A handshake in the dark

Michael Nyman (1944)

A handshake in the dark 2007

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Duration 
30
Language 
Commissioner 
Publisher 

The commission from the BBCSO more or less coincided with my discovery that the David Bomberg was not only the finest British painter in the first half of the twentieth century (and the subject of one of my next operas) but also a war poet of some distinction. So I decided to join the ranks of those composers who have worked with First World War texts as I began to set Bomberg’s horrifying ‘Winter Night’, which he wrote as a sapper in the Royal Engineers on the front line in 1916. But Bomberg’s text was too rhythmic, too vivid, too musical to require the application of an ‘external’ music.

So while hastily attempting to find an anti-war replacement for the Bomberg, a volume of translations called ‘Iraqi Poetry Today’ caught my eye to read at my leisure to try to understand the culture of a civilisation currently being destroyed by the US/UK invasion. Just idly flicking through the book I discovered Jamal Jumá’s quite remarkable ‘Letters to my Brother’, written during the First Gulf War and of which the poet has written:

“I wrote these poems when my little brother was a prisoner under the Gulf War in 1991. He was a soldier when the American army captured him and put him in a prisoner of war camp in the Arabian desert before they released him. As a reaction I wrote these poems during his detention as letters to him, letters he would never get. …These were difficult times for me, and the poems I wrote are to a great extent very personal; but I wanted to register this human tragedy, to archive it as a cry against war. This type of pain and loss should never be experienced again by any human being.”

In addition I was deeply impressed that in some almost throwaway lines, Jumá sketches in the global consequences of war:

“The Americans got their oil/The Russians ate meat to their fill/The Chinese got an abundance of neckties/And the Israelis more land”.

‘Iraqi Poetry Today’ clearly stated that the 11 published verses were from ‘Letters to my Brother’, but in the absence of any further information I set those 11 verses to music. At the point at which the sketches for the work were complete, I managed to contact Jamal, who instantly sent me the final 27(!) poems in the sequence, now reunited with its original title ‘A Handshake in the Dark’. Some of these poems were so powerful that I felt the need to include them in my piece which was effectively complete - so I decided, in a second draft, to combine and superimpose different texts from different parts of the poem. The author has generously accepted the unexpected principle of text superimposition:

“I see the texts now as a film in my mind. I think I am going to discover my text afresh in your hands”.

In the final section, verse 11, the ghost of Bomberg reappears in the form of a long canon for strings, the material of which is derived from the opening lines of ‘Winter Night’ that I had started setting.

© Michael Nyman 2007

Performances 
8.3.07 Barbican, London: BBC Symphony Chorus/BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Storgårds
3
Flute
3rd piccolo
3
Oboe
3rd cor anglais
3
Clarinet
3rd bass clarinet
3
Bassoon
3rd contrabassoon
4
Horn
3
Trumpet
3
Trombone
3rd bass trombone
1
Tuba
1
Piano
(Esc)