Michael Nyman

Michael Nyman by Nicola Jennings

Michael Nyman (b. 1944) is an English composer of minimalist music, pianist, and musicologist, known for the many film scores he wrote during his lengthy collaboration with the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, and his soundtrack album to Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano.’ He has composed operas, concertos, string quartets, and many other chamber works, many for his Michael Nyman Band, with and without whom he tours as a performing pianist. Nyman has stated his preference for writing opera to other sorts of music.

In 1969, he provided the libretto for Harrison Birtwistle’s opera, ‘Down by the Greenwood Side’ and directed the short film ‘Love Love Love’ (based on, and identical length to, The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’) before settling into music criticism, where he is generally acknowledged to have been the first to apply the term ‘minimalism’ to music (in a 1968 article in The Spectator magazine about the English composer Cornelius Cardew).

Nyman drew frequently on early music sources in his scores for Greenaway’s films: Henry Purcell in ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ and ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover,’ Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber in ‘A Zed and Two Noughts,’ Mozart in Drowning by Numbers, and John Dowland in ‘Prospero’s Books,’ largely at the request of the director. Nyman says he discovered his aesthetic playing the aria, ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ on his piano in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis, which ‘dictated the dynamic, articulation and texture of everything I’ve subsequently done.’ He has scored numerous films, the majority of them European art films, including several of those directed by Peter Greenaway. His few forays into Hollywood have been ‘Gattaca,’ ‘Ravenous’ (with musician Damon Albarn), and ‘The End of the Affair.’ He has produced a soundtrack for the silent film ‘Man with the Movie Camera.’

Many of Nyman’s works are written for his own ensemble, the Michael Nyman Band, a group formed for a 1976 production of Carlo Goldoni’s ‘Il Campiello.’ Originally made up of old instruments such as rebecs and shawms alongside more modern instruments like the saxophone in order to produce as loud a sound as possible without amplification, it later switched to a fully amplified lineup of string quartet, three saxophones, trumpet, horn, bass trombone, bass guitar and piano. This line up has been variously altered and augmented for some works. Nyman also published an influential book in 1974 on experimental music called ‘Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond,’ which explored the influence of John Cage on classical composers.

In the 1970s, Nyman was a member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia — the self-described World’s Worst Orchestra — playing on their recordings and in their concerts. He was the featured pianist on the orchestra’s recording of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ on the Martin Lewis-produced ’20 Classic Rock Classics’ album on which the Sinfonia gave their unique interpretations of the pop and rock repertoire of the 1950s-1970s. Nyman created a similar group called Foster’s Social Orchestra, which specialized in the work of Stephen Foster. One of their pieces appeared in the film Ravenous and an additional work, not used in the film, appeared on the soundtrack album.

In a collaboration with friends Max Pugh and Marc Silver, Nyman is now beginning to exhibit his films and photography. Nyman’s video works are filmed with a hand-held camera, often before and after concerts and as part of his international travels, featuring everyday moments. Some works are left relatively unedited whilst others undergo split screens and visual repetition. Soundtracks to some of the video works use location sounds, whilst others recycle existing scores from his archive or a combination of both. In 2009, Nyman released ‘The Glare,’ a collaborative collection of songs with David McAlmont, which cast his work in a new light. The album – recorded with the Michael Nyman Band – finds McAlmont putting lyrics based on contemporary news stories to 11 pieces of Nyman music drawn from different phases of his career.

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