An Interview with Michael Nyman by Marco Werba
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/No. 34/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Can you tell us something about your musical training?
I started studying music quite late around the age of seven, and started playing piano at ten. I had a very dedicated teacher, so I had a complete musical education. I was known as a child prodigy in the local newspapers and that pleased me very much. Around the age of eleven or twelve until seventeen I started writing on my own, but without really completing anything. I studied piano and harpsichord as well as composition, but without considering myself strictly as a composer.
When did you first become interested in film music?
I remember the first score that I noticed in a film, it was THE BIG COUNTRY. At that time I was maybe thirteen or fourteen, and it really impressed me. It was a western with Jean Simmons and it was scored by Jerome Moross. It’s a very, very famous score and it was the first film score that gave me some excitement. As a composer, I had a strange development. I wrote four compositions between 1961 and ‘64, and then stopped writing music. Through the late ‘60s and early ‘70s I was a music critic, then I bought one of the very first synthesizers and thought I would become a composer again. This was the around 1970, time when Peter Greenaway and I were working on an animated children’s project.
I’d actually met Greenaway around 1965 and we had the opportunity to do something together. But the project that Greenaway had in mind failed, and I didn’t have the opportunity to write film music again until 1976, so basically I had fourteen years of silence as a composer. My first film assignment came from Peter Greenaway, with the film FROM ONE TO ONE HUNDRED. It was a kind of arithmetical systematic film in which he shot a sequence of numbers each at a different location and then edited them together in ascending order in the film. It was a sort of organized exercise and he asked me to write the score for that.
I have noticed, listening to THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT, that your music was a mixture of classical and modern music; a sort of classical structure that repeats the same harmonic pattern, introducing counterpointed melodies subject to variations. Is that your personal music style?
Yes. That’s what we can call the “classical Michael Nyman style”, and it’s certainly reflected in THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT.
There’s one piece from that film that I have especially appreciated. I can’t remember the title but I know it’s the one that has a slow romantic feeling compared with the rest of the music. A sort of overdubbing system with the violin playing one melody on a track, then another melody on another track until it reaches a complex structure.
When I started listening and listening to American “minimalist” music I discovered this sort of repeated pattern that was the basis of their work, but if you just take repetition as the main character you have to be careful of what you repeat and how you repeat it. Many “repetitive” composers have many different methods of this kind of “operation”. So the material is different. What interests me now is the repetition of long harmonic sequences. With my classical training, I was influenced by Palestrina and others, and I discovered that I was doing things similar to various techniques of the 17th or 18th Century — repeating musical phrases with different figurations, and with a very rigid form, basically cumulative and not necessarily dramatic in the sense of what we consider romantic variations of the i9th Century. What is really interesting is that in this way you can get different information at the same time: different melodic lines going simultaneously. So the piece could have this development and stand on its own and that was the exciting side of it.
Now, coming back to THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT, Peter and I decided that the music should be based on 18th Century music, but that I was free to rewrite it in my own way. So I used variations — pieces of Purcell — as the base of my score, re-arranging it but without losing its identity. In most film music scores, a director asks you to imitate 17th Century music and you only have the opportunity to write a sort of pastiche or an imitation of a specific style, and that doesn’t interest me at all, by taking notations from that period and by transforming them through our period I succeeded in getting what I wished. Obviously, music of that period suits the picture well, but it was written in the 18th Century. So I have to pass it through our period.
That was one of the aspects. The other aspect was that Peter, for THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT, had twelve different drawings and he wanted me to do a different theme for each drawing. So you can identify a place, a time, with a specific music as well as a specific location and period in which the drawing has been made. I also used these variations, trapped in their own repetitive system, as an allegory to the fact that they were musical pieces confined to their own “Frame.” Once I started composing, I thought that the kind of music that I would prefer to write for films was the one in which I could collaborate with the director before he shot the film. Also, I don’t really make a distinction between a composer and a “film-music composer”; some music happens to be intended for a film and some other for concert hails,
Did Peter Greenaway give you creative freedom in scoring the film?
Yes, totally. Once we had the agreement that in THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT there were twelve drawings and twelve pieces of music based on Purcell, I was totally free to do what I wanted.
I believe you have your own orchestra…
Yes it’s the Michael Nyman Band, which usually performs my music. Not a regular ensemble, just when I need that particular combination I put together the same musicians and form the band. By using the same people, I give it a kind of identity.
Greenaway’s documentary, MAKING THE SPLASH, contained no dialog or sound effects. What was your impression of scoring this film?
Well, I think you’ve gathered that I’m the kind of man who wants to be as free as possible. Now, obviously with THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT, while I had the freedom to write what I wanted up to a point, I had to consider dialog, sound effects, or wonder if a particular feeling had been caught. Instead, with MAKING A SPLASH, Peter basically said to me: this is the script, it will last such a length of time, make me a piece of music that lasts 25 minutes that has eight sections and the last section must have a “popular” feeling. Once I wrote this piece, we discussed it and he approved, I made a piano demo tape with a click-track and added it to the film. Some sequences were very short so everything had to be very precise with the timing. Then, I used the click-track from the piano version and recorded the orchestra.
This time I don’t think I did something very repetitive. It seems to be that way, but it isn’t, While I repeat the same harmonic structure or the same rhythm, something is changing. Basically, I’m not so interested in something extremely repetitive; I repeat it three or four times and then I change. In this case, it’s a music that is continuously changing and growing. At the end it gets a sort of rock ‘n’ roll rhythm. So I took this little melodic fragment and just developed it. It’s a sort of combination and contradiction between what repeats and what is constantly changing. This is something to which I was particularly interested at that time.
I thought your score for DROWNINGS BY NUMBERS was quite different from your previous scores, and had a sort of romantic feeling.
I don’t know if it’s romantic, it’s actually simpler and more direct and more lyrical. Again, the instructions from Peter Greenaway were to use some extracts from classical compositions (Mozart) and use them in a particular way each time there was a murder. What he wanted from me was that my music be a direct consequence of that Mozart movement. So it had a very different unity from THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT.
I took the Mozart piece and analyzed it. Obviously, quite a lot of music from my previous works were based on classical models. So, I analyzed it not in a way that a classical music analysis would do, but in the way it interested me: through its harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structure. Then I wrote and wrote and wrote, it was a kind of musical composition exercise that had its compositional model.
I had in the back of my mind that this was a film that had a particular kind of atmosphere, a particular kind of mood. I thought the story was rather lyrical with a sense of regret and death. The music that I wrote had the tendency to emphasize those particular feelings and this made me look at the Mozart piece in a particular way. The music in the film is not the usual Peter Greenaway music. It’s just supporting the action. The film itself does not allow the music to dominate the images. If you listen to the record, you will see that the music is rich and has its own identity. Usually Peter lets the music dominate, but there, for whatever reason, he just wanted a background score. There’s a strong sense of unity in the film and in he album I think you’ll notice that all the music is a kind of variation on that Mozart movement. I’m very pleased with that score compared to a lot of things that I’ve done in the past. If I do have a kind of form as a film-music composer it’s that I tend to over-write. I make things too complicated or I make things that demand to be prominent. Instead, here, you have a kind of simple melody. In the past, I would have added, on top of that, another melody and another melody and another melody. So it was a break for me to be able to do that. To want to add too many things is basically a matter of insecurity.
Why didn’t you score Peter Greenaway’s previous film, THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT.
I think Peter wanted to change. We have done ten films together in about eight years. For this film, Wim Mertens wrote the more “repetitive” kind of music and Glenn Branca the more “contemporary” part. I found that the score, related to the film, wasn’t particularly successful. What is curious is that with Peter Greenaway you could think any kind of repetitive music will work, but in fact it doesn’t. When I saw that film (and I was really sad that I didn’t score it), I compared the music there with my previous music and I found it totally artificial.
Are you working now with Peter again?
Yes. Peter is starting to shoot in January  a film called THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER, which is a kind of 18th Century revenge tragedy set in a restaurant. It has a lot of black humor, sex and violence. Peter said to me that he wanted a very ironic, funereal, fascist score. Peter is also preparing another film (based on “The Tempest”) that will start just after the other. One of the actors will be John Gilbert and it’s going to be totally different and much more experimental. Since “The Tempest” takes place on an island and one of the characters says” “This Island is full of voices”, I will work on sampled voices combining them with Instruments. For a long time I’ve wanted to do this kind of mix between natural and artificial sounds, changing the balance of the different sounds and making it difficult to distinguish between real sounds and artificial ones. It will need a long mixing session; that makes more recording hours than previous works so it will also be more expensive.