, August 2011
Michael Nyman is one of those figures I discovered in the 1970s, when he was then an “experimental” composer. One of his early recordings was on Obscure, a label run by Brian Eno. I followed his work for several years, notably on an early cassette called Recent English Experimental Music (listed as the oldest release on the discography page of his website), then on From Brussels With Love, a compilation from the now-defunct Belgian label Les Disques du Crépuscule, and through his soundtracks for short and long films by Peter Greenaway.
Nyman has since had a success that has brought him into the mainstream. His breakthrough was his soundtrack for Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract, where Nyman created a fusion of 17th century English music (notably Purcell) and minimalism that hit a nerve at the time. Nyman continued composing, including scores for other Greenaway films, until his big hit, in 1993, with his soundtrack for Jane Campion’s film The Piano, which has sold more than 3 million copies. Nyman’s fusion of minimal and classical, together with often strong rhythmic structures, makes his music among the most accessible of the minimalists.
This documentary presents a brief overview of Nyman’s music and career, with a pretty standard structure. Interviews with the composer, interviews with musicians who play in his ensemble, short excerpts of performances, clips of the composer in various countries, and so on. The film is competent and moves along at a nice pace; the 52 minutes pass quickly. But, like most such documentaries, it barely scratches the surface of a career as long as Nyman’s. It also lacks any longer performances, which would allow viewers the better to grasp Nyman’s music. It turns out that there is a second edition of this documentary in a 2-DVD set, which does contain a short concert; if you’re interested, look for that version instead.
This is a good way to get a glimpse of one of the most interesting composers of the last few decades, and one who has always made music his own way, performing with his own ensemble: the Michael Nyman Band, a group of a dozen musicians.