Composer and pianist Michael Nyman is not only lauded for his own modular, repetition-based approach to music, he introduced the term "minimal music" -- a precursor to "minimalism" -- through his work as a critic in the 1960s. More recognized by the broader public for his film scores, he began a lasting partnership with director Peter Greenaway in the late '70s that included such arthouse releases as 1989's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and 1991's Prospero's Books. It was his BAFTA-nominated score for Jane Campion's 1993 film The Piano that became his best-known work, however; his 1994 expansion, The Piano Concerto, reached the Top Ten of the Billboard Traditional Classical Albums chart. In the meantime, he ventured into forms including opera, ballet, and varied chamber music. His many works inspired by literature range from art songs set to the words of Shakespeare and Rimbaud to 2007's 8 Lust Songs, featuring the erotic poetry of Pietro Aretino. Across his output, Nyman's musical signatures include not only his use of propulsive repetition but also a palette of idiosyncratic instrumental touches -- thumping keyboards, "rude" bass clarinets and baritone saxophones, and extreme high and low octave doublings. In 2008, he was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II. Still premiering compositions and scoring for the screen throughout the next decade, his long-running ensemble the Michael Nyman Band launched a 40th anniversary tour in 2018.
Born Michael Laurence Nyman in Stratford, East London, on March 23, 1944, Nyman attended the Royal Academy of Music from 1961 to 1964, studying with, among others, Alan Bush and Geraint Jones. During his three years as a Ph.D. student at King's College under Thurston Dart (a musicologist specializing in the English Baroque), he spent a year as an exchange student, studying the folk music of Romania. Under Dart's tutelage, Nyman was introduced to 16th and 17th century English rounds and canons, their repetitive, contrapuntal lines highly influencing his own later work. Dart also encouraged his trip to Romania. Upon graduating in 1967, Nyman found himself disconnected from both the pop music of the times and the school of modern composition heralded by Stockhausen. As a result, from 1964 to 1976, he worked as a music critic, writing for publications including The Listener, New Statesman, and The Spectator. In a 1968 review of British composer Cornelius Cardew, he coined the term "minimal" as a means of musical description.
During this same period, Nyman did continue performing, appearing with artists ranging from the Scratch Orchestra and Portsmouth Sinfonia to Steve Reich and the Flying Lizards. In 1974, he wrote the influential book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, an exploration of the influence of John Cage on a generation of composers and performers. Perhaps its most profound impact was on Nyman himself, who through writing the book seemed to discover his own muse. In 1976, he accepted an invitation from Harrison Birtwistle, Director of Music at the National Theatre, to arrange a number of 18th century Venetian popular songs for a production of Goldoni's Il Campiello. Nyman's arrangements consisted of medieval instruments -- rebecs, sackbuts and shawms, bass drums, soprano saxophones, and the like -- designed for maximum loudness to produce a distinctive instrumental color. When the production ended, he began composing original music merely to keep the same group of musicians together. Originally an acoustic unit, when rechristened the Michael Nyman Band in the early '80s, this type of amplification became essential to their aesthetic.
Having already collaborated with the director on a number of short films and 1980's The Falls, Nyman's first major success came in 1982 with the score to the Greenaway film The Draughtsman's Contract. His subsequent collaborations with Greenaway on pictures including 1988's Drowning by Numbers, 1989's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and 1991's Prospero's Books, became among his most high-profile works, with their notoriety coming at the risk of overshadowing his forays into opera, chamber music, vocal music, and dance scores.
While Mozart was a central influence in much of Nyman's work (1976's In Re Don Giovanni, 1983's I'll Stake My Cremona to a Jew's Trump), Schumann was the major inspiration behind his acclaimed 1986 chamber opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Later, 1988's String Quartet No. 2, a piece commissioned for the Indian dancer and choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, was shaded by Bartók. In 1990, Nyman composed Six Celan Songs, a work based on the poems of Paul Celan, for the German cabaret singer Ute Lemper. The two had worked together previously on his score for Prospero's Books. Nyman's most emotional compositions to that point, the songs served as the clear impetus for his score to Jane Campion's 1993 film The Piano. Like so many of his compositions, he obsessively reworked the music to The Piano time and time again, its haunting melodies reappearing arranged for standard piano concerto (The Piano Concerto), for two pianos, for chamber ensemble, for soprano saxophone and strings (Lost and Found), and for soprano and string quartet (The Piano Sings). While 1992's The Upside-Down Violin reflected Nyman's continuing fascination with traditional regional folk music, 1993's MGV, or Musique a Grande Vitesse, returned to the dynamic sounds of the Michael Nyman Band. His other major works from this period include 1993's Yamamoto Perpetuo (a composition for unaccompanied violin written for Alexander Balanescu), 1994's solo harpsichord work Tango for Tim, and 1995's String Quartet No. 4, which was based on Yamamoto Perpetuo. Meanwhile still composing for film, he scored 1995's Carrington and 1997's Gattaca as well as the 1999 Michael Winterbottom film Wonderland.
The year 2000 saw the premiere of Nyman's opera Facing Goya. Featuring a libretto by Victoria Hardie, it was an expansion of their 1987 one-act opera Vital Statistics. He then composed a pair of operas with playwright Michael Hastings: 2003's Man and Boy: Dada and 2005's Love Counts. Recorded shortly after the work's premiere, the album 8 Lust Songs: I Sonetti Lussuriosi was released on Nyman's own MN Records in 2008, the same year he was awarded the CBE for his services to music.
Nyman's 2009 opera, Sparkie: Cage and Beyond, was written in collaboration with Carsten Nicolai, and his 2011 opera, Prologue to Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, featured librettist Vera Pavlova. Throughout the decade, in addition to scoring various films including several documentaries, Nyman composed a song cycle, piano quintet, and Trumpet & String Quartet (2013), among various other projects. In 2015, as part of the Odessa International Film Festival, he provided live accompaniment to the silent film Man with a Movie Camera on the famed Potemkin Stairs. The Michael Nyman Band celebrated their 40th anniversary with a tour in 2018. A more commercial film than he had done of late, 2020's Maigret et la Jeune Morte, featured Nyman's music alongside Gérard Depardieu's turn as the famous French detective.
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