Commissioned by Festival Internacional de Musica y Danza de Granada & Instituto Nacional de las Artes Escenicas y de la Music (Madrid)
After I left the Royal Academy of Music in 1964 I became a Ph.D student of the finest English musicologist of his generation, Thurston Dart, who had just opened the first-ever music department at King's College, London. Although my field of study was English popular contrapuntal repetitive music of the 16th and 17th centuries ('rounds, canons and catches'), I also became a scholarly editor - Stainer and Bell published my new edition of Purcell's 'Catches' and Eulenburg Handel's 'ConcertI Grossi Op.6' in the late 60s.
When I ceased to be a musicologist, I became a music critic (in 1968) and I became a composer in 1976 (and ceased to be a music critic).
As a composer I have constantly turned to baroque music as the source of my own music - Monteverdi, John Bull, Giovanni Coperario, Purcell, Biber, Couperin, Handel amongst others.
Only one single work of mine takes Bach as a starting point - 'Balancing the Books' for the Swingle Singers, which is a kind of 'oscillation' between the two C sharp major Preludes from the '48 Preludes and Fugues'.
The new work I have been commissioned (by Festival Internacional de Musica y Danza de Granada & Instituto Nacional de las Artes Escenicas y de la Musica) to premiere in Granada and Madrid is entitled 'Nyman's Goldberg Variations' - as distinct, I suppose, from 'Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations'. I have never heard anything other than the 'Aria', the theme on which Bach bases his variations and have only read about Gould's two iconic recordings and read nothing of what he has written about 'his' 'Goldberg Variations'. But it occurred to me that what I understand are major differences between Gould's two performances have little or nothing to do with scholarly research into baroque 'performance style' through reference to the writings of Bach's contemporaries, but simply to the development of a different 'feel' towards the music he was passionate about throughout his whole life.
So, as a performer, this 'permission' enables me to respond totally subjectively to Bach-as-Nyman - without referring to those late baroque performance manuals I read when I was a musicologist and 'scholarly' editor.
But as a composer I have chosen to be simultaneously very strict and, through chance procedures, very free in relationship to Bach's 'Goldberg Variations'.
The Aria consists of two sections of 16 bars, each repeated, and each of the 30 variations which follow (apart from changes from major to minor) rather remarkably repeat, absolutely without harmonic variation, to the precise chord structure of the Aria. So this made the 'strict' part of my compositional process totally appropriate to the random [and very tedious and mechanical] 're-ordering' of Bach's bars, strictly according to the harmonic sequence and randomly in terms of the succession of those bars. So that, for instance - to explain the 'system' the 'Nyman' Variation one is constructed as follows:
bar 1 from Bach's variation 1, bar 2 from variation 14, 3 from 11, 4 from 7, 5 from 30, 6 from 29, 7 from 12, 8 from 2, 9 from 9, 10 from 4, 11 from 7, 12 from 22, 13 from 11, 14 from 4, 15 from 14 and 16 from 1. So that, within the uniformity of the fixed harmonic sequence, there is maximum diversity of tempo, colour, range, figuration etc as each single 'variation' is potentially drawn more or less simultaneously, anti-developentally, from the complete sequence that Bach presents as a developing process throughout the work.