processes like chance operations, multiplicity and repetition. Nyman has appropriated the music of several composers including John Bull, Purcell, Couperin, Mozart, Schumann and Webern. But the composer he has most frequently appropriated is himself. This self appropriation is evident throughout Facing Goya, perhaps most wittily in the instrumental opening to 'Sequence of the Gene', from Act III, where Nyman refers to his own opening theme from the film Gattaca - which is itself about genetic determinism - the title of which uses the letters that label the four different nucleotides, adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and Thymine (T), found in DNA. Here is a classic example of intertextuality, of meaning being generated through an interconnecting weave rather than a straight linear thread. And this weave enables the listener to move through this operatic material in more than one dimension. The music is a lattice onto which is attached boundless information, action, images, ideas and manifestations of the human condition. This opera reveals what it is to be human - to exist, to desire and to live.
© 2002 Robert Worby
Meanwhile, his singers battled with the tricky tempo of a meditation on craniometry. The man from whose brain all this jiving intellection emerged is slight and studiously monochrome. His eyes are magnified by owlish spectacles. Busy incubating ideas, his head has given up growing hair. Beneath that egg-shaped dome, he presumably possesses 'a wonderful musical cortex'. That's the diagnosis of the neurologist (modelled on Oliver Sacks) in Nyman's chamber opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, when asked to treat the visual agnosia of a musician who can see shapes but not identify them.
The stricken singer in the opera, an expert at mental chess, 'dwells within schema' and 'has lost touch with the concrete world'. This might be Nyman's guilty analysis of himself: he is both doctor and patient. Because he inhabits a universe of disembodied notions and mental conundrums, his music suits the unrealised worlds of science fiction. One of his best recent film scores was for Andrew Niccol's Gattaca, about a brave new world of genetic mutants. Nyman knows where his head is: it is what he would put his hat on, if he wore one. But he occasionally wonders if he might have mislaid his heart and conducts an absent-minded search for it. Perhaps he began to warm up in order to differentiate himself from his erstwhile friend, Peter Greenaway. Their collaboration began on The Draughtsman's Contract and ended acrimoniously after Prospero's Books; Nyman now regards Greenaway as a haughty, autocratic Prospero, a reminder of the need to balance mental schemata with human empathy.
'The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat was the most abstract music I've ever written,' he told me. 'The structure is a set of variations with diminishing returns. The music becomes emptier as the head of the patient empties. Yet, at the first performance at the ICA in 1986, I came offstage after playing the piano and felt tears in my eyes. I was shocked. Without intending to, I'd written music which contained emotion.'
Nyman quotes Stravinsky's claim that the composer imprisons musical sounds in the hope that they will break free of the imprisoning structure. 'For me, the emotions are starting to escape from confinement, as if they were soaking through the holes in a Tetley teabag. I'm meticulously creating the holes in order to be holes, so that feeling can leak out.' Then he stopped to wonder at his metaphorical antics: 'Interesting. I've never thought of that before.' The leakage was first audible two years ago in the brooding threnody of his score for Neil Jordan's film The End of the Affair. With its lush strings and almost woundingly percussive piano, the music, as he put it, was 'the bed where Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes have sex'.
Since then, he has returned to cogitation. The subjects that interest him are all versions of what philosophers call the mind-body problem, which for Nyman is inseparable from music, that compound of strict form and messy, molten content. Facing Goya, for instance, is about a misplaced skull. A researcher hunts for the painter's head, which was removed from his body before burial. Does she want to patent his DNA? Is humanity at risk now we can decode the genome that makes us who we are? The piece debates cloning, vital statistics, Nazi eugenics, ethnic cleansing and Frankensteinian food. Nyman calls it 'an opera that isn't an opera - an opera of ideas. The singers will be measuring things, performing scientific experiments on stage. What they won't be doing is emoting.'
We were speaking in the control-room at Abbey Road, while on the studio floor his vocalists begged for a rhythmic click to be added to the synthesised accompaniment being piped into their heads through their ear- phones, to help them co-ordinate the overlapping vocal lines. 'But I don't understand,' moaned the contralto for the hundredth time.
German festivals have commissioned operas from Nyman about two more dotty, lopsided modernists. The first is Kurt Schwitters, the dadaist who lived for a while in Hampstead where he made collages of tickets garnered from journeys on bus routes 24 and 31. As a lad in north London, Nyman also ency clopaedically collected bus tickets. In addition, he is fascinated by Schwitters's symphonic orchestration of the sounds he heard on buses during the winter, including the sniffles and snorts of passengers with colds: music is noise, not melody.
Next in line is Kafka. Nyman is fascinated by his love affair during the last year of his life with a Berlin seamstress called Dora Diamond, who later married a communist and lived in Moscow before moving to the Isle of Man and finally to Whitechapel, where she died. Though Dora was the love of Kafka's life, Nyman typically does not see the subject that way and sums her story up as 'a parable for transmigration'.
Further off, there may be an opera based on Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne's fantasia of uncontrollable consciousness. Nyman has been intermittently working on this since the mid-Eighties, when he tried pitching it to ENO. It is a perilous undertaking. Sterne's novel is about Tristram's attempt to write a novel about the workings of his own mind. He fails to complete it because he cannot regiment his random thoughts (or restrain his frisky penis). I told Nyman that he may have composed Tristram Shandy already in his fables about runaway minds and laggard bodies. 'In that case,' he demanded, suddenly bumping down to ground, 'where are the royalties?'
As the recording session continued, I looked away from Nyman in his aerial booth and the singers down on the floor. A video monitor on the wall in the control-room was digitally transcribing the sound of each take. In a corner of the screen, thin, twin towers representing bass and treble ran up the sky, toppled, then instantly rebuilt themselves; in the centre, a nebular purple haze pulsed and throbbed, changing shape in response to each vibration. The ideas had been turned into air, but the computer translated that agitated air into numbers and made it visible in those dancing graphs. It was like studying an encephalogram: when you listen to Nyman's music, you are taking a tour of his frenetically inventive head.
Peter Conrad, The Observer, 12/05/2002
Nyman's score supports [Victoria Hardie's) words wonderfully: it's one of his finest achievements. The propulsive style, with its amplified orchestra and singers…is instantly recognizable, while his extraordinary skill at rediscovering the expressive power of the common chord, or reinventing the dramatic potency of a simple cadence, provides him with a rich variety of musical possibilities. There are some instantly memorable melodic lines…the soaring tune that dominates Beethoven's third Leonora overture is recruited to announce the appearance of Goya in the final scene. It does the job superbly… It's a fascinating work, and needs to be seen in Britain as soon as possible.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 01/08/2000