Michael Nyman takes a new route
The Telegraph : Jan 23rd, 2009
Michael Nyman is sprawled in an elegant Thirties chair, looking into the room that is the hub of his working life. The piano at the far end defines the musician, conductor and composer whose international reputation is based on soundtracks for films such as The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Piano, and Man on Wire. But at the opposite end, the evidence is that photography is gaining the upper hand. Books, including many on Rodchenko and the Soviet Constructivists, surround his feet, and the walls are hung with black and white images of women by the Czech ‘‘outsider’’ observer Miroslav Tichy, and austere formal portraits by Forties New Mexican Mike Disfarmer.
This is the new Nyman, the photographer and film-maker who is launching his films and photos at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, tonight; the man who for decades has provided music for others’ films has turned the tables. In fact, he insists, he’s led that parallel life for decades, it’s just that “I wasn’t ‘making films’ or ‘being a photographer’ then, just doing it.”
Nyman’s first camera was a 16mm movie camera, bought under the guidance of his long-term collaborator, film director Peter Greenaway. He used it to shoot his first short film, Love, Love, Love in 1967 – a documentary about a “Legalise Pot” rally in Hyde Park and laughs at the memory of poet Allen Ginsberg up a ladder, playing a harmonium. Compulsively making bitty shorts drove Greenaway to tell him “Go out and make a film!” He took his advice and shot “whatever took my fancy”.
Three or four years ago, he rooted out that footage and with friends Max Pugh and Marc Silver, edited them into the 30 short films. Their randomness, the everyday subjects and slow repetitiveness fitted today’s experimental filming. “When I home in on something,” he explains, “it’s like the music, I get in close and stay in, even if it takes 10 minutes for one single take.”
He describes the films as “accidental artworks”, made using the opposite process from writing music. He applies the same technique to photography. A collection of still photographs has been edited into a limited-edition book, Sublime. Many images are multiples and grids, linking them to the repetitive phrases and rhythms that characterise his music. His subjects are mundane and anonymous, quietly and voyeuristically observed – piles of lollipops, old people’s hands of cards, children playing. Sublime’s cover image involved a typical Nyman story of spontaneity: he spotted a man on a ladder, building the word S-U-B-L-I-M-E outside an Islington cinema, while waiting for a burger in the shop opposite, and shot to the last letter.
A similar process occurred with the film Fado, a marvellously poetic, slow-moving study of a man on a Lisbon street, tuning a neck-less guitar while whistling a two-chord melody. Nyman was fascinated: “His intensity and abandoned commitment to the tuning, the throwaway minimalism of the tune – it was an archival thing that I made into an artwork.” Hypnotic, it is reminiscent of Gavin Bryars’s 70-minute epic Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, where a tramp sings that line in a loop.
Spotting a woman working to the repetitious sounds of machinery in a tea factory in the Azores led Nyman to make a shadowy Constructivist film moving to cacophonous, repetitious clamour. “Very futurist,” he grins, and also alludes to the 1929 Russian silent film Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov, which he recently scored and will perform at Bexhill: “I guess I can’t not be influenced by writing a soundtrack for that film!”
The peak film production of this experimental merger of sound and vision is the acoustically sumptuous Metal Beaters, shot in a bazaar in Isfahan, Iran, and featuring men beating out copper spoons, bowls, and a huge tureen. “I designated the tall man standing at the tureen as the conductor in charge of the orchestra of metal beaters,” he explains. It would become a Nyman percussion classic, which he later merged with a 45-minute electronic church bell creation, recorded and performed in the cathedral in Linz, Austria. “I laid the live metal-banging over the bells.” He pauses, self-mocking and laughing. “As a composer, I would never have done this. If someone said to me, ‘Could you make a piece with found metal?’ I wouldn’t know what to do. I would say let me go to my piano – safe!”
There are many strong elements to these photographs and films, but most surprising, perhaps, is Nyman’s attraction to rich colours, something not necessarily associated with the classical cool of his music. They also reveal a detached curiosity about the everyday and, movingly, respect for the tics and shuffles and habits of people at work, walking, talking, playing, sitting or just staring, all of which figure large in his films. Most successful among the photographs are the composites, the multiples – and how he emphasises the repetitiousness of life and work and converts that into something beautiful.
A parting add-on to our conversation was unavoidable, given Michael Nyman’s lifelong devotion to Routemaster buses and especially the No 38. “I filmed its last journey,” he reveals, and unusually included himself in the footage – alongside the passengers. Its atmospheric night sequences, blurry Routemaster redness, and impassioned conversations seem to thrill him as much as those works like the Metal Beaters which enabled this break from the piano stool and what he refers to as “my day job”.
* Videofile Michael Nyman is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until March 15