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Stephen D Chakwin Jr
American Record Guide, March 2011

Michael Nyman is a talented composer and performer with a very deep knowledge of music, from the Renaissance to the present. He is also a composer who loves tunes and rhythm, who delights in the sheer sounds that instruments produce. You will find growling low saxophones and roaring brasses, ethereal string sounds, delicate woodwind tracings. Naturally the new music establishment in London had no idea what to make of him, and he wound up marginalized as a music critic—a very perceptive one, as can be imagined. He seems to have been the inventor of the term “minimalism”.

Eventually he was befriended by Steve Reich, who told him to ignore the naysayers and write music. A modern composer writing tuneful, rhythmically catchy music has little chance of being taken seriously in some circles, so Nyman found himself writing music for films, where he made a name for himself in the very strange but visually striking films of Peter Greenaway and then as the soundtrack composer for The Piano. That turned into a popular hit, and Nyman became famous and prosperous.

One of his peculiarities is that his music is sometimes based on the music of others. In fact, the catalog aria from Don Giovanni with its pulsing accompaniment and layers of musical events, like different overlapping worlds, was a seed from which much of his style grew. You can hear an echo of that in the last piece on the concert disc, ‘In re Don Giovanni’. Mozart’s great Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, or, to be more precise, a couple of notes of it, became the basis for the music for Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers, and the music of Purcell lies hidden like the solution to a mystery in the dark murder mystery of The Draughtsman’s Contract.

Nyman had a falling out with Greenaway over the music in Prospero’s Books, and the music he wrote for the Greenaway films was recycled into other projects, including the wonderful Man on a Wire a documentary about Philip Petit’s walk on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers.

The best introduction to Nyman’s music was recorded in Tokyo by The Michael Nyman Band in 1992 and issued on Argo as “The Essential Michael Nyman”. Both meanings of “essential” are in that title: it captures the essence of Nyman as a composer and it is essential to anyone wondering whether high art and accessibility can coexist in modern art music (Nyman’s answer: of course they can—just listen!).

These two videos are welcome looks into Nyman’s world. One of them is a kind of profile. It tells a little about Nyman the person (far from the whole story: the real Nyman is a complex and apparently sometimes difficult man) and a bit more of Nyman the musician. Some people find art easier to approach if they have some kind of connection to the artist. They would welcome this. On one level, it is the story of a rise from a humble and financially straitened childhood to a moment of supreme triumph for a British composer-performer: an appearance at the Proms. On another, it is a look into some of the many things that make up the personality through which this music has passed into existence.

Lots to learn there. Nyman’s music is often loud—really loud. And intense. He wants your attention on all levels, including the visceral, and has learned from pop music, with its huge energy from simple chords and heavy amplification. The musicians have to work hard. The Michael Nyman Band in its modern incarnation is 12 players (originally, it seems to have been an ensemble using old instruments to play modern music. Listen to the sound track of Prospero’s Books to get an idea of how thrilling that could be). To a string quartet is added an electric guitar, three woodwind players (usually playing saxophones: two soprano and one baritone), three brass players (trumpet, horn, and trombone), and Nyman on piano. Everyone is either heavily amplified or playing into microphones. Nyman says that no other ensemble seems to be able to play his music with the intensity that it needs. The players confirm this. The trombonist talks of bleeding lips after concerts. The baritone sax player talks of Nyman constantly seeking to get more out of them. There’s never enough. The violinist is worried about injuring herself (and yet, in the concert video, she is practically shining with pleasure as she plays).

The music is sheer joy. Listen to ‘Wheelbarrow Walk’, one of the Mozart mutations from Drowning by Numbers. It starts with the strings turning Mozart’s notes into a kind of madrigal—Monteverdi on drugs. Gradually the other instruments join in, the baritone sax with a bass simultaneously obscene and profound (somewhere I imagine Mozart smiling and applauding enthusiastically), then the others until the whole ensemble is in and the four notes have turned into a pulsing universe, a huge construction of motion and stability at the same time. Some choreographer is going to discover this piece one of these days and do great things.

‘Knowing the Ropes’ is more Mozart from the same film. This time the notes come back as the ultimate Rossini Overture—the rhythmic shape, the harmonic motion, the crescendos. But it’s in the grand minor mode of Mozart’s slow movement (C minor, if you recall). The string figurations are in sped-up time; and the Rossiniesque sighs add pathos—comic pathos to start. But then things get strange. The figurations start circling around through modulations and become? You get to decide. Desperate? Triumphant? Transfigured? Something else? Whatever it is, it’s very intense; and then, like the sun rising, Mozart’s grand pathetic theme from the same movement appears—a kind of chorale, setting a grand, tragic crown on this beautiful and intricate construction. What art other than music could accomplish such a thing?

These are two of the 17 pieces that were played to the audience in Halle on the second disc. The audience seemed appreciative in a stolid kind of way. With this kind of music-making, they should have been levitating.

The 1992 disc shows a different approach to this music. The playing there was a little looser, more individual, and even more colorful. Over time, Nyman’s intensity has forged his ensemble into the musical equivalent of a dwarf star: compact, tight, incredibly concentrated.

This is not music for everyone. If you want lullabies to accompany the sleep of your musical experience, go elsewhere. But if living music, speaking the language of this time and taking up the endless challenges of the past, is something you want to hear, listen to these discs. Start with the documentary. There’s a whole new world waiting for you here.

Thomas Britt
PopMatters, December 2010

How does anyone sit still during a performance by the Michael Nyman Band? So insistent, so physical, is the English composer’s music that members of his band admit to struggling to endure a single selection, let alone an entire concert. Many of the players nod and sway wildly, maneuvering through the repetitive notes. In return for these endurance tests, they are met with perfectly still, deferential audiences. Perhaps the calmness is a sign of respect, but if any music ever deserved a pogoing crowd, it is Nyman’s.

Of course, the classical music world in which Nyman exists is a rather closed, calm world. Closed, at times, it seems, even to the esteemed composer himself. His insider/outsider status is one of the ideas raised, but not fully explored, in Sylvia Beck’s Michael Nyman – Composer in Progress. The documentary is an all-too conventional portrait of an extraordinary artist, but the film’s occasionally surprising insights and revelations do bring us briefly inside the world of the composer as he continues to grow beyond the zones for which he’s most well known.

Having achieved acclaim and commercial success with film scores for Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract and Jane Campion’s The Piano, Nyman enjoys the benefits of being known to a wide audience, but he’s not necessarily embraced by the exclusive audience that many composers seek. In other words, many casual music listeners/filmgoers can hum along to selections from The Piano, but that doesn’t translate into acceptance from the classical music elite. As evidence of this struggle for status, the film positions his inclusion in the 2009 BBC Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall as a belated and hard-won vindication. Although Beck concludes with this suggestion of a career triumph, the film is ultimately too episodic to link such a high point with a comprehensive arc of Nyman’s life and work. More interesting are observations about what inspires and defines the composer’s creations and motivates him to seek new artistic experiences.

Interviews with Nyman and his band members reflect a passion for constantly pushing the limits of composition and performance. His passion is genuine, triggered by an early fixation with Mozart that transformed into an aggressive piano style. Carsten Nicolai, an artist and musician who appears in the documentary, describes this style as “machine like…very dense and even manic.” Nyman’s band members, many of whom have played with him for two decades, take up the mantle of pursuing music that, according to trombonist Nigel Barr, is nearly “impossible” to play. Violinist Gaby Lester says, “Playing Michael’s music hurts. It hurts my arm.” She admits to faking it during loud brass parts so that her arm doesn’t wear out. The trombonists, she says, don’t have the opportunity to sit anything out, and the result is that their lips have been known to bleed from the effort.

These testimonials—set to “An Eye for Optical Theory”, a mainstay of the band’s set that baritone saxophonist Andy Findon says is difficult to even imagine playing live—could make Nyman seem like a joyless taskmaster. Though he does appear to want maximum control over performances of his compositions, he is good natured and complimentary of the band and their skills. His music also provides them with the unique opportunity to really “play out”. Barr comments that the Michael Nyman Band is the only place a brass player can play so loud and not be told to quiet down.

The picture of Nyman that emerges in these interviews is that of a man who has figured out the precise sound he wants to hear and assembled the right people for the job. On his own, however, he’s more adventurous. We see his recent forays into photography and video art, which he describes as a way to “turn passing reality into objects”. His visual work has an unmistakable beginner’s quality—a fact he acknowledges as he asks a gallery owner whether he would have received such an exhibition if his name weren’t Michael Nyman. In another scene, he sits at a table with his brother David and takes digital photographs of old family pictures. At a piano store, he requests the “worst” piano and is led to the basement, where he plays a purposefully, humorously atonal selection from The Piano. All of these scenes reveal his youthful enchantment with art, music, and the mundane objects of life that are easy to overlook. This quest for new inspiration keeps the composer “in progress”, and Beck’s film is most effective when the cameras run parallel to Nyman’s present search rather than trumpet his history.

Included in the box set with Michael Nyman – Composer in Progress is another DVD, Michael Nyman In Concert. While the documentary is a functional overview of the composer, the concert DVD is by far the better feature, as we see the Michael Nyman Band at full speed. Recorded on 22 October 2009 at Studio Halle, and directed by Oliver Becker, this concert features the German premiere of “The Musicologist Scores” as well as several other highlights from Nyman’s career. Particularly well represented are scores for Peter Greenaway films The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed & Two Noughts, and Drowning by Numbers. Though there are a few bobbing heads in the audience at Studio Halle, most of those in attendance are respectfully still. However, the DVD release of Michael Nyman In Concert allows viewers at home to follow the lead of the Michael Nyman Band and move to the music. Home viewing also allows pausing to avoid exhaustion—a luxury unavailable to Nyman’s dedicated players.

Frank Swietek
Video Librarian, December 2010

This two-DVD set offers a fine introduction to the life and work of contemporary British composer-performer Michael Nyman, best known for his film scores. The first disc features filmmaker Silvia Beck’s biographical portrait Michael Nyman – Composer in Progress, which includes much quasi-autobiographical material drawn from interviews with Nyman (as well as footage of the composer traveling and going about his daily routine), along with excerpts from conversations with relatives and colleagues. Nyman’s cinematic work is documented via clips from films including Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, Jane Campion’s The Piano, and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ogre, but only Schlöndorff discusses Nyman’s contribution. The documentary appropriately closes with reference to Nyman’s recent forays into video art and an appearance of the Michael Nyman Band at London’s famed Proms concerts—a central event in England’s cultural life—which underscores Nyman’s acceptance into the British musical establishment. The second DVD serves up a 2009 performance in Halle, Germany (Handel’s birthplace) by Nyman’s 12-member ensemble. The 19 selections certainly exhibit the composer’s distinctive musical voice—marked by growling lower brass textures and driving ostinatos—and include his recent work “The Musicologist Scores,” which alludes to Handel’s music, just as earlier compositions reference Purcell and Mozart. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, and PCM stereo, this is recommended.

Mark Swed
Los Angeles Times, November 2010

The British Minimalist Michael Nyman is the subject of an illuminating documentary that is part of a two-DVD Arthaus-Musik set. The second disc contains a terrific live concert by the Michael Nyman band recorded in Halle, Germany, Handel’s hometown. Come December, the month of “The Messiah,” you may be in need of a strong Handel antidote. If so, Professor Nyman’s got the cure. His concert includes the German premiere of his raucous Handel tribute, “The Musicologist Scores.”

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