a short site about The Divine Comedy

Nyman and Hannon: just good fans...

Intelligent pop meets The Piano Soundtrack - is this the perfect music for New Labour tastes? Neil Hannon, of The Divine Comedy, and Michael Nyman talk to John McKie about their partnership.

It is not, as first glance, the most obvious pairing. Michael Nyman is arguably Britain's most distinguished classical composer, renowned for his intricately structured soundtracks on nine of Peter Greenaway's films as well as creating unforgettable music for The Piano. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown is a fan. Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, meanwhile, was first championed by DJ Chris Evans and the creators of Father Ted before enjoying four Top 20 hits and a gold album, Casanova, full of rakish songs of Romance, beloved of lounge lizards everywhere. He spent the beginning of last week on a drunken rampage with teenage rockers Ash, and the end playing at a Radio 1 roadshow in Torquay; at the weekend, he was at the V97 festivals in Leeds and Chelmsford with Blur and Prodigy.

In Edinburgh last week, Nyman and Hannon performed three concerts together; their music - a mixture of pop and popular classical - perhaps defining modern New Labourish tastes.

"When classical music is grafted on to rock it's normally a disaster," reflects Nyman.

"I have had more experience of classical musicians than most in the pop world," Hannon adds disdainfully, "and you wouldn't like to hear my opinions on most of them. A lot of them walk into a recording session, look at the notes, play them at five o' clock they get up and go, even if they're in the middle of a tune."

In their first and only interview together, the pair seems perfectly simpatico. Both are suspicious of most contemporary music - pop and classical - but are now fans of each other's work, thanks mainly to baroque singer Hilary Summers. A huge Divine Comedy fan, she dragged longtime mentor Michael Nyman along to Neil's concert at the Royal Festival Hall in April. The composer was impressed.

"I had never heard The Divine Comedy before," he admits. "Hilary said I had to see them, and so I was reluctantly.

"I enjoyed a large amount of it. The songs were very humorous, charming and attractive. I was impressed that Neil danced around the audience and snogged all the girls. I thought, 'that's something I've got to learn'."

There was another reason why Nyman was so impressed. As well as the heavy influence of singer Scott Walker on Hannon's work, certain time signatures and refrains from Nyman's compositions - particularly on the first Divine Comedy album Promenade - loom large. Nyman laughs that he felt "flattered more than ripped off".

Hannon confesses: "For a couple of years I didn't listen to anything else apart from Michael Nyman and Scott Walker. When I heard he was in the Festival Hall audience, I almost had a kitten. The only way I could do these concerts was to forget how much I liked him and treat it as a normal job."

The collaboration came about because of David Sefton, the co-organiser of Edinburgh's new musical festival, Flux, and the creative director of the South Bank Centre. He was also at the Royal Festival Hall on that particular night and arranged a dinner between Hannon and Nyman.

"When I suggested a collaboration to them they thought it was like the selling of Tower Bridge, but Michael and Neil went for dinner and got on like a house on fire. Neil admitted he'd thrust a Divine Comedy CD into Michael Nyman's hands six years ago, after Michael had played Edinburgh. Michael claims not to remember the incident, which probably tells you how many times he played the CD. And that was the last time they had met." Mercifully, once the pair agreed to work together, they appeared to get on. They wrote a song together over six weeks, "which is very rare because we're both control freaks," laughs Nyman. Both moved a little to accommodate each other. The band put together by Hannon and his best friend, former BBC Young Composer of the Year Joby Talbot, played with Nyman's string quartet. They performed various Nyman compositions from The Draughtsman's Contract, Drowning by Numbers and The Cook, The Thief, His wife and Her Lover. Hilary Summers in turn sang on Death of a Supernaturalist and Tonight We Fly, from the Divine Comedy's first two albums, Liberation and Promenade, and both Hilary and Neil sang If, from Nyman's recently composed soundtrack for the animated Diary of Anne Frank.

Tonight We Fly is, Hannon happily admits, his most Nymanesque work and Divine Comedy perform some of Nyman's most melodic material. The Song they wrote together, off-puttingly entitled Grizzly Knife Attack, is dark and filmic in the style of Nyman's most recognisable work. Nyman none the less is not known for his collaborative nature. A recent BBC2 documentary showed him bickering with Mazda executives after they asked him to write music for a car ad. And his long association with Peter Greenaway ended in 1999 after Nyman took exception to the use of his music. ("I think he needs me because the music on the last two films has not been very distinguished," Nyman sniffs before adding, "I should call him.")

He has spent the past two years working on three concertos, "my most ambitious project to date", and his first Hollywood soundtrack, Gattaca, starring celeb couple Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. But the challenge of working with Hannon appealed.

"Of course this is going to be misinterpreted as me dragging my grey, middle ago into the pop market but I'm not looking for a pop audience. The piano has sold three million.

"I have just done what I think is my most interesting album (the concertos) and I thought I want to have a bit of fun." The pair would be quite happy to work again - Nyman "wouldn't have a problem" with a Top of the Pops appearance, he says breezily.

It's clear, nevertheless, that Hannon didn't have the same carefree attitude to working with one of his musical heroes. "It's taken a couple of years off my like," he shivers.


John McKie
Evening Standard 18/08/1997