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Friday, June 2, 2006


Instinctive creation

Staff writer

Most people know Michael Nyman for "The Piano" soundtrack, but there's a great deal more to the British minimalist composer than his lush, romantic score for the 1992 Jane Campion film.

News photo
Composer Michael Nyman tours Japan next week with the Michael Nyman Band.

There's the raucous, propulsive, baroque-inspired energy of his music for director Peter Greenaway; the string quartets, concertos and piano music; and the operas, among them "Facing Goya," a thriller about morality and cloning.

A prolific composer, his unceasing curiosity causes him to explore new forms with a trademark wit and brilliant craftsmanship. Not one to insulate himself from the world and only bare his soul through his music, Nyman has collaborated with a bewildering array of artists -- from classical Indian dancers and rock musicians to photographers, video game artists and authors.

Currently, he is working on a production of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Erendira" with Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa. Though the score is incomplete, audiences in Japan can get a taste of it, along with excerpts from his soundtracks, at three concerts next week by Nyman and the 30-year-running Michael Nyman Band.

The Japan Times spoke to Nyman by telephone recently about his long career as a highly popular yet slightly misunderstood composer.

Looking back over the past 30 years, your style has remained remarkably consistent.

When I started 30 years ago, I was 32; I was old as a composer to be starting out on a career. But because I didn't have to go through the youthful fumblings phase of finding out who I was as a composer, I hit the ground running as the Michael Nyman that we love or hate. Since then, it's been a continuous process of exploring, mining the kind of principles I laid down instinctively in '76, '77 and expanding on them. You see more possibilities, and the more collaboration you do, the more you're asked to modify and generate ideas. It's been a slow and inevitable and exciting process.

And it's internal; it's not really anything to do with finding out about the world outside. The whole thing about writing music is that it's a process that is totally separate from reality. The only reality is the one you create.

Your music seems to be moving toward something more lyrical. Why is that?

It's not really to do with me. It's to do with the films I do. Take "The Piano" as an example. There's no way that film would have been suitable with the type of music that I wrote for Greenaway. The nature of "The Piano" was lyricism here, and the lyricism that I found within myself, I didn't know I had it.

Are you consciously choosing more films like that now?

The kind of music which I write naturally, and which found itself naturally in Greenaway films 20 years or so ago, doesn't seem to have a place in the films that I'm asked to do now. When you think of [Michael Winterbottom's] "Wonderland," [Andrew Niccol's] "Gattaca," even [Laurence Dunmore's] "The Libertine," it needs lyricism, rather than the hard-edged, more rock 'n' rolly stuff. I can still do the funky stuff in operas, in concert music. I certainly don't want to be known as "Mr. Lyricism." I can do it very easily and I find it beautiful, but it is only part of my expressive world.

Despite the lyricism, your music's often associated with a kind of emotional detachment.

But now some people find my music far too emotional. Those people who respond to "The Piano," who respond to it as a lifestyle adjunct, who use it as an emotional massage or to have sex to, they find it very emotional. It was much more emotional than expected. But even when I use very tough, predetermined systems, those systems don't seem to de-emotionalize my music. Take my music for Greenaway films. We worked on the same structuring processes, but whereas his process was to take the emotion out of human beings, I rearticulated the human emotions by the musical material I used.

Film music is usually seen as a way of accentuating the mood or emotion of a scene, and it's hard to divorce the music from the images. But you regularly perform your music in concert form.

I don't write music that is deliberately subordinate to its environment. Because of the way that I write music and because there's something very strong and independent-minded about what I do, which is why directors ask me to do it, the music seems to inhabit both worlds: the world of the independent musical track and the world of film music track. You listen to the music, and you don't think it's more interesting if you can see the images from (Peter Greenaway's) "The Draughtsman's Contract." I write music instinctively. Some of the music I write just happens to be written for film and used in film.

You're credited with first using the term "minimalism" in relation to music when you were a critic for The Spectator. You've been labeled a minimalist composer yourself. Do you find that restrictive?

No, not really. Although I was a critic who devised the term for composers, and the academic in me acknowledges that I was and am a minimalist, the music that I've written and the music that other minimalists -- so-called -- have written just expands the concept to the point where it ceases to have any value.

You've said you're particularly interested in writing opera at the moment. Why is that?

Because it allows you to be grown-up as a human being. You're not sort of stuck with manipulating notes on a piece of paper in a concert hall. I can engage with other human beings who are writers and designers, and I can engage with subject matter that I'm interested in. Because there is a sense that as a composer you spin around in a world where, in a sense, only notes exist.

Do you presently have any plans for operas?

I've got one or two things planned. I want to do an opera with Ninagawa-san. The problem is getting an opera house to put it on. If any Tokyo opera house panjandrums are reading this, commission an opera for me!

Michael Nyman and the Michael Nyman Band will perform highlights from his film scores, including "The Piano," "The Libertine" and the Greenaway films, as well as from his new score for Marquez's "Erendira" with singer Akinori Nakagawa, at Mielparque Hall in Tokyo, 7 p.m. on June 9; at Theatre BRAVA! in Osaka, 4 p.m. on June 10; and the Nihon Seinenkan Hall in Tokyo, 5 p.m. on June 11. Tickets cost 7,000 yen/8,000 yen. For more information call (03) 3490-4949.

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