Michael Nyman

The British film composer who’s composed scores for films like The Piano and Gattaca alongside developing his minimalistic style.

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Michael Nyman photo by Ernesto Ruscio and Getty Images
Photo: Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

Michael Nyman is that rare thing. An artist who can work within the classical field while maintaining a popular appeal. His music has always challenged in the best possible sense but he has managed to transfer his sound to a wider arena. One can’t really distil his essence that simply but it’s significant that he is happy discussing The Beatles, The Pet Shop Boys or his beloved Queens Park Rangers, say, as he is immersing himself in opera, Mozart and John Cage. If the term Renaissance man is too often bandied about, at least in Nyman’s case the central focus holds.

His soundtrack work for the movies of Peter Greenaway resulted in a lengthy and fruitful partnership that takes in seminal scores for The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and A Zed And Two Noughts but since that time he has enjoyed an ongoing heyday – proving startling music for The Piano, Man On Wire, Wonderland, The Actors and a host of other well-received, award-winning projects. An evidently important figure in modern British music our catalogue reveals his range and is ripe for discovery. Nyman was made a CBE in 2008.

Michael Laurence Nyman is a Londoner from the old East End of Stratford. Educated in Walthamstow and Kings’s College, London his studies concentrated on piano and seventeenth-century baroque, enduring inspirations for much of his subsequent career. Having provided the libretto for Harrison Birtwhistle’s opera Down by the Greenwood Side he became a respected critic and is credited with coining the term ‘minimalist music’ in an article about Cornelius Cardew. The phrase is now so widely used it’s worth tracking it to source although the ever-modest Nyman would rather mention his groundbreaking interview with George Brecht in 1976, which remains the definitive one.

In 1976 the young Nyman released his debut Decay Music on Brian Eno‘s Obscure Records label. Eno also produced this piano and percussion disc, which contains three pieces constructed to suggest gradual breakdown. It remains a minimalist masterpiece and the liner notes, by the composer and producer, offer the best possible gateway to what will follow.

Early music sources provided Michael Nyman with the inspiration for his Greenaway period. The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) was based on Henry Purcell and some key architectural drawings; it also credited Purcell as ‘music consultant’. The first piece, ‘Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds’ is stunning in the film and has since been sampled and performed by Nyman in various forms and by other ensembles directly indebted to him. The Pet Shop Boys and Divine Comedy have utilised the theme, which is based on Purcell’s opera King Arthur. Other momentous tracks include ‘The Disposition of the Linen’, ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Bravura in the Face of Grief’.

The Kiss and Other Movements, a glorious melange of art music, soundtrack and recital pieces gives full rein to the Michael Nyman Band whose members then numbered Alexander Balanescu, John Groves and Andrew Findon amongst others. ‘Water Dances’ from the album was utilised by Greenaway in his 1984 film Making A Splash. Dagmar Krause brings her dark clarity to bear on ‘The Kiss’ – an operatic duet – while the comic Nose-List Song is extracted from Nyman’s opera for Tristram Shandy. A Zed And Two Noughts is another supreme slice of minimalist contemporary soundtrack for Greenaway. Featuring Nyman Band live favourites like ‘Time Lapse’ and ‘Prawn’ watching this collaboration with producer David Cunningham brought Nyman to an ever-growing audience and he was as likely to be found in the pages of The Face as he was in any more high brow classical publications.

Drowning By Numbers (1988) was composed for Greenaway with the proviso being that its themes are bound to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E flat. True to his word Nyman provided the film-maker with a sonically adventurous suite, including ‘Trysting Fields’ and numbered pieces that make subtle reference to key bars in the Mozart piece – but the listener doesn’t necessarily need to know such details to appreciate the beauty of the work provided by the Nyman Band.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is amongst Nyman’s best-known and most-loved works. Not surprisingly the film itself was a box-office hit rather than an art-house cult and Nyman’s evocative and incisive score had a lot to do with its impact. Key pieces here are ‘Book Depository’ and ‘Memorial’. Musically and emotionally influenced by Henry Purcell and the composer’s reaction to the 1986 football Heysel Stadium disaster, the album is also noted for the London Voices work on ‘Miserere’ with Paul Chapman’s boy soprano providing a key element in the film itself. Following a liaison with Ute Lemper on The Michael Nyman Songbook comes 1993’s The Piano. This original soundtrack accompanies the Academy Award-winning film and is a partial score re-recording made in Munich with members of the local Philharmonic Orchestra with key figures from the Band and Nyman on piano. Like all his celluloid works the album breathes its own air and this became a best seller that has lost none of its initial impact.

After Extra Time (aka AET for footie fans) comes from 1996 and while the title is familiar to those poring over the results it’s actually also a reference to Nyman’s first wife whose name is Aet. Recording with two ‘teams’ – namely the Band and another brass and strings quintet featuring Steve Sidwell on trumpet and Martin Elliott on bass guitar, the music within is one of three tributes to the round ball in Nyman’s astonishing repertoire – the others being The Final Score and Memorial.

The man’s list of recorded accomplishments doesn’t end there of course. We point you to 1999’s soundtrack for Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland, a light and sumptuous collection. It is also well worth checking out his contributions to The Actors (starring Michael Caine and Dylan Moran), The Nyman/Winterbottom team also give us the composer’s only soundtrack thus far for a western – The Claim, where he pays homage to Ennio Morricone and reworks some earlier themes while adding typically Ennio-like trumpet. Highly recommended and something of a cult item too since the box office takings didn’t exactly match the movie’s budget.

Six Days Six Nights is another splendid rarity composed and conducted by the maestro for the French movie A La Folie. Hard to discern in the film itself the album brings the music to life and is an essential part of his 1990s oeuvre. He also provided the companion music to The Commissar Vanishes, based on David King’s book about censorship in the Soviet Union, which is teamed on disc with background pieces for a Greenaway installation from the previous decade, The Fall of Icarus.

Adding further heft to the catalogue there’s, Live (recorded and released in 1984), the very first commercially available document of the MN Band captured in concert one two nights in Albacete and Madrid. The disc includes genuine favourites like ‘The Embrace’, tracks from The Piano and the superlative skills of the Moorish ‘Orquesta Andaluzi de Tetouan’. A real eye and mind opener, the air, light and space on this album ensure its position at the top of Nyman’s live work to date.

To complete an ongoing tale there is the indispensable The Very Best Of Michael Nyman Film Music 1980-2001 where Greenaway movie themes are integrated into a whole that offers the previously unreleased Homage to Maurice and similar must have curios from Monsieur HireThe End of the AffairGattaca and The Diary of Anne Frank. Segued alongside are compositions from The Essential Michael Nyman Band and his Live disc, providing a marvellous overview of some forty tracks on two Cds.

If minimalist music be the food of love – then bring it on. Michael Nyman is a national treasure and the very epitome of great modern British classical music, and then some. Check him out at once. You will be enthralled.

Words: Max Bell

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