Michael Nyman


Globe and Mail - The Man, the NYman and the Movie Camera - by James Bradshaw

Oct 22nd, 2010

Michael Nyman’s career was built for this.

The British composer and filmmaker brings his Michael Nyman Band to Toronto this weekend for performances of the soundtrack he set to Dziga Vertov’s seminal 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera. On Saturday, the band plays Nyman’s score for Vertov’s film; and on Sunday, they’ll perform it again to Nyman’s own scene-by-scene remake of the film, NYman With a Movie Camera, which Nyman created using images from his own archive.

The bespectacled, 66-year-old is a self-described minimalist composer with a varied and distinguished career – best known for scores for films such as Jane Campion’s The Piano and a long collaboration with filmmaker Peter Greenaway. But he’s beginning to think it was all building toward this.

“I feel like for my whole life I’ve been rehearsing to be a soundtrack composer for Vertov,” he says from the UK’s Warwick Arts Centre, where he’s also performing the piece.

Several composers had already created scores for Vertov’s film, an experimental silent documentary presenting a collage of images of day-to-day life in the Soviet Union of the 1920s.

So what hermetically sealed abode did Nyman retire to in order painstakingly to craft his own score worthy of Vertov’s masterpiece? Actually, it wasn’t like that. He’d already written most of the music as a soundtrack to the 1996 video game Enemy Zero, a space-based sci-fi game developed for the Sega Saturn game console. He edited his work to fit the sequences of Vertov’s images and was enthralled by the results.

“NYman With a Movie Camera is a second-generation found object, but it works perfectly. I think if I’d sat down with the Vertov [film] and had to write the score from scratch in response to those images, I would not actually have written anything quite as good as this.”

The score’s commercial origins are perhaps emblematic of Nyman’s venture, which at its heart is an exploration of how combining different soundtracks and seemingly disparate images can change their meaning. Vertov’s film alone is bursting with possible interpretations, which are only multiplied when they’re married with music. Change the music or change the images (as Nyman has done), and one is left with a whole new set of challenging equations.

“I do think it’s unique artwork. It’s not like remaking Psycho,” says Nyman, who needs little prodding to wax poetic about any scene from his film, but who dances away from questions about why he chose to make it.

Most of the images in Nyman’s film are drawn from his own archives, a miscellany of footage collected from his daily routine and shot long before he discovered Vertov’s film in 2003, and therefore not tailored to their ultimate use. They’re in colour, while Vertov shot in black and white, and though some scenes are obvious parallels, others are equally clear departures.

“I create new meanings not only in the relationship between my stuff and Vertov’s, but within my film,” Nyman says. “Fortunately, it’s not just a mechanistic replacement of like with near-like. It does develop a kind of message of its own.”

And then, just to further tangle the endless chain of interpretations, there’s the unpredictability of each live performance. Nyman says that, with the film playing alongside the band, each tiny slip off tempo has a “knock-on effect” that can quickly leave his 11-member mini-orchestra well off the pace and scrambling to catch up.

That element of happenstance is surely part of the allure of seeing the Michael Nyman Band play these works live. After all, these performances are a mashup of works that weren’t made for each other. Nevertheless, Nyman seems certain they were destined to come together.

“The nice thing about Vertov is he’s a very repetitive and self-quoting filmmaker, so that obviously encourages me to be repetitive and self-quoting, not that I need encouragement,” Nyman says. “So there’s a sort of meeting of minds.”

The Michael Nyman Band performs at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox at 8 p.m. on Saturday and at 1 p.m. on Sunday.


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