Michael Nyman’s Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs was the result of one of those “six degrees” sorts of things, coupled with a couple years of intense focus on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. During 1990-91, Nyman was working on the score for Peter Greenaway’s film, Prospero’s Books, as well as writing the music for Katrine Saporta’s opera-ballet, La Princesse de Milan, also based on Shakespeare’s play and from which score for Noiseswas derived. (Saporta was also the choreographer for Greenway’s film, just to bring it full circle.) Nyman’s music comes close to being unclassifiable, beyond the very broad rubric of “contemporary” — he’s very independent-minded, and while one can spot various possible influences and contributions to his music, the whole exercise ultimately becomes irrelevant.
Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs is quirky music, sometimes ethereal, sometimes seemingly a period piece, sometimes threatening, and quite melodic. Interestingly enough, Nyman set only the spoken text (“heavily and idiosyncratically edited,” according to him), having set the songs for Prospero’s Books. Also quite idiosyncratic, and often arresting, is the device of treating the voices not as characters, but as instruments. The effect is often more than a little surreal, if one is trying to make the vocal parts fit into some notion of “roles.” As Nyman puts it, the singers are “carriers of the text rather than characters.” It becomes highly abstract, as a soprano Miranda may suddenly become a soprano Prospero, or Caliban may be a trio.
Strangely enough, although the words are hardly discernible, there is a strong dramatic tension derived from Shakespeare’s text. A word here on the difficulties of English in an operatic setting: it is widely accepted that my native tongue, for some reason, is extraordinarily difficult to enunciate in that context. The only singers I’ve really heard pull it off were English singers performing Gilbert and Sullivan. There are, in fact, sections here where the music and the singing take on that sort of crispness. For the rest, I found it really didn’t matter, and that in itself adds to the idea of the singers as integral parts of the ensemble.
This is very active music that early on sets up a degree of momentum that carries it, relieved by the more relaxed passages, which become true highlights because of that contrast. It is this alternating tension and release that drives the work, which is pretty much seamless: it was set into seventeen sections performed without a break and flows so smoothly from one section to the next that one is hardly aware of it. The range of Nyman’s resources as a composer is in full play: there are passages that recall some of Alban Berg’s more stringent works, in mood if nothing else, balanced by passages that are almost bel canto. This is, however, very definitely a contemporary work, one that avoids dry academicism — there is a strong emotional weight here, as mutable as the play itself, and just as compelling.
The vocalists are stellar. Catherine Bott’s soprano is clear, almost bell-like in tone, but nevertheless carries a fair degree of weight. Hilary Summers’ alto is a good, rich one, with a smoky quality that brings an essential element of earthiness to the music. Ian Bostridge’s tenor is one of the most appealing I’ve ever heard, full and rich and soaring to am amazingly pure higher register. And all three display a facility for blending in with the orchestra, becoming integral parts of the ensemble. All three are amazingly expressive, vocal range and color under control of superlative artistry. The effect is, as often as not, breathtaking.
Dominque Delbart leads the Ensemble Instrumental de Basse-Normandie, with aid from David Roach and Andrew Findon on saxophones, through a score that is by turns sharp-edged, limpid, raucous, and incredibly fluid. It’s a very intelligent rendering, sensitive and offering restraint where appropriate and where not, not.
This is a gorgeous piece of music. At this remove, I don’t even remember how I acquired it — probably by wandering into Borders in an adventurous mood and with extra money in my pocket. It immediately became one of my favorite works in the contemporary repertoire. After not listening for a while, I hauled it out again and have been playing it regularly since — and always finding something new to marvel at.
You can’t do much better than that.