Bafta-winning composer Michael Nyman explains why he was inspired by Felixstowe for his latest score.
His score for The Piano is probably his most famous work. His new work, On Landguard Point, premieres at the Spa Pavilion in the town as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, funded by Arts Council England.
Watch the (partial) video interview here.
Celebrated composer and film-maker Michael Nyman premieres his latest work in Felixstowe tomorrow. Entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to him about the unusual way it came about.
Michael Nyman will unveil a world premiere work titled Doing the Rounds at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music as the Con’s International Marquee Composer 2011.
When: May 27 - 28, 2011
By Thomas Britt | 16 December 2010 | Popmatters
How does anyone sit still during a performance by the Michael Nyman Band? So insistent, so physical, is the English composer’s music that members of his band admit to struggling to endure a single selection, let alone an entire concert. Many of the players nod and sway wildly, maneuvering through the repetitive notes. In return for these endurance tests, they are met with perfectly still, deferential audiences. Perhaps the calmness is a sign of respect, but if any music ever deserved a pogoing crowd, it is Nyman’s.
Of course, the classical music world in which Nyman exists is a rather closed, calm world. Closed, at times, it seems, even to the esteemed composer himself. His insider/outsider status is one of the ideas raised, but not fully explored, in Sylvia Beck’s Michael Nyman—Composer in Progress. The documentary is an all-too conventional portrait of an extraordinary artist, but the film’s occasionally surprising insights and revelations do bring us briefly inside the world of the composer as he continues to grow beyond the zones for which he’s most well known.
Having achieved acclaim and commercial success with film scores for Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract and Jane Campion’s The Piano, Nyman enjoys the benefits of being known to a wide audience, but he’s not necessarily embraced by the exclusive audience that many composers seek. In other words, many casual music listeners/filmgoers can hum along to selections from The Piano, but that doesn’t translate into acceptance from the classical music elite. As evidence of this struggle for status, the film positions his inclusion in the 2009 BBC Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall as a belated and hard-won vindication. Although Beck concludes with this suggestion of a career triumph, the film is ultimately too episodic to link such a high point with a comprehensive arc of Nyman’s life and work. More interesting are observations about what inspires and defines the composer’s creations and motivates him to seek new artistic experiences.
Interviews with Nyman and his band members reflect a passion for constantly pushing the limits of composition and performance. His passion is genuine, triggered by an early fixation with Mozart that transformed into an aggressive piano style. Carsten Nicolai, an artist and musician who appears in the documentary, describes this style as “machine like… very dense and even manic.” Nyman’s band members, many of whom have played with him for two decades, take up the mantle of pursuing music that, according to trombonist Nigel Barr, is nearly “impossible” to play. Violinist Gaby Lester says, “Playing Michael’s music hurts. It hurts my arm.” She admits to faking it during loud brass parts so that her arm doesn’t wear out. The trombonists, she says, don’t have the opportunity to sit anything out, and the result is that their lips have been known to bleed from the effort.
These testimonials—set to “An Eye for Optical Theory”, a mainstay of the band’s set that baritone saxophonist Andy Findon says is difficult to even imagine playing live—could make Nyman seem like a joyless taskmaster. Though he does appear to want maximum control over performances of his compositions, he is good natured and complimentary of the band and their skills. His music also provides them with the unique opportunity to really “play out”. Barr comments that the Michael Nyman Band is the only place a brass player can play so loud and not be told to quiet down.
The picture of Nyman that emerges in these interviews is that of a man who has figured out the precise sound he wants to hear and assembled the right people for the job. On his own, however, he’s more adventurous. We see his recent forays into photography and video art, which he describes as a way to “turn passing reality into objects”. His visual work has an unmistakable beginner’s quality—a fact he acknowledges as he asks a gallery owner whether he would have received such an exhibition if his name weren’t Michael Nyman. In another scene, he sits at a table with his brother David and takes digital photographs of old family pictures. At a piano store, he requests the “worst” piano and is led to the basement, where he plays a purposefully, humorously atonal selection from The Piano. All of these scenes reveal his youthful enchantment with art, music, and the mundane objects of life that are easy to overlook. This quest for new inspiration keeps the composer “in progress”, and Beck’s film is most effective when the cameras run parallel to Nyman’s present search rather than trumpet his history.
Included in the box set with Michael Nyman—Composer in Progress is another DVD, Michael Nyman In Concert. While the documentary is a functional overview of the composer, the concert DVD is by far the better feature, as we see the Michael Nyman Band at full speed. Recorded on 22 October 2009 at Studio Halle, and directed by Oliver Becker, this concert features the German premiere of “The Musicologist Scores” as well as several other highlights from Nyman’s career. Particularly well represented are scores for Peter Greenaway films The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed & Two Noughts, and Drowning by Numbers. Though there are a few bobbing heads in the audience at Studio Halle, most of those in attendance are respectfully still. However, the DVD release of Michael Nyman In Concert allows viewers at home to follow the lead of the Michael Nyman Band and move to the music. Home viewing also allows pausing to avoid exhaustion—a luxury unavailable to Nyman’s dedicated players.
Complete article: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/134567-michael-nyman-composer-in-progress-and-michael-nyman-in-concert/
The Italian group Belladonna has released a new song “Let There Be Light” which is based on Michael Nyman’s most famous composition “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” from The Piano. The single features Michael himself on piano, and is available for sale as an MP3 here http://www.amazon.co.uk/There-Light-feat-Michael-Nyman/dp/B004F9XBHQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1294286484&sr=8-1-catcorr
Nyman With A Movie Camera is a unique visual experiment that radically resamples Dziga Vertov’s fly-on-the-wall snapshot of life in Russia in 1929, and provides a glimpse into the preoccupation with human existence that drives one of our greatest living avant-garde composers. Taking Vertov’s original masterpiece, Man With A Movie Camera, as the basis for his film, Nyman has frame-by-frame replaced the original images with footage from his own extensive film archive, which has been shot all over the world. Although almost a century separates the two artists, both share an interest in shooting ordinary people unawares in the hope of capturing some kind of truth, and there are stunning parallels in both their process and results. Today we preview an exclusive clip and speak to Nyman about his experiences remixing Vertov’s classic film.
Michael Nyman: “Vertov’s principle of shooting life caught unawares is something I subconsciously reproduce in my own work. What I generally do is have the camera watch someone for a few minutes in a kind of unbroken sequence, such as a drunken man trying to tie his tie on a train at seven in the morning, but the situation with Nyman With a Movie Camera is that I parallel and replace each and every image in Vertov’s s film in the same sequence that he does – I follow his editing rhythm. The interesting thing is that in the original film there is a kind of narrative, and obviously the scenes have been mostly shot in one or two places at more or less the same time. The purpose of my film is not to present the same kind of coherent narrative that the original does – my stuff has been shot all over the world – so it does actually tend to fracture. In my archive, I found parallels with Vertov’s film but I set myself a rule that I wouldn’t set up a shoot just to find the equivalent. I do have little windows of the original just to show the incredible parallels between something I happened to shoot and something he shot. It’s a strange attempt at coherence though, because although in many respects the film is contained by the parameters of Man with A Movie Camera, the result is a kind of incoherence. It’s interesting that since I started composing music, I have always sampled and remixed the work of other composers, which in art is what the Chapmans did with Goya, and what Picasso did with Velázquez. This film is me doing that in a much larger sense visually, and with much more thrilling material.”
Nyman With A Movie Camera Is Touring Film Festivals All Over The World. Preview available here: http://www.anothermag.com/current/view/571/Michael_Nyman
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.
MICHAEL NYMAN WITH DAVID McALMONT
CITY HALLS, GLASGOW
By HIS own admission in the pre-show talk, composer Michael Nyman writes “tunes” and some of his very best were aired during this concert of two halves.
The first half featured a loud, invigorating selection of his audaciously stylised soundtrack
work for Peter Greenaway’s films.
The urgency and relentless momentum of the material made great physical demands on the players but the sheer gusto of Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds outweighed the slightly chaotic delivery, while the soprano saxophone refrain snaking insistently through An Eye For Optical Theory and the irresistible feral force of Miranda were riveting.
In the second half, Nyman unveiled a new and unexpected collaboration, forged through Facebook of all places, with the stunning yet underrated British soul singer David McAlmont, who has added his somewhat eccentric lyrics to existing Nyman works.
McAlmont arrived with bling on his fingers and a marvellous instrument to add to the mix, though one could argue that Nyman’s exquisite theme from The Piano needs no adornment.
At first, on Take the Money and Run, it sounded like McAlmont would have to fight his corner, using crisp phrasing rather than his usual sumptuous delivery to stay on top of the music.
Soon enough though, his vocal melodies were dancing over the insistent strings or reclining gracefully over a tremulous piano ballad.
And, although generally less idiosyncratic than the Greenaway partnership, Nyman and McAlmont have created, with In Rai Don Giovanni, surely the only composition ever to combine the influence of Mozart and The Scissor Sisters.
The prospect of composer Michael Nyman and vocalist David McAlmont onstage, together, was a delicious one.
Nyman is best known for his soundtrack work, while McAlmont is rightly famed for his vocal acrobatics.
Saturday night’s performance, part of the excellent Minimal festival, had two distinct strands. The first was essentially a Nyman hits package. What was striking was that the music has held up better than many of the movies. Firmly rooted in systems-based composition, Nyman weaves an intriguing web of compelling piano motifs over which the 11-piece band plays with considerable gusto. The opening number, Franklyn, from Wonderland, was a case in point. For all the talk of minimalism the Nyman band is, at times, reminiscent of an outdoor brass band: big, bold and gallus.
Out of context and on their own, it is easier to recognise some of the reference points which Nyman has absorbed. There were two offerings from Prospero’s Books: Come Unto These Yellow Sands, over which the ghost of Gil Evans hovers, while the wonderful Miranda echoes the lyricism of Gershwin.
The second set introduced McAlmont to perform songs recorded for an album, The Glare, using his lyrics set against previously recorded Nyman compositions. While the result was occasionally underwhelming, with McAlmont’s voice set deep in the mix and competing for attention with the band, when his voice took full flight, as in A Great Day In Kathmandu and The Coldest Place On Earth, the hairs on the back of your neck stood to attention. Immaculate phrasing and a voice as sweet as Curtis Mayfield’s are McAlmont’s calling cards, and where did he buy that bling?
Star rating: ****
One evening but two very different aspects: the world premiere of NYman With A Movie Camera, Michael Nyman’s shot-by-shot update of Dziga Vertov’s groundbreaking 1929 mash-up film, Man With A Movie Camera, with Nyman’s score — composed for both films — played live by the 66-year-old and his 11-strong mini-orchestra. Nyman’s film said little but the aural-visual experience was senses-stretching.
Before that, Nyman and band were joined by singer David McAlmont to perform their inspired The Glare album, where McAlmont wrote and sang lyrics based on news stories, with existing Nyman pieces as backdrops. Magically sung, impeccably played, the collaboration was as absorbing on the thunderous throb of Friendly Fire as both the slower, wounded In Laos and the peek into Susan Boyle’s inner hell that is The Glare itself.
But this was a missed opportunity. Nyman was an island, silent and playing piano with his back to the audience throughout.
Worse, for all his charismatic delivery and the utter joy of A Great Day In Kathmandu, McAlmont was also mute between songs, leaving only awkward poses and no hint of what crime the Somali seemingly being extradited to the United States in Going To America had purportedly committed or what the apparent refugee in Fever Sticks And Bones was fleeing from and why. Surely I wasn’t the only one whose curiosity had been aroused…
The composer Michael Nyman explains the thinking behind his latest film, and reminisces about the parties held by a Frieze founder’s dad.
Michael Nyman is a composer of minimalist music as well as a film-maker and photographer. His work includes the score for Jane Campion’s film “The Piano”, Peter Greenaway’s films “The Draughtsman’s Contract” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover”, and the operas “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat” and “Facing Goya”. He formed the Michael Nyman Band in 1976.
MICHAEL NYMAN – COMPOSER IN PROGRESS
A portrait by SILVIA BECK, featuring STEVE REICH and VOLKER SCHLÖNDORFF
26th Warsaw International Film Festival Official Selection
Flanders Film Festival Ghent 2010 Official Selection
47th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival Official Selection
This film is about a very special moment in the famous composer’s artistic life. Composing with innovative minimalism for films as memorable as “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, “The Ogre”, “Man on Wire”, and most famously for Campion’s “The Piano”, he has reached an international audience. But now, Michael Nyman is about to become a filmmaker himself. Featuring unprecedented access to the composer and his working life, this film shows one of the great composers of our time in all his diversity and endless energy. From London to Berlin, in Mexico, Poland, the Netherlands and Portugal this film is also a journey through the musical world today. It shows Michael Nyman, the musician, in his concerts with The Michael Nyman Band and live collaborations with other internationally known musicians or orchestras. But throughout his journeys, this film discovers Nyman’s increasing passion for filming and photography. Witnessing the development of Nyman’s visual works from the very first moment of inspiration, this film gives a unique insight into Michael Nyman’s very personal views, his thoughts and emotions; his world.
The composer who coined the term for a musical genre knows a little goes a long way.
Michael Nyman is sitting in his living room when I call. As he speaks, the composer probably still best known for his film soundtracks (The Piano, Gattaca, the scores he wrote for Peter Greenaway), is surrounded by his Alvar Aalto chairs and table, and photographs of his children on top of his grand piano. There are other pictures too, lined along the floor, pictures that he admits should really be on the wall. Is he not tidy by nature then? “Theoretically yes. Practically not.”
It’s very tempting to take this metaphor and run with it. To take this offhand conversational comment from the flow of Nyman’s brusquely framed yet loquacious answers and apply it to the music he makes; music that goes by the name of minimalism, music that could be said to be “tidy” – with its limited palette, its love of elegant variations on repetitious patterns – but only in a theoretical way too.
Sometimes it’s only the tidiness that’s heard. When it comes to minimalism, the same words recur again and again when critics try to sum it up – “rhythmic”, “insistent”, “steady”, “hypnotic”, “patterned”, and, yes, “repetitive”.
Sometimes even “simple”. Its detractors would go further: the composer Harrison Birtwhistle – clearly not a fan – once opted for “simple-minded”.
But none of this is quite enough. It doesn’t explain the variety and versatility of the form, which offers a home for serious contemporary musicians and adventurous pop stars (everyone from Brian Eno to the Velvet Underground), allows its practitioners to write film scores, operas and, in Nyman’s case, have their work adapted – by singer David McAlmont – into pop songs (the duo will perform a gorgeous song suite entitled The Glare in the City Halls during Glasgow’s Minimal weekend).
So today I want to ask Nyman for his own definition of the word minimalism. He seems the perfect person to ask. After all, he’s one of the few composers who is still happy to be called a minimalist composer: “As an ex-historian, it would be absolutely futile of me to deny that what I do doesn’t originate in the principles that I first saw in Terry Reilly and [his work] In C in 1968 when we played it with the Scratch Orchestra.”
More than that, though, it’s Nyman who’s given credit with coining the term. Back in the late 1960s, he was the music critic of The Spectator, a surprisingly open-minded assignment at the time that allowed him to write about anything that crossed his path. Rock, pop, classical, contemporary. One week saw him writing about the Fugs at the Roundhouse in London, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs For A Mad King and Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning Paragraph One at the Wigmore, which was, Nyman recalls now, “very desaturated” and with “very, very little going on”.
He found that “very, very little” rather refreshing and mentioned “minimalism” in his review, a word echoed in the headline. And so a form of music was born. Or at least named. By accident. “The original use of the word was not to create a category but just to describe a purely physical phenomenon of a piece of music that was very uncomplicated.”
He was aware of the idea of minimal art in the US, but it wasn’t until he met Steve Reich in 1970 that the association between the concept and the music that was then emerging in New York became more concrete. It was Reich himself who argued that his own work – and that of Philip Glass, La Monte Young and Reilly – could be seen as sympathetic (“he subsequently regretted that,” Nyman points out). After meeting and befriending the American composer, in the early 1970s Nyman became a proselytiser for the musical form that by now was known as minimalism, promoting it in his writing and promoting it in concert.
He even wrote a book entitled Experimental Music, published in 1974. A year earlier he had gone on Radio 3 to give his definition of minimalism (yes, finally, we’ve got there) “and my definition was ‘a little amount of material going on for a long time’, which I guess was still permissible.”
Of course when he returned to writing music in 1976 he “twisted minimalist principles to my own personal ends and kind of contradicted a lot of the things that I laid down as the holy grail of minimalism”. A lot of his choices, he says, went against the grain “and sometimes relate more, maybe, to the Beatles than to La Monte Young. But that’s just the way I do things.”
That way of doing things included taking musical motifs from Purcell and Mozart and reconstituting them into whole pieces. In the same way as Steve Reich looped and phased tape recordings of a Pentecostal preacher called Brother Walter for It’s Gonna Rain, Nyman was effectively “sampling” Mozart on In Re Don Giovanni, which builds around a 16-bar phrase from Mozart’s opera. “It’s sampling and a remix,” suggests Nyman. “I think I was possibly the first composer to sample and remix composed music. And long before Byrne and Eno worked together.”
There’s a difference, Nyman claims, between the original American minimalists and their British followers. He reckons his work is inevitably more “domesticated” than their American counterparts. “My music is definitely coming out of that very British minimalist cultural scene which is less heavy-duty, less hard-edged, less – as I said in 1970 – abstract and chromium-plated than the American brand at that time.”
Such delicate differences are rarely registered by minimalism’s critics. The label is enough for some to write off what it’s applied to, says Nyman. “But just as there are great baroque concertos by Bach and Handel and, to a lesser extent, by Vivaldi and Corelli, and there are really shitty, routine baroque concertos that go through the same set of motions, you don’t dismiss the whole of the baroque concert or repertoire.”
But if you want to make broad, sweeping summaries, you could maybe argue that minimalism makes sense in – and possibly makes sense of – the modern world. In his fine book The Rest Is Noise, music critic Alex Ross quotes cultural commentator Robert Fink’s notion that it “often mimics the sped-up, numbed-out repetition of consumer culture, the incessant iteration of commercial jingles on TV”, but also delivers “a kind of silent critique of the world as it is”.
There is a lot in this. Much of Glass’s work, for example, feels contemporary in the same way as William Gibson’s novels, urban R&B and HBO drama serials.
But that is by no means minimalism’s only pleasure. Forced to choose a favourite piece of Nyman’s, I would opt for his bruised, brooding score for Michael Winterbottom’s otherwise slightly desiccated film Wonderland. It doesn’t need the input of David McAlmont’s soulful voice for its aching romanticism to be all too evident to the ear. And it’s a rebuff to anyone who would argue that minimalism is cold and emotionally distant.
In the end, this is already a moot point. The fact is that minimalism has already won the culture war when it comes to contemporary music. As Nyman points out, the American brand, at least, “has basically succeeded in taking over the world”.
Minimalism has become maximalist in its impact – something that Nyman couldn’t have imagined when he was promoting it to all too few 40 years ago. “When I went on tour and performed [Reich’s] Drumming for the first time in Berlin,” Nyman recalls, “there was no sense that this was anything other than a kind of music local to downtown New York and the only fan-base was us. A concert we did in a big sports hall in Pamplona in northern Spain was met with hysterics and bewilderment and shouting.
“And yet those guys and the rest of us persisted in writing the music we want to write and, in the process, in addition to satisfying ourselves, this is the only music that is listened to by a whole generation of listeners who are maybe more familiar with rock music and pop music and world music. The last thing in the world they want to do is go to a Harrison Birtwhistle concert. And if they reject Harry – and he’s the best of the bunch for me – then there’s a whole dimension of music that is unavailable to this very intelligent audience.”
Is that a happy ending? For some of us, yes. And a handily tidy one. Repeat (and repeat) to fade ...
The Michael Nyman Band and David McAlmont play Glasgow’s City Halls on October 16. Nyman can be heard in conversation at the same venue at 6.30pm.
Michael Nyman's dynamic jump into filmmaking
Composer Michael Nyman’s dynamic jump into filmmaking, “NYman With a Movie Camera,” is as much a celebration of the world as its inspiration, Dziga Vertov’s silent masterpiece, “Man With a Movie Camera,” celebrates Soviet society. Having written a thrilling 2002 score accompanying screenings of Vertov’s monumental film, as well as the British Film Institute’s DVD release, Nyman exploits his considerable acquaintance with the work to create a similarly giddy montage with editor Max Pugh, this time shot on vid over the past two decades. Fests, specialty exhibs and classy vid play beckon.
Unlike Vertov’s, Nyman’s camera travels the globe, visiting more than a dozen countries (including considerable footage lensed in Iran and Mexico, the director’s primary residence). However, like Vertov, a celebratory tone is created through montage (with visual tricks exactly duplicated) as well as by a sense that the viewer belongs to a family of humans. Paralleling Vertov’s antic cameraman, Nyman observes a Mexican lenser operating a camera jib as a constant reference point and “character.” Nyman’s score, performed by his powerful band, alternates between andante and allegro, the latter exploding with his signature locomotive propulsion.
Camera (DV), Nyman; editor, Max Pugh; music, Nyman. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Future Projections), Sept. 12, 2010. Running time: 67 MIN.