Taking poetry from the First World War as his inspiration, Nyman has crafted here an eloquent song cycle to film (“a film essay”, as he describes it), presented in two groups of four songs, each preceded by several instrumental movements. The texts were all written by poets who - with the exception of the English artist-poet, David Bomberg - all sadly lost their lives during the First World War.
The starting point for the music is the title of a series of poems by French writer, Gaston de Ruyter (shot down on 7th October 1918) - ‘Chansons vielles sur d’autre airs’ (‘Old songs to other tunes’). The ‘chansons vielles’ are the poems by English, French, German and Hungarian poets (mostly sung in their original languages) and the ‘autres airs’ are by English, French, German, Austro-Hungarian, Polish and Italian composers of the 17th and 19th centuries.
The film element, edited by Max Pugh, has been designed around footage sourced from French, German and American First World War film archives and the chosen excerpts deliberately focus on material that previous documenters of the First World War have ignored. There is no voice-over so as to allow the potency of the images in combination with the music to take centre stage.
“I aim to reflect the war from a different perspective” says Nyman. “I’ve paired a German poem with English music and a French poem with German music, for example, as a way of unpicking nationalism and national identity”
‘War Work’ was commissioned in 2014 by the War on Screen International Film Festival; L’Arsenal de Metz; La Cité de la musique, Paris; KölnMusik Betriebs und Service GmbH; Kölner Philharmonie and the Palace of Arts, Budapest to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War.