Nyman: A composer ventures beyond music
The Financial Times : Jan 9th, 2009
Until now, Michael Nyman’s fine reputation has rested on music. Composing with innovative minimalism for films as memorable as The Draughtsman’s Contract and Man on Wire, he reached an international audience. Today, though, he is about to show me the other side of Nyman: his virtually unknown experiments called Videofile, to be exhibited later this month at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, south-east England.
From the moment I enter the top room of his London house, my eyes are bombarded by an extraordinary accumulation of stuff. Everywhere I turn, tall piles of books threaten to teeter and collapse. Carved wooden heads leer from an ancient chest of drawers. I hardly dare move across the floor for fear of tripping over assorted scores, CDs, manuscripts, lamps, plugs, coils of electric wire and cardboard boxes crammed with archival treasures. Noticing my amazement, Nyman says: “I felt overwhelmed this morning and that’s why I moved a few papers around before you came.” I cannot imagine what the room must have been like before this clearing-up operation. But Nyman grins, shrugs and murmurs: “I could photograph it all for you, Richard, if you like.”
An arresting book entitled Sublime, published last year in Turin, testifies to his love of a stills camera. It contains no fewer than 1,910 digital photographs of everything from shop windows and passers-by to clouds, statues, cathedrals, machinery, harbour reflections and graffiti-smothered walls in a dozen locations across the world. A selection of these images will be included in his Bexhill show. I ask why he is such a prolific photographer.
“I take cameras with me wherever I go,” he says. “At the beginning, I saw it as documentation rather than an art process. I shot the stills for my own amusement. I like the word Walter Benjamin used: ‘distraction’. I’m curious about the visual world out there.”
He certainly is. When we sit down to watch the video pieces on a computer, I am soon impressed by the voracity of Nyman’s appetite for looking. The immensely wide desk in front of us, covered with further evidence of his activities as a composer, is flanked by a bulky Yamaha mixing desk and a piano festooned with affectionate photographs of his daughters and grandchildren. But once we start watching the videos, Nyman’s keen-eyed love of observation becomes absorbingly clear.
The first one, called Campiello, was filmed five years ago in “the old Jewish quarter of Venice, a part of the city where there are no tourists and everyone’s on their last legs”. He shot part of the video from inside a dark and narrow passage, looking towards a sunlit street where Venetians walk by. It seems simple enough, and Nyman insists that “people are never aware of me filming them”. But the soundtrack begins by deploying Verdi’s intensely emotional “Miserere”, with medieval or Renaissance instruments representing the voices. And it becomes very melancholy when the camera closes on a bedraggled old woman bending over some bags. Even so, Nyman’s innate sense of humour is never far away. “There are two sorts of traffic in Venice – the shopping trolley and tourist suitcases,” he says. “And this is the world of the shopping trolley.”
His wry wit is even more engaging in a longer video filmed at a Moscow radio studio during an interview. Nyman recalls feeling “bored and resentful”, yet he turns the tedium to hilarious account. Every time the earnest Russian interviewer asks him a question, he responds with an “um” and then the added soundtrack drowns the rest of his reply in wildly unpredictable music, ranging from classical and electronic to a brisk military score that he originally wrote for “a Channel 4 sitcom in the early ‘80s”.
The longer I look at Nyman’s videos, the more they impress me with their wide emotional range. At his most lyrical, he discovers an ice-rink and eventually zooms in on a couple dancing. “Everything I film is by chance, and here I finally realised that they’d been dancing the tango all along.” The result adds up to Nyman’s most fresh and seductive video, whereas a work called Flickerboy concentrates on a mood of frustrated yearning in a bookshop at Persepolis. At first, we see the boy leafing through large tourist posters all headlined Iran. Then he moves away but Nyman keeps his camera trained on the women who take his place. “This is all one shot, totally unedited,” he explains. “So there’s no directing, no control – it’s as far from Bill Viola’s videos as you could possibly imagine!” Nyman laughs, looking at the screen with his heavily framed spectacles pushed up high on his forehead. When talking, he constantly waves his hands in the air and jabs his right index finger with great animation. Yet he is equally capable of staring hard and silently at the videos, allowing me to have my own response: “I’d like to encourage as many interpretations of my work as possible.”
At one extreme, a work shot in the street market at Isfahan starts winsomely enough, with an open-mouthed doll accompanied by “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the soundtrack. But it builds eventually into a nine-section screen, returning time and again to a remorseless image of a black gun as the music grows louder and more alarming until it culminates in outright nightmare. At another extreme Nyman sets out on a journey to celebrate the last day of a beloved London bus, Routemaster number 38. Sitting on the top deck, he films the comments of his fellow passengers – many of whom turn out to be even more devoted to the doomed bus than Nyman himself. “It accompanied me all my life,” he remembers fondly, “going right back to all those trips I made in my youth to Sadler’s Wells. I even wanted to travel on the 38 when I went to collect my CBE from the queen.” He picks up a black box from his desk with pride, and shows me the beribboned honour nestling inside.
Finally, though, the mood shifts to tragedy at its most profound. Nyman’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, who settled in the Whitechapel area of London at the beginning of the 20th century. In a powerful recent video called Witness 2 he takes his camera to concentration camps, focusing not only on barbed-wire fences, bleak landscapes and the route to the gas chamber but, above all, on wooden slats from the living quarters. “Originally they were built to house 50 horses,” Nyman explains, “yet the animals were taken out and replaced by 400 inmates.” In the most haunting sequences, the gaunt faces of men who died there slowly emerge from the grain-streaked wood. Its striations run like fissures through their flesh, or pierce them with the force of bullets.
I find these images overwhelmingly poignant and Nyman believes that in the Witness videos he has “gone beyond observation of the event and done artworks. It’s a different sort of filmmaking, much more crafted.” Does he think it might lead on to a new phase in his involvement with the camera? He nods vigorously. “The earlier videos are kind of dipping in and out, done from curiosity and the desire to film it because it’s there. But the Witness things are something else.”
‘Videofile’ by Michael Nyman is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, UK from January 24 to March 15, tel: +44 (0)1424-229 111; www.dlwp.com