Michael Nyman is one of Britain’s most celebrated composers.
AnOther Magazine : Aug 4th, 2010
Michael Nyman is one of Britain’s most celebrated composers. Besides writing operas and orchestral concertos, Nyman is perhaps best known for his soundtracks for films such as the multi Oscar-winning The Piano. He has collaborated with everyone from Sir Harrison Birtwistle to Damon Albarn and is enjoying a growing reputation as a serious photographer and filmmaker.
How would you say your approach to film and photography differs to that as a composer?
With composition you’re piecing together a piece of music, and gradually you build this edifice. Nothing ever happens to me musically that surprises me as much – or gives me as much joy – as seeing that which is now gone and filming it. I can’t predict how people are going to behave and I can’t predict how they’re going to react to me, if they react to me at all. Nothing happens in a piece of music that has that power, that charge; that unexpectedness or that vividness. It’s interesting – people come to my house and I want to show them my latest film, but I’ve never wanted to play them my latest piece of music.
Do you feel more protective over your music?
No. I feel more non-plussed. Writing the music is fairly predictable. I’m good at it and I constantly surprise myself when I write a piece of music, but I never get a shock as I get when I make a film.
When did you first start taking photographs and making films?
I started taking photographs in the 70s – there were these 35mm SLR cameras that were imported from Russia called Zenith. I took family photographs during the 80s and it wasn’t until I bought my first digital camera in 90s, maybe early 2000s, that I started taking masses of photographs and discovered that the cameras I’d bought also had video facilities. I had about 80 hours worth of video material and I showed them to a couple of young friends of mine and they were fascinated: a) with the material, and b) by the way I shot with this kind of “perseverance” style of shooting, really focusing on an activity.
Is your film work a hobby, or do you consider it a new direction in your career?
I finance all the films myself, that’s another thing. I’ve spent tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, on post-production, on basically the editing of films, and I’m very happy to do that, whereas I feel slightly professionally damaged or insulted by sitting down and writing a piece of music that someone hasn’t paid for. It’s very strange all these separations in my mind between those two worlds.
When you look back over your footage, do you notice certain ideas or themes re-merging in the work?
Well, there is this curiosity for filming unconscious activities, or things that are normal that no one really takes any notice of.
What music do you listen to?
I don’t. I mean, I like to think I’m very well read in the listening sense, but I’ve probably bought five or six iPods in my life and I’ve never actually put any music on them. I follow what Damon Albarn does I guess… we did a film together that started him on his quest to be a serious composer with orchestras and whatever, so it gives me great satisfaction. I mean, I’m not a teacher, but he did learn something…
Do you have a plan to show/exhibit your films or your photographs in the future?
I’m premiering my new film, Nyman With a Movie Camera, with a live score played by the Michael Nyman band at the Barbican in October. The non-live version will be premiered possibly at the Venice film festival in early September, but is definitely showing at the Toronto film festival later that month.
Interview by Caroline Lever