Michael Nyman Sangam Review

BBC Review

Classical composer Nyman meets Indian master musicians. With mixed results.

Helene Rammant 2003

Sangam is Michael Nyman's latest and boldest attempt to fuse two diametrically opposed musical worlds, the improvisatory world of Indian classical music and the pre-composed world of Nyman. Indeed, 'sangam' is a Hindi word meaning a coming together. But is this venture really a match made in heaven, as the CD's sleeve notes seem to suggest?

Sangam is the result of an artistic partnership between Nyman and the Asian Music Circuit who took Michael on an extensive trip to India in search of suitable musical collaborators. "When I set out for India on this project I didn't know what it was I was looking for", says Michael. Until he reached Benares in India, that is, where he had his revelation. The dry and mysterious Vedic chants he heard at the house of Rajan and Sajan Misra struck his minimalist chord.

Nonetheless, it is khyal singing we hear on this record, as performed by the Misra brothers. In 'Three Ways of Describing Rain' Michael's aim is to present "a velvet cushion on which these jewels could sit". Nyman's harmonic cushion (in D major predominantly) is woven out of a chord progression set at random against the vocals of the Indian singers.

The stylistic effect is ... minimalist, very Nymanesque. Not very Indian.

On 'Compiling The Colours', Michael and his band are joined by South India's mandolin star Shrinivas. Shrivanas virtusosi tans (or compositions), are injected by Nyman with pentatonic steroids on piano, everlasting sawing strings and mechanical cross-rhythms reminiscent of Phillip Glass' music in 12 parts. The composer's old ideas and concepts are seemingly unaffected by his immersion in Karnatic music. Not very dialectical.

I wondered what the project would sound like as a live performance, and therefore headed to the Festival Hall on Thursday to listen to its London premiere. The piece sounded chaotic, at times out of sync, despite Nyman's gesticulating and conducting throughout.

This is not a record which achieves true stylistic integration. More a collision of worlds, to use Nyman's vocabulary, then a melding and mutual nourishment of sound. Less is not always more.

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