Polyphony Abounds

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989) | Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Allarts/Focus Features

Michael Nyman’s “Fish Beach” is an exceptionally simple work of composition. Viewed on the page, it may as well be a nursery rhyme: eight measures, each of them doubled, a two-note melody on the treble clef, a two-note chord on the bass. This cycle is played three times, adding complexity of arrangement and instrumentation with each repetition. And then the arrangement scales back, and the doubling of each measure is removed, compressing the cycle by half; the condensed form plays twice, and the piece is complete.

Yet there’s something deeply evocative about “Fish Beach,” particularly given the intentionally imperfect—intentionally human—performance by the Michael Nyman Band. The track starts off humble, gathers massive power, and then, as though catching itself, it reverts back to humility with newfound focus. “Fish Beach” takes the listener on a full emotional journey, just by tracing and retracing the same handful of notes.

As with so much of Nyman’s idiosyncratic work—too classically-inflected to be widely embraced by pop audiences; too pop-simple to be widely regarded by classical musicologists—you’ve probably never heard anything quite like it. But if you’re like so many listeners captivated by his particular style, it probably touches some emotional nerve you’ve never felt touched quite this way before.

“Fish Beach” was composed for the 1988 film Drowning by Numbers, part of an intensely fruitful collaboration between Nyman and director Peter Greenaway. The two worked together early and often, and their legacies are largely intertwined, even as their unconventional collaborative philosophy generated a uniquely independent relationship between music and image. Nyman composed his work sequestered from Greenaway’s photography, yielding enigmatic and ambiguous effects; his scores function (to quote the m an himself) “independently of the film’s immediate content by creating sound structures which precisely parallel (but do not…reproduce) the visual structures.”

Given its intentional malleability to imagery, Nyman’s work has been frequently reappropriated in varied and exciting ways—Joe Talbot used a selection from his “Musique à grande vitesse” for the ecstatic opening sequence of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and the music so thrillingly enhances the image that viewers often reflexively assign it to Emile Mosseri, who composed the bulk of the score, even as the piece was actually created to celebrate the completion of a Parisian train line. 

“Fish Beach” has its own rich history of re-use; it was featured in the documentary Man on Wire, and sampled by Swedish singer Jay-Jay Johanson for his 1996 track “I’m Older Now.” But there are two instances of re-use that seem so utterly opposed—one a baroque tragedy that’s hyper-violent, hyper-sexual, and in all other ways hyperbolically excessive; the other a largely conventional documentary on perhaps the definitional avatar of gentle decency—that it’s at first hard to believe they could share anything at all. Yet a deeper shared resonance can be drawn out thanks to the particular ways that Nyman’s style of composition works upon picture and viewer. 

A year after Drowning by Numbers, Greenaway featured “Fish Beach” in his 1989 international breakout, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. This ornately grotesque tale concerns two people, both seemingly driven to near-muteness by the crudeness and cruelty around them, who fall in love at first sight and find their consciousness activated by that passion. Georgina (the titular wife of Albert, the titular thief, who is the owner of the fine dining restaurant of the titular chef) is drawn to bookseller Michael (her titular lover, and a frequent patron of Albert’s establishment) with an alarming, even inexplicable passion. As they commence regular trysts in whatever hidden corner of the restaurant they can find, their coupling is urgent, always threatened by Albert’s potential discovery and violent retribution. Given the story’s claustrophobic milieu fraught with constant hostility (widely read as an allegory for the English condition under Thatcherism) it’s hard to imagine that the love between Georgina and Michael is anything but doomed. And, indeed, it isn’t long before Michael is murdered with exacting savagery, leading Georgina to take a particularly gruesome form of ironic revenge before shooting Albert in cold blood.

“Fish Beach” is threaded throughout the sonic tapestry of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, serving to accompany every step of Georgina and Michael’s relationship. As emblematic of their love as the animals’ themes in “Peter and the Wolf,” the humble, cycling cue accompanies the lovers’ reckless moments of stolen passion in bathrooms and storerooms. It accompanies their desperate flight once Albert does catch on, as they huddle nude in a truck amidst rank, decaying food waste. And then, far too soon, it accompanies Georgina’s discovery of Michael’s desecrated corpse.

Thus, by the time of the final cut to black, “Fish Beach” has accrued compounding significance This is the sound of desire, of bliss, of tentative hope, and of mourning; all of these feelings and more are detectable between the staves of Nyman’s composition. The cue becomes a uniting thread, drawing together the theme of love as a transformative force amidst this culture of wretchedness and hate. Love grants Georgina and Michael the power of expression, and it grants Georgina the power to strike back against the architect of her pain, transformations that seem to be extracted from the characters by this simple musical theme. Nyman’s work precedes their ability to give voice to their own feelings, alerting us to what’s in their hearts before they’re capable of telling each other, or even themselves.

“Fish Beach” appears just once in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the critically acclaimed documentary on the life and work of Fred Rogers. The film became a feel-good tearjerker sensation in 2018, with Nyman’s cue centralized in the marketing to help remind adults of all that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had meant to them as children, and perhaps still did. And as in Greenaway’s film, “Fish Beach” signals transformation in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, with the titanic significance of a seemingly simple anecdote being telegraphed via this scrap of score. 

Rogers, glimpsed in verité interview footage presumably shot sometime in the 1960s, recalls visiting a nursery school class, where a young boy approached him warily. Offering what seemed in retrospect like a test, the boy prompted Rogers to help him make sense of the recent destruction of a beloved toy; in helping one child give shape and form to a confusing newfound sorrow, Rogers gained the approval of the entire class. Looking back on that day, he describes feeling as though the children had told him, “We shall now open the door. You have passed the test, you may come in.”

This, according to the narrative logic of the film, is the turning point in Rogers’ life and career, spurring him to accept the responsibility of helping children navigate their disorganized emotional peaks and valleys and guide them towards the power of trust and connection. With “Fish Beach” surging underneath, a spark is lit that might have the power to change the world by virtue of reaching untold multitudes of individual children: the creation of “the neighborhood.” As much a philosophy as a television gimmick, Rogers saw his neighborhood as representing how community and unconditional love can lend shape to unstable feelings. The neighborhood, according to Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center, is not a space that promises “happily ever after.” Rather, it allows for, and even thrives upon, “conflict, real conflict.”

The power of community emerges as an unexpected thread within The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, not fully coalescing until the final moments. When Georgina mounts her revenge against Albert, she does so flanked by an ensemble of the downtrodden, the characters her husband has harmed through either neglect or assault across the preceding two hours. While it may at first seem nihilistic that Georgina’s story ends with her committing stone-faced murder, her journey from passivity to engagment has reconfigured her into an avenging angel for an oppressed class.

The innocence of Albert’s victims is most powerfully symbolized by Pup, the young dishwasher whose unimaginable purity manifests in his heavenly soprano. After the viewer comes to know him through his repeated belting of Psalm 51 (“Wash me from my iniquity”), Pup is tortured to the point of hospitalization by Albert and his goons, and it’s during Georgina’s visit to his bedside that Michael is murdered. By aligning herself with this child and all he represents—by breaking her pattern of silent suffering to extend support and sympathy—Georgina becomes purified, even as she becomes ruthless. And these paired transformations are possible only because she’s been graced, perhaps for the first time, by love.

In Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Rogers clarifies that despite his unshakably cheerful demeanor, he does not see himself as any sort of blind optimist. Rather, he proceeds from the foundational belief that “the only thing that ever really changes the world is when somebody gets the idea that love can abound.” This is precisely what’s happened to Georgina, as by accepting love she becomes capable of expressing and amplifying that love, granting her the power to fight back against the world’s ugliness on a personal scale. 

The world’s ugliness is a distinct point of focus in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, not only in the acknowledgment of the violent realities that Rogers made mentionable and manageable for children (from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy to the Vietnam War to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001), but in the reminder of a 2007 news cycle that saw Fox News brand him “an evil, evil man.” Their voices laced with righteous fury, the hosts of morning show Fox & Friends condemned Rogers (who’d by then been dead four years) for his closing refrain: “You’ve made this day a special day just by being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” Catastrophic levels of entitlement were created, the hosts claimed, by telling children they were innately special—“Why didn’t he just say, ‘Y’know what…keep working on yourself.’”

As Li counters in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it should by no means be controversial to suggest that every human life has inherent value. But it’s exactly this basic awareness that so many systems of power are designed to suppress, as those prone to question their worth are easiest to control. This messaging is a form of abuse as acute as the personal abuse Albert heaps upon Georgina, no less destructive for being widespread and depersonalized. And the truest way of defying that abuse is to commit to the radical and transformative act of love, no matter the risk. Even if that defiance takes the form of a clandestine tryst in a pantry with the only person who’s ever made you feel truly valued, love is abounding, energy being released into the universe despite how hopeless this small act of subversiveness may seem.

If the deceptive simplicity of “Fish Beach” can be seen as fundamentally representative of any particular idea, according to musicologist Pwyll ap Siôn, it’s “unity and solidarity.” In those eight humble measures, Siôn wrote in his 2016 book, The Music of Michael Nyman, the treble line replicates the bass line, the theme is simultaneously stated and variated, “harmony becomes melody while at the same time being ‘heard against itself in augmentation.'”

Music was key to Fred Rogers’ emotional cosmology. In Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, he is seen discussing the shame and discouragement he felt as a child over his inability to express himself verbally. But, he discovered, “I could show [my feelings] through the way I would play on the piano.” Thus, he came to see the shifts between notes and chords as ideal representations of the shifts between unspeakably turbulent emotions. Music can so often create these alchemical effects, generating massive emotional power despite being—or, perhaps, because it is—nonverbal.

Thanks to Michael Nyman, two works that seem absolutely divergent quite literally share a theme. And that link evokes a deeper shared theme: the world is capable of brazen cruelty, and that cruelty may well be the triumphant force. But with what brief time we have here, we can love, an act that’s all the more radically important for how little it may seem to change on a broad scale. “Fish Beach,” this quivering, fragile cycle of notes—“the repeated sound of something beautiful and doomed,” as Sean T. Collins described it in Pitchfork—gives voice to that small but ferocious yawp.

A complex and soaring symphonic movement would fail to truly represent the hesitant yet thrilling discoveries made by Georgina, Michael, and Mister Rogers. In that simple round, you might hear the sound of simple hope: you can be a neighbor. You can experience the most intense of passions in the most unlikely of places. You can live as hard as you can for as long as you’re able. You can make each day special just by being you.