May 24, 2011
THE composer Michael Nyman picks up his compact camera.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” he says.
Exactly what is so fascinating about the garbage truck that has pulled up before us at the Sydney Park Brickworks isn’t apparent.
But he has been filming such vignettes for years on his hand-held camera. A drunken man struggling to put on his tie, the aftermath of a bullfight and a derelict but once-magnificent Mexican cinema are among the scenes that have captured his attention.
“I feel very privileged and snoopy,” he says. “I like the accident of the thing happening in front of me, setting up a frame and just allowing what transpires.”
Filmmaking is the lesser known side of Nyman’s oeuvre. He is best known for his film scores, including for Jane Campion’s The Piano and Peter Greenaway’s The Draftsman’s Contract and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.
Both sides will be on show in Sydney this week in a series of events that include the world premiere of a musical composition, a public lecture and screenings of his films.
For Nyman, filmmaking is the perfect antidote to composition. It gets him outdoors and it’s arbitrary, depending entirely on what he encounters.
“In music, you start from nothing and gradually build layer on layer. You are constantly editing and refining and adding levels to your basic page,” he says.
“It’s a kind of slow, daily, rather grinding process.”
He pauses and raises his camera as a child on a scooter passes in the distance. He admits that one side of him envies the other. Just a jealous guy?
“Absolutely. The composer Michael Nyman is jealous of Michael Nyman the filmmaker because the whole sweep is contained in the time it takes me to make the film. And the filmmaker Michael Nyman is jealous of the composer Michael Nyman because the filmmaking is dependent on the occasion.”
At 67, the composer still sets a cracking pace, composing his latest work, a 20-minute orchestral piece entitled Doing the Rounds, in about three months.
In the work, commissioned by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, he revisits aspects of his musical past. As a young man he had studied rounds, canons and catches: “Popular things you sing at school like Frere Jacques and Three Blind Mice.”
The nature of film music has changed over the years.
“I watch films on planes mainly,” he says. “It’s not that the music is bland, but from one composer to the next it’s indistinguishable. The soundtracks that interest me are those where the work is unmistakably theirs.”
Composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone.
“Sound tracks are composed more by committee than they were 20 years ago,” he says.
Doing the Rounds premieres at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Friday and Saturday. Nyman delivers the Alfred Hook Lecture on Music, Art and Commercial Film at the Conservatorium on Friday. Cine Opera, presented by the College of Fine Arts, UNSW, premiers at Sydney Park Brickworks on Friday.