Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


NYMAN, Michael

(b 23 March '44, London) Composer. Studied at the Royal Academy and at King's College, out of sympathy with the then orthodoxy of the 'Darmstadt serialists' Boulez and Stockhausen; his teachers incl. the communist Alan Bush and the baroque authority Thurston Dart. He worked as a music critic, published Experimental Music -- Cage And Beyond '74 and pioneered the transfer of the term 'minimalism' from art to music. (John Cage had given permission for the use of the past as a resource, and in general indicated alternatives to serialism.) Nyman played with Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra (see AMM), Steve Reich, the Portsmouth Sinfonietta, the Flying Lizards etc; he began composing when Harrison Birtwistle asked him to arr. music for a performance of Goldoni's Il Campiello '76: he assembled a band of ancient and modern instruments, instructing it to play at maximum volume: he had found his m‚tier of combining old and new, and wishing to keep the band together, he carried on with In Re Don Giovanni, putting his spin on Mozart.

He collaborated with Peter Greenaway on short films, then The Draughtman's Contract '82 adapted Purcell, Drowning By Numbers '86 used Mozart again, and they worked together on A Zed And Two Noughts '85, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover '89 and Prospero's Books '91, the latter adapting Shakespeare's The Tempest to a clever video extravaganza starring John Gielgud (who said that Greenaway didn't understand the play); Nyman fashioned a four-piece concert suite from the music. On The Fiddle is a trio of pieces from scores for Greenaway (the title from the look-out man for street gamblers: when a cop appeared the fiddler would start playing furiously, warning the conmen); it was written first for violin and piano, then Nyman made a version for orchestra for violinist Jonathan Carney. He was also writing for the concert hall, incl. since the late '80s four string quartets, chamber operas The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat '86 and Vital Statistics '97, a trombone concerto for Christian Lindberg, a double concerto commissioned by Mazda for saxophone (John Harle) and cello (Julian Lloyd Webber), and much else. More commissions incl. pieces marking the bicentenary of the French Revolution '89, the opening of the Paris--Lille high- speed rail link '93 and A.E.T. ('After Extra Time') for the European Cup '96.

Carrying on with film music, the romantic melodrama The Piano '93 by New Zealand writer/director Jane Campion brought Nyman his greatest success, the soundtrack album a classical best-seller (top 50 pop album in USA '94) and The Piano Concerto derived from it. More films incl. Patrice Leconte's The Hairdresser's Husband '91, Diane Kurys's A La Folie '94, Christopher Hampton's Carrington '95 (adapting his third string quartet), an animated version of The Diary Of Anne Frank '95 and Volker Schlondorf's The Ogre '96; sci-fi thriller Gattaca '98; there were more films, TV music, chamber and ballet music as well. His best-known music has a minimalist repetitive style similar to that of Philip Glass's Glassworks, with not much apparently adventurous about it, the pumping bass making a connection between the baroque and the rock eras; but his music has matured from cheekiness to emotional content, not always hewing to the minimalist party line. His searing Six Celan Songs '90 are settings of Paul Celan, who saw his parents taken off to death camps and who later committed suicide; they have been recorded by Ute Lemper, who appeared in Prospero's Books.