Michael Nyman - relishing the fight
The Times : Apr 7th, 2010
Last November, Michael Nyman found himself unable to speak, play or compose music. This wasn’t writer’s block or some kind of avant-garde art experiment, but something far more serious. During a routine medical operation, Britain’s most scorned and celebrated contemporary composer suffered a minor stroke.
Nyman has long been fascinated by brain dysfunction, composing the opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1986, based on an Oliver Sacks case study of a musician afflicted by Alzheimer’s.
“That was the first time I remember being aware of neurology,” Nyman recalls. “But actually, what was going through my head was Holly Hunter in The Piano. She has lost her speech, or has chosen not to speak, and yet she is able to communicate through playing the piano. That’s my job, and yet at the point I was unable to speak, I was also unable to write, and therefore unable to play the f***ing piano.”
The 65-year-old appears in fairly rude health when we meet at his elegant North London townhouse. Half medical museum and half mad scientist’s lair, the walls are lined with bookshelves, tribal artworks, scientific charts and grand wooden cabinets. There are also photos of Nyman’s wife Aet, from whom he has long been separated on cordial terms, as well as their grown-up daughters, Martha and Molly.
But, for all his defiantly good cheer, the stroke has clearly left Nyman acutely aware of his own fragility. “It makes you feel very protective about what’s going on in your body,” he nods. “We have this robust cranium full of very delicate stuff, the brain, and one minor switching mechanism can totally change your behaviour. It makes you think of kids throwing themselves around, falling over, banging their heads. Certainly where my grandchildren are concerned, I warned them against hitting each other over the head, but you know there’s nothing you can do.”
Happily, Nyman made a full and swift recovery from his mini-stroke and recently returned from a therapeutic rest in Mexico. With his packed diary, the famously cerebral composer is simply too busy to be sidetracked by neurological emergencies. Over the next nine months he will play dozens of global dates with his mini-orchestra the Michael Nyman Band, in between multiple film, stage, photography and music projects.
Next week sees the release of Cine Opera, a deluxe expanded version of Nyman’s 1989 work La Traversée de Paris, originally commissioned to commemorate the bicentennial of the French revolution. Acoustic Accordions, an album of his collaborations with the Polish group the Motion Trio, follows in June.
But on the day The Times drops by, Britain’s most famous egghead composer is applying his planet-sized brain to Susan Boyle’s performance on the X Factor Christmas final. “I actually think Susan Boyle sang the bollocks off Elaine Paige,” muses Nyman. “Elaine Paige was quite nervous, and certainly not as powerful.”
Nyman’s interest in Boyle was piqued by his current album, The Glare, a dazzling chamber-pop collaboration featuring lush, luxuriant, soulful vocals by David McAlmont. Each track is recycled from the composer’s extensive back catalogue, but with new lyrics by McAlmont reflecting on contemporary events - including the title track, which weighs the emotional cost of Boyle’s overnight fame. This sublime pop-classical fusion has earned ecstatic reviews since its release last November, and is being widely tipped as a frontrunner for this year’s Mercury Music Prize.
All the same, Nyman remains distinctly peeved by the album’s lukewarm media reception. “Everyone loves the album, but we do not get one f***ing radio play!” Nyman fumes. “This may be one of the most talked about albums of the decade, but also one of the least played. It’s flattering in one sense, we’re doing something no one’s ever done before. But you’re basically plagued by a f***ing playlist mentality.”
This is one of Nyman’s perennial obsessions: the ignorant critics and reactionary music mandarins who blight his career. With just a hint of deadpan humour, Nyman relates the crimes against him in a glum monotone uncannily reminiscent of Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He may have a brain the size of a planet, but he is perpetually thwarted by imbeciles.
Chief among his enemies are the “cultural commissars” who have perpetually blacklisted him from British opera commissions. Nyman waggishly calls himself “the only opera composer to have worked with Eno, as in Brian, but not ENO.”
Regardless of this glass-half-empty gloom, Nyman has actually enjoyed phenomenal success in the rarefied world of contemporary classical music. Born in East London in 1944, he first earned mainstream attention for his arch, propulsive, obsessive-compulsive scores for the film director Peter Greenaway in the 1980s. But it was his gushingly romantic soundtrack to Jane Campion’s 1993 Oscar-winner The Piano that secured his international breakthrough. Selling more than three million copies, it made him a household name in Britain and beyond.
But being a bestseller also has its downsides. Nyman was once an austere modernist and high-minded music critic in an era, he says with a smile, “when being a dyed-in-the wool, fully paid-up minimalist was like being a member of some kind of fringe left-wing group”. But as he gradually switched his allegiance from Stockhausen to John Cage to Steve Reich, his own music became ever more melodious and accessible.
As his commercial success grew, Nyman claims, former friends and collaborators grew frosty towards him. But he denies selling out any lofty principles to crass populism. He has simply adapted his working methods to the commercial demands of his era, he argues, much like Mozart and countless others.
“Success breeds envy,” Nyman shrugs. “Especially if that success is brought about by association with a medium they disapprove of, or haven’t had access to, namely film. So Harry [Harrison] Birtwistle, who is actually responsible for me being a composer - I know that he loathes the music from The Piano.”
In 2008, Nyman received the CBE at Buckingham Palace. The critic and composer Philip Clark delivered a damning verdict in The Times. “The loneliest man in British contemporary music has finally got the acceptance he craves,” he jeered. “Pity it’s not from anybody interested in music.” Ouch.
And yet, regardless of critical barbs and medical setbacks, Nyman continues to thrive as one of Britain’s most successful and prolific contemporary composers. With his packed work diary, his CBE and even his belated Proms recognition, classical music’s oldest enfant terrible could almost be mistaken for part of the cultural Establishment nowadays.
Nyman, naturally, disagrees. “Not at all,” sighs Michael the Paranoid Android. “It took 30 years to get the Proms. Not one single penny of the commission money for any of the operas I’ve done has been paid for by an English opera house. So there’s still a long way to go. But I like challenges. I like the fight.”
The Cine Opera album is released on Monday. Michael Nyman and David McAlmont play Norwich Theatre Royal on May 7. Acoustic Accordions is released on June 7