From The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
With MEMORIAL 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover' extends the list of death music with which I ended my notes to the 'Drowning By Numbers' soundtrack album. MEMORIAL is heard throughout the film, but in its complete form only in the final sequence as it choreographs the procession bearing the body of The Lover, prepared by The Cook, served by The Wife as a dish for her husband, The Thief.
Yet MEMORIAL was, and for me will remain, indissolubly tied not to a fictional film death but to the deaths of 39 Italian citizens at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, witnessed throughout the world on TV on the evening of 29th May 1985.
At that time I was working on a commission from the Festival d'Ete de Seine Maritime in Rouen for a large scale work, lasting around an hour, to be performed in an electricity generating station at Yainville made redundant, silenced by nuclear power. The building retained its potency, however, in its enormous scale, its permanent collection of massive generators and turbines and its vast window at the far end. All these features, coupled with a reverberation time of around ten seconds suggested, indeed dictated, a slow, powerful, processional composition in which the harmonic overlapping brought about by this extremely live acoustic would be organised in such a way as not to be disruptive.
Switching on a television set that Wednesday evening expecting to see a football match between Liverpool and Juventus, I witnessed a massacre. In the following few days newspaper photographs of the grieving families made such a profound impact on me that the composition, previously abstract, purposeless and title-less, gently transformed itself into a memorial for the dead football fans.
But though the musical content of the work was not altered, the CONTEXT, the performance environment, contributed significantly to an event that could never be reproduced. The generating station became a secular industrial cathedral (highly appropriate for the Fiat-financed Juventus) dominated by Paul Richards giant painting of a kiss on the window behind the performers. This painting, again a pre-Heysel idea, changed colour constantly as light filters emphasised different pigments, and was occasionally supplemented by the lights of the boats sailing down the Seine, which ran alongside the building. The atmosphere of the concert had been given an initial somewhat farcical chill as the previously sane festival organisers, dressed, in pristine white overalls and yellow hardhats, ushered isolated groups of listeners into the suddenly highly security-conscious concert space.
MEMORIAL received only that single, highly charged, performance on 15th June 1985. All other attempts to mount performances have failed through half-heartedness, or in the case of a concert suggested by the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool to 'commemorate' the 3rd anniversary of the event, through its inappropriateness. Nor did I feel it should become a universal funeral piece, to be trotted out after every public disaster. But, since there were good things that I wanted to preserve, I decided to subject MEMORIAL to the process of asset-stripping. And Peter Greenaway described the kind of music he wanted to dominate 'The Cook', I played him the French radio recording of the 5th section, which he found corresponded perfectly with his vision and thus found its way into the film. At the same time two of the other sections which featured the voice of Sarah Leonard (sections 2 and 4 - section 6 was a live version of IMAGES WERE INTRODUCED from - 'The Kiss and Other Movements' released by Editions EG just before the Rouen concert) were hived off into the score for 'La Traversée du Paris' (Criterion Records) with the addition of a Rimbaud text, Les Murs des Fédérés, commemorating the 1871 Paris Commune (more death music).
But, just as during the first working of musical material, the Heysel Stadium disaster intervened, so during the second reworking, between the recording of the instrumental and vocal tracks of 'Les Murs Des Fédérés' in fact I heard the news in the later afternoon of 15th April 1989, of the 95 Liverpool fans who had been crushed to death at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough ground during the FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest.
A few days later, Jayne Casey from the Bluecoat Centre rang to ask me to perform the complete MEMORIAL in Liverpool. I explained with some embarrassment that the work had been dismantled because I'd thought there was no further use for it.
© Michael Nyman 1989