Michael Nyman: I spy with my musical eye
The Times : Jan 20th, 2009
In his time as a critic, Michael Nyman was the first person to apply the term “minimalist” to music. As a composer, he has become Britain’s best-known exponent of the form, making his fortune along the way, with soundtracks to such films as The Piano, The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Gattaca. Now, almost by accident, the man who has made the music for so many films has become a film-maker himself. “What I like about making films,” he says, settling in his front room, “is that there is so much to talk about.”
As ever, Nyman, 64, is wearing those spectacular, owlish glasses. And he continues to work at a ferocious rate. As well as a record label to run, the Nyman 2009 to-do list includes 50-plus gigs with his band, performing everywhere from the Sydney Opera House to Bestival on the Isle of Wight. Not to mention the solo concerts - the next biggie is a premiere of ten short pieces entitled fff at a £595-a-head Whitechapel gallery fundraising gala next month.
Nyman’s primary calling, composition, also continues apace. In December his seventh opera, the first commissioned as a full-scale production, will open at the Catania opera house in Sicily. Its subject is the English Civil War. Which brings us on to another pleasingly consistent aspect of Nyman; he is rarely reluctant to have a pop at the musical establishment that, over the years, has so often had a pop at him. Today it is those in opera who have commissioned new works about such lofty subjects as plastic surgery (Skin Deep, Opera North) and Anna Nicole Smith, the doomed model (due next year at the Royal Opera House).
The Nyman nostrils flare. “It’s kind of odd that an opera house in Sicily is commissioning on a subject fundamental to English history when English opera houses seem to be commissioning operas about plastic surgery and Playboy bunnies,” Nyman says, steadily, before going for the jugular. “Both those subjects are great subjects for Five documentaries. But I mean there are so few opportunities to write an new opera, and” - he pauses despairingly - “there are so many f***ing subjects…”
The subtext is that no major British opera house has yet commissioned Nyman. And the nagging suspicion is that this is a slight against a man who has achieved popular acclaim with soundtracks, haughty rejection from some who disguise resentment as critical disdain.
But here the music must stop. Because, as he has already mentioned, what Nyman really wants to discuss today is his new career as film-maker. Videofile, opening on Friday at the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill, East Sussex, is an exhibition of a dozen or so pieces of video art composed from photographs and footage taken by Nyman to amuse himself. It grew out of a longer-standing mania for photography. Sublime, a book of nearly 2,000 of his photos, was published last year and a few of his favourite shots will be at Bexhill.
None of his filming was meant to lead to an exhibition, but when Nyman realised that he had amassed 70 hours of footage on his travels, he decided to have a look through them with two editors - “I thought when I’m dead nobody is going to be interested” - which lead to Videofile. “Accidentally,” he says with some satisfaction, “I had become a film-maker.”
Throughout his life, Nyman, a Chingford boy born to the children of Jewish immigrants from Poland, has been an avid collector, his restless acquisitive instinct focusing on trophies as varied as African carvings, banquet photographs, bus tickets, fencing masks and toast racks. He lives alone - he is long separated from (but on extremely cordial terms with) his wife, Aet, and his daughters Molly (a composer) and Martha are grown up - in a state of glorious disarray, his big, beautiful house haphazardly jammed to the rafters with the fruits of his collecting. Photography and filming, he says, “is a bit like collecting: I like to see something that I didn’t suspect was there. As a film-maker I collect events.”
Those events include browsers in a Persepolis poster shop, a gnarled street musician in Lisbon, two train carriages’ buffers bumping each other suggestively and, in two moving films entitled Witness 1 and Witness 2, an unflinching salute to Gypsy and Jewish concentration camp victims.
Most of the films are set to music that Nyman plucked, after much thought, from his archives. One film, for instance, records a group of Iranian metal-workers hammering away in an Ishafan bazaar. Reviewing the footage, Nyman says, “I thought: ‘What have we got here? It’s metal, being attacked.” And he had a “eureka moment”. He added to the film a piece of music that he composed for the bells of St Florian, an Augustinian monastery in Austria, and the result, Metalbangers, is mesmeric.
Nyman admits that he enjoyed a lot more creative freedom than when providing music for other people’s films. “There is a lot of playfulness. I’d use my own material in the way any other film-maker or editor would have the courage to use it.” In Moscow, bored, Nyman filmed in a recording studio as he was being interviewed. Looking back he realised that each time he was asked a question, he hesitated before answering.
“Again, I had one of those eureka moments that I have as a film-maker but don’t necessarily have as a composer. I thought what we should do is to remove the speech - remove my answer to the questions, because I don’t like the sound of my own voice and I’m fed up giving the same answers to the same old questions year in year out - and the hesitation would trigger a piece of music.” There will be five versions of the same film at the De La Warr - his speech is replaced with a different piece of his music in each, everything from a TV theme tune to In Re Don Giovanni.
Nyman obviously relishes the artistic possibilities of his new medium. Not just the satisfaction of stumbling upon moments to collect on film, but the technical aspects that follow. A technology junkie, (today particularly unhappy that his second Mac Air is yet again on the blink) he is fascinated by the freedom that Final Cut software (“you can do anything!”) gives him to manipulate his raw footage. Would he be tempted to graduate from video art to feature? He lifts those glasses on to his head and rubs his eyes. “I don’t know, unless I could do it quickly. Having been around film-makers - I’ve known [Peter] Greenaway since 1961 - and seen the amount of time and energy that goes into making features, I can’t imagine that I would ever be that interested in a subject to do all that preparation.”
The only film in Videofile with a subject that he consciously set out to capture records a journey on the number 38 bus on the last day of the Routemaster. , Nyman’s first route into London (from Chingford) was on the 38, and it inspired one of his first collecting manias, those bus tickets. He still uses it today - he’s still annoyed to have missed one last month, on his way to Buckingham Palace for his CBE investiture - and says: “If I ever wrote my autobiography it would be called There and Back on the 38”. In It’s a Beautiful Bus Nyman records the conversation between two newly-met Routemaster aficionados, talking with love and increasing intimacy about their shared passion. But when they realise that they are neighbours in Ruislip they quickly backpedal . Behind them sits Nyman’s assistant, her shoulders rolling in helpless laughter.
Unless exquisitely conceived - and it so rarely is - video art can be the most self-indulgent, baffling and mind-numbing of all contemporary art forms. Nyman’s films, though, have an added dimension that elevates them above the schlock: these are first-hand fragments that tap straight into the restless, shifting preoccupations of the man who filmed them.
Videofile by Michael Nyman opens at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, East Sussex, on Saturdayand runs until Mar 15 (01424 229111; www.dlwp.com)