• Michael Nyman
  • The Commissar Vanishes (1999)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Barbican Centre, Warwick Arts Centre, Michael Nyman Ltd

Audio Visual Work based on the book by David King. Video by Christopher Kondek
Exclusive to the Michael Nyman Band
Unavailable for performance.

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  • 45 min

Programme Note

Based on the book by David King
Video by Christopher Kondek

From Icarus to Commissar

The music originated precisely ten years earlier as The Fall of Icarus, an evening-length dance work choreographed and directed by Frédéric Flammand. When The Fall of Icarus fell out of the repertory, I decided to re-distribute the score’s wealth in a different theatrical context (even though some of the music featured successfully in Michael Nyman concerts in the mid 90’s). The score attached itself willing to a number of potential projects – of which the first was Death Italian Style, which contrasted the opulently humorous, self-laudatory style of Etruscan burials with the brutally mummified clothed corpses found in the Convento dei Cappuccini tombs in Palermo: and the last would explore the works of Rodchenko within the context of the role played by experimental artists in (what was to become) the repressive Soviet regime.

As part of my background research I discovered David King’s book The Commissar Vanishes in 1997. And, just as a review of Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat opened a window for me on neurology (and led to my first opera in 1986), so David King’s book instantly and definitively became the only possible home for the Icarus score. Amongst the intriguing retouched political photographs were, as luck would have it, an extraordinary series of "works” by Rodchenko himself which no art historian was aware of until King discovered them in the artist’s studio in 1984. The obliteration of photographs of discredited, removed, banished, murdered politicians was of harrowing power. The shift from Rodchenko the artist-photographer, through Rodchenko the defacer (literally de-facer) of photographs of politicians portrayed in his own book Ten Years of Uzbekistan, to the whole culture of erasure which Soviet citizens were obliged to participate in, was accomplished with alacrity. Access to David King’s archive revealed an even richer collection of suitable photographs. These became the raw material for Chris Kondek’s two-screen video display which accompanies the score. Musically, The Commissar Vanishes is a re-organised re-ordered edit of The Fall of Icarus. The "subject shift” is less awkward, for instance, than that of Memorial, which slipped rather uneasily into the soundtrack of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover in 1989. The translation of Icarus into Commissar works well on both the metaphorical and musical levels. First, the concept of "fall” is self-evidently not inappropriate to the plight of citizens and politicians who were purged by Stalin; "erasure” is a highly suitable analogy for an editing process which purged material deemed unsuitable for the subject matter: and the musical content quite often seems more appropriate to Rodchenko’s overpainting and citizens’ ink obliterations than to Icarus, its original subject – especially the grim opening section of "Jealousy and Revenge”, which is used as a kind of Commissar "signature”. And, incidentally, the subtitle for the Fall of Icarus was Disaster/Utopia.

The Fall of Icarus was one of a number of dance works for which I composed scores in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s – for instance, and do they do (choreographed by Siobhan Davies, 1987), Miniatures (Shobana Jeyasingh, 1988), and The Princesse de Milan (Karine Saporta, 1991), which in 1993 I transformed into an "opera”, ‘Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs’.

The Fall of Icarus was written in 1989 and was a collaboration between Frédéric Flammand (diviser, choreographer), Fabrizio Plessi (scenic video sculptor) and Michael Nyman (composer) and was performed by the dancers of Plan K and the Michael Nyman Band at the Théatre de la Monnaie in Brussels.

Frédéric Flammand has explained that the work was derived from "the famous, enigmatic painting by Breughel the Elder entitled Landscape with Fall of Icarus. Icarus, an emblematic figure of the artist in crisis of his technique, drags us away with his insane gesture into a free space. Nice actor/dancers – nine Icaruses – present a polyphony of electric images, music, choreography, video construction, contrasting actions and dumb shows. Propelled by Michael Nyman’s endless and impassioned musical constructions through a labyrinth of cathodes and the raw solemnity of Fabrizio Plessi’s video environments, Icarus disorientates our perceptions, the better to draw us into his inner reality.”

Flammand continues, "The Fall of Icarus crystallises our most insistent phantasms – the intimations of imminent catastrophe, the obsession with a technical utopia – in order to subvert them. Reminders of never ending human powers of creation and desire, metaphysical terror, the illusory newness of our ideal communities, all this is to be found in a vast fresco which also contains flashes of humour, lightning, cascades, in a vertiginous landscape where the confrontation takes place between memory and the imagery of media.

The music was written less in response to Flammand’s ideas or choreography than to Fabrizio Plessi’s stunning images and scenography – the stage full of revolving sculptor’s tables topped by translucent fibreglass wings; huge, menacing, hollow steel triangular structures that the dancers ran up and down noisily; or huge revolving mill wheel with built-in TV monitors showing global weather images.

It is worth noting that the full stage version of The Fall of Icarus also contained, at the choreographer’s request, versions of some earlier pieces of mine, Plotting for the Shopkeeper, Lady in the Red Hat (from a Zed and Two Noughts), and The Garden is Becoming a Robe Room (from the Draughtsman’s Contract).

Michael Nyman