erasing clouds

An Unforgettable Melody: Meeting Michael Nyman

by Anna Battista

Music. For some people music is the most important thing on earth. Some of us fellow human beings can't really live without it. Music can make you laugh, cry, jump for joy and feel so sad to commit suicide. Music can take you to unknown planets, to undiscovered regions hidden in the realms of your mind. It can be classical, it can be pop, it can be electronic, it can be a long score from some soundtrack, a piece of opera, a techno track or a drum'n'bass thing: that depends on you and on your tastes. Music must produce exorcisms to make your demons flow or your angels fly. But if you're Michael Nyman, one of the finest composers around, then you don't only love music, you create it, you build perfect string quartets or write the best soundtracks around, collaborating with directors and other assorted stars of the music world.

We're all waiting inside the Circus Theatre in Pescara, Italy. Here Michael Nyman and Gore Vidal are awaited to receive an award to compliment their careers during the XI Scrittura e Immagine Film Festival. After a while Nyman himself arrives and unassumingly sits in the first row, his presence causes whispers and rumours around, he's a star after all. But, fortunately for us, he doesn't behave as if he were one: scattered fans arrive asking him to sign this or that music score, a CD, a piece of paper or to take a picture with him. It's a rather friendly atmosphere and actually nothing makes you suspect that this is a formal ceremony.

No, surely this is not the ceremony award of the Golden Globe for which Nyman was twice nominated in 1997 for Best Original Score in Gattaca and in 1999 for Best Original Score in The End of the Affair. "Actually I feel a bit nervous at getting this prize!" he exclaims when, after the last fan is gone, I get to him and ask a couple of questions. "I'm glad I don't have to do anything actually. I'm glad I don't have to play any music and that I just have to go there and take the prize! I feel very modest about it. In one sense I think 'Well, I deserve it,' but in another sense it has been a big surprise and it is also a big surprise and a privilege to be side by side with Gore Vidal. He's the real start, culturally speaking."

Though Nyman doesn't mention the Golden Globes, he admits that there would be another sort of "award" he would like to receive: "A prize for me would be if all the other music I've written not for film, such as string quartets, operas and concertos were well, surely not quite as well known as my music for the films, but if at least people were aware that I've this other life as a classical composer. But I'm very happy to be known for film music, for this music which I'm very proud of hearing right now playing in the background. Actually I can't complain, but I always will! Basically you want everything, you want people to know everything you do, no?"

But if at the Festival they had had to show all the movies which featured Michael Nyman's music it would have probably lasted a couple of months. "At the festival they showed three very important films," Nyman claims, "Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, Jane Campion's The Piano and Andrew Niccol's Gattaca and I think that these three movies are good examples of the range of my work. But I think that the best piece of music that I ever wrote for a film was for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover: it was the piece memorial that originally was dedicated to the Juventus fans who were killed in the Heysel Stadium, I think that's the strongest piece of film music and the interesting thing about it is that it wasn't a piece of film music. It was a piece of concept music, but I think that's the piece of music I've written that has the strongest effect on the film it accompanies, so in a way I'm proudest of that."

The man who worked with directors such as Jane Campion, Volker Schlöndorff, Neil Jordan and Michael Winterbottom, nurtures one dream, to go back to work with a legend of cinema, Peter Greenaway. "Well, I phoned him about six or eight months ago when I heard that he was doing his film Tulse Luper's Suitcases. We haven't really spoken for ten years, since Prospero's Books, so I phoned him and said that I wanted to write the soundtrack to his new film and he said 'Why?' and I said 'Because I think we work very well together and I like working with you, this is a project we've talked about a long time ago and I think I would be very suitable.' He said he would think about it and he would phone me, and I gave him my number but he hasn't rung, so it seems he's answered no, but I'm still keen on doing something with him." And talking about directors he'd like to work with, well, since he's in Italy, he can't forget mentioning Italian cinema. "I've been very fortunate to work with a lot of Italian directors, though I haven't worked directly with any of them. Maybe the greatest film I've accidentally collaborated to is La Stanza del Figlio by Nanni Moretti, which I haven't seen, but I'm told there is a very significant scene there which features my music," Nyman ponders for a while, then he brightens and adds, "But the next time, Nanni, I would like to write the whole score for you and not just part of it!"

Since Nyman seems so enthusiastic of Italy, it is convenient to remember that in October 2001, he played in Rome at the Teatro Argentina. "It was fantastic!" he enthuses "I did three concerts, there were three major new pieces, a choral piece, Moses, which was celebrating the Michelangelo statue restoration; a new soundtrack for a very old film, The Man with The Movie Camera, a 1929 Dziga Vertov film, and then a new collaboration with an Indian musician, a real kind of cross-cultural collaboration, a very very successful piece and maybe the start of a lot of those collaborations with musicians from other cultures. It seems to have been really well received. Last December I went to India for three weeks and I met very fine musicians. I came away from there with very intense ideas, so I think in the future I'll do other collaborations of this kind."

Nyman is surely delighted about his career, but in every man's life there is something to regret and sometimes to hide away in the darkest cupboard of memory. "There's only one piece of music I regret writing," he exhales, "and that was for a production of a play called The Italian Straw Hat which was done as a kind of comedy play that ran in London. It was done as a very stupid project and I wrote very stupid music for it. It's the only thing I'm uncomfortable with. But it's one project in 25 years, so I think it's not bad, after all I'm pleased and proud of everything else I've done!" Time for me to leave Michael Nyman and his genius, contentedly awaiting for the voice of the chairman of the festival panel to call him on the stage and award him for a special career, made of majestic hymns, endless symphonies, experimental tracks and unforgettable melodies.

Issue 8, January 2002 | next article

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Pics of Michael Nyman by Simona Fabiola Tieri.