On Friday night, 17 May 2002, Militant Esthetix organised a picket of Michael Nyman at the Royal Festival Hall, London, complaining about his innumerable crimes against music and the historical muddle and faux gravitas of his dire staging of David King's wonderful book The Commissar Vanishes. In the interests of reducing all cultural experience to the format of TV, Nyman had Christopher Kondek (claim to fame, work with Laurie Anderson) make a video of the images in King's book. Nyman not only had the gall to run his abysmal excuse for contemporary multi-media art at the Barbican in December 1999 (panned in Socialist Review no 237, January 2000), he was now presenting it again, coupled with a showing of Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera ruined by adding a live soundtrack. SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE!!!

The text of our leaflet, distributed to about 200 attendees, appears below. The issues were a little complex for immediate response. When we said we were there to complain about Nyman's travesty of history, people responded by either saying "oh, dear" or "how interesting". One couple said "Oh, Nyman, is he the composer? We've come to see the Russian films". It make you wonder how "popular" Nyman actually is: only one member of the public screwed the paper up into a Martin Creed-style ball, threw it on the ground and said "bullshit!", but she was a goth. Her outburst was the only sign of any musical avidity on the part of attenders. Picketers were Out To Lunch, Philip Clark, Harry Gilonis and K. Pidgeon (comradely greetings were received from Esther Leslie, who was teaching, and Chris Bohn, who was visiting his girlfriend in hospital and Paul Obermeyer, who was taking a train to Exeter). We desisted as the concert started (the idea was not to turn punters away, but to create a discussion about what really happened to the Russian Revolution), and went for a couple of pints under Waterloo Bridge. Any suggestions for further actions, please drop a line to <>.

The leaflet:


Michael Nyman's The Commissar Vanishes is a staging of David King's The Commissar Vanishes: the Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia. Published in 1997 by Canongate, King's book was the result of three-decades obsessional search for the originals of photographs which the stalinist regime cropped, retouched and travestied. The "commissar" who vanished was Leon Trotsky. In naming his book after the leader of the 1917 insurrection, King made clear his commitment to the Russian Revolution. King's politics are admirable. He was active in the Anti-Nazi League in the 70s and 80s, and helped design their propaganda. The ANL's typeface and arrow owe their impact to King's interpretation of the constructivist legacy of Rodchenko.


According to the imbecile reviewer at The Guardian, Nyman's score has "unremitting force", while the slide show is "unflinching stuff, horrific to watch". The transferred epithet "unflinching" is meant to describe the heroic stance of sophisticated Barbican and South Bank audiences, prepared to face "horrors" ignored by the unwashed masses. This is simply yuppie self-congratulation. Christopher Kondek's multi-video screening is an "intuitive response" (his term) to the images in King's book. In other words, Kondek purloins their aura of social crisis without bothering to convey King's carefully-constructed arguments. The point is that Stalin was so hostile to the revolutionary proletarian internationalism of the original Bolshevik Party, he not only had to destroy the rest of the central committee and every leading rank-and-file member, but had to travesty history, air-brush photographs and commission fraudulent historical paintings, drawings and woodcuts. Kondek concentrates on the blotted heads of Rodchenko's own copy of Ten Years Of Uzbekistan, private manifestations of the fear induced by Stalin's police state. Horror and despair become excuses for liberal complacency.

Michael Nyman's music - taken from his ballet The Fall Of Icarus and cynically topped and tailed for the occasion (in pre-concert discussions Nyman boasts about "recycling this slab of music") - shamelessly plagiarises Stravinsky to confirm cliches about "Russian melancholy". In an attempt to match the gravitas of Steve Reich's Different Trains, sepia pictures of flat-capped masses from the 30s summon regretful sobs about holocaust, revolution and war. At one point in Kondek's video, a photograph of Stalin is faded poignantly, completely losing the pertinence of King's retrieval of the facts about counter-revolution in Russia.

The message of Nyman's sententious homily is: there were atrocities in the past, it's all very sad, everyone involved is dead now anyway, we shall all die too, let's weep into our own graves. Sentimentality about death has become a new ideology for justifying social inequality and exploitation. King's book exposed Stalin's lies: it's also very funny. Nyman's version is phony pity laced with gothic voyeurism. As new waves of refugees flee US and UK bombs dropped on Afghanistan, there are plenty of current "horrors" we can actually DO something about. Blurred by self-regarding tears and their "unflinching" self-righteousness, Nyman's audience are not allowed to grasp who did what to whom, and why.

Nyman's opportunism in the area of modern composition is notorious. Using "postmodernist" ideology to justify his lack of originality, he turns baroque cliches into yuppie Techno. Terrified of the hard-left rigour of our real composers (Finnissy, Barrett, Dench, Dillon), the establishment put an Ersatz on the art pedestal. Now Nyman's politics stand revealed as equally casual and vacuous.

Stalinism was the victory of mediocrity - the interests of a class of state-capitalist exploiters - over the egalitarian ideals of the revolution. Nyman's mediocrity is the soundtrack to a class of New Labour scoundrels who have used the name of socialism to cut hospitals and schools, bomb poor countries and corral refugees.


Issued by in the cause of anti-capitalism and world revolution.

The picket:

K. Pidgeon, Philip Clark, Out To Lunch and Harry Gilonis




Get You Back Home