Fragmented Frequencies June 2011

Composer Michael Nyman is best known for his soundtrack work, and in particular the 1993 Jane Campion film The Piano, but prior to this he had a longstanding relationship with Peter Greenaway, and has since worked with Michael Winterbottom, Neil Jordan, Damon Albarn (Ravenous), even Andrew Niccol on the Hollywood sci fi blockbuster Gattaca.

In recent years he has moved away from film, not by choice, as he illustrated in a recent interview with ABC’s limelight magazine. “I think film music is fashion-oriented and there’s a fashion at the moment for rather anonymous, bland, interchangeable orchestral scores that I’m unable to write. So no one asks me to write them.”


As a result he’s been increasingly moving towards theatre, ballet, live performance and even opera. 1986’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, and 2000’s Facing Goya (MN/Select Audio Visual) are prime examples of this shift. Goya’s music is immediately recognizably Nyman, vibrant, hysterical, almost seeming to exist outside the text, still quite melodic and harmonic with ecstatic vocals, a series of suites that operates almost as a mosaic, with hints of themes appearing and reappearing later.
The opera stemmed from Nyman’s interest in craniometry, a subsequently disproved notion of the 1860’s apparently ‘scientific’ study of the size of the brain, where the shape and angle of the face was deemed an indication of the character and the personality of the individual. It’s an opera that takes painter Goya’s missing skull as a starting point, though delves into racial stereotyping, gene therapy, and cloning. And apparently it’s a thriller.

Nyman’s involvement in the germination and development of Facing Goya also demonstrates an increasing interest in moving beyond being simply a soundtrack composer and reflects his desire in recent years to develop as both a photographer and filmmaker. It’s the central theme of Sylvia Beck’s film Michael Nyman: Composer In Progress (Arthaus/ Select Audio Visual), a film that captures Nyman at a unique moment in time.

“Michael often puts himself under pressure,” offers one of cohorts early on. “If you don’t challenge yourself you don’t progress.”

The film charts Nyman’s travels through London, Berlin, Mexico, Poland and the Netherlands, through his daily routines, photographic exhibitions, rehearsals and also performances with his Michael Nyman band,
“Playing Michael’s music hurts. It hurts my arm,” offers his violin player, “for the brass players their faces look like they’ll burst and we’ve had trombonists who’s lips have bled.” It’s because Nyman wants it louder, more violent than traditional classical music, and he keeps pushing his ensemble. Behind those tortoise rimmed glasses is a sadist. It’s the combination of the repetitive elements, with the high intensity of the music that make his live ensemble so compelling, as they tour the world playing some of his famous scores.

When Steve Reich met Nyman he was working as a music critic, feeling unable to compose due to the atonal serialism that was so prevalent at the time. Nyman detested it, though Reich convinced him to follow his own path and we continue to bear witness to the results.

Beck’s film is a portrait of a restless creator, constantly attempting to push the boundaries both compositionally and creatively. Even members of his band aren’t always convinced initially when presented with his sheet music. At one point he reflects on the fact that he’s spent a large part of his life putting music to other peoples images. Maybe it’s a good time to take control and offer forth his version of the world.

Which may account for Michael Nyman Collections (MN/ Select Audio Visuals), which offers, a twenty-minute film of his photography and video art, scored of course by him. Whilst it’s clear the elder statesman in the relationship is the truly accomplished music, there’s something about the raw, at times naïve beauty in his photography. He’s also quite self-aware. In the film there’s a great moment where he asks a gallery owner if he’d still be exhibiting his photography if he weren’t Michael Nyman. The owner skips a beat before unconvincingly replying ‘of course.’

The cd features, a hardbound book of his photographs, alongside a twenty minute film entitled 50,000 Photographs Can’t Be Wrong, put to music, as well as a sampler of the first 16 albums released on his label.

The climax of Sylivia Becks’s film is an appearance at the Proms, a symbol of acceptance into the artistic elite for one of London’s most accomplished experimental and at times outsider artists. It seems after all these years, despite being less conventional than ever, Michael Nyman has finally made it.


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