What will history make of erstwhile Essex boy, outspoken critic, minimalist composer, experimental rock pianist, bandleader, visual artist and bespectacled Queen’s Park Rangers fan, Michael Nyman?

One of the most qualified musicologists to provide the answer might have been the composer himself, whose 1976 book, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, gives an incisive account of the varied and changing musical landscape from 1950 to 1970. In it, Nyman reveals the democratic impulse to make music with minimal means – from the 4'33" silence of Cage to the Fluxus experiments of La Monte Young to its similarly anarchic expression in the work of Cornelius Cardew and his Scratch Orchestra, in which Nyman himself played.

But the musicologist’s cogent analysis of British experimental music necessarily comes to an end when his own career as a composer is only just beginning: it was Nyman’s insights into the music of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, together with his immersion in the British experimental music scene – including classes with Cardew at Morley College and performing in the self-proclaimed ‘world’s worst orchestra’, the Portsmouth Sinfonia – that inspired his own return to composition. Open to and performable by anyone, minimal music gave Nyman a voice that was tonal, visceral and, in contrast to the complexity of 12-tone serial music, accessible.

When was Michael Nyman born and where did he grow up?

Michael Nyman was born in London on 23 March 1944. He grew up in Chingford, Essex, in a non-musical Jewish family. It was only when his primary school teacher noticed his musical talent, nurturing his singing, piano, theory and musical appreciation, that Nyman began to realise his potential as a composer. But still, early on it is possible to see in the young Nyman the collector mentality that characterises his style: from an early age, he would collect cigarette cards, matchboxes and the details of car number plates. His hobby hints not only at his attraction to the obsessive qualities found in Greenaway’s films – his first Greenaway piece, appearing in The Falls, was the ‘Birdlist Song’, a work in which soprano Lucie Skeaping listed birds on a single, sforzando, high repeated note – but would also inspire his opera Man and Boy: Dada, based on an exhibition in Düsseldorf of the bus tickets and odds and ends the artist collected as a child.

Where did Michael Nyman study music?

After studying at the Royal Academy, Nyman’s musical horizons were widened at King’s College, London, by musicologist and conductor Thurston Dart, who passed on his passion for rounds, canons and catches and encouraged him to explore folk music. In 1964, Nyman travelled to Romania, discovering folksong that would resurface in his String Quartet No. 3. In 1964, too, he attended the summer school held by Harrison Birtwistle and Michael Tippett at Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, where he became interested in serialism. It sparked his creative crisis – just as at the Academy, Nyman felt that ‘I wasn’t really one of them’, so at the serialists’ summer school he realised he could no longer compose the Brittenesque music he had been writing at the Academy.

What inspired Michael Nyman's style?

Nyman discovered his style by looking to Baroque music, arranging 18th-century gondoliers’ songs in his incidental music for a staging of Carlo Goldoni’s Il Campiello at the Old Vic in 1976. The production’s motley mix of modern and medieval instruments formed the foundation for his own ensemble, which would feature old and ‘new’ instruments – rebecs and shawms alongside saxophones and banjo – all playing as loudly as possible. The same historical awareness would also inspire his reworkings of past composers: from Mozart, in Nyman’s first major concert piece, Re Don Giovanni, to Purcell, most memorably reused in his score for Peter Greenaway’s breakthrough film, Draughtsman’s Contract (1982). But as his collaborations with Greenaway brought him ever-larger audiences, so the questions surrounding his recycling of others’ works came under closer scrutiny. How, his critics would ask, does he get away with it?

Nyman refers to history for the answer: that borrowing is nothing new; Bach looked to Vivaldi concertos just as Vivaldi looked to Corelli’s concertos. This year Nyman was commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Liverpool Cathedral to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. The resulting work, his Eleventh Symphony, is a 50-minute work for choir and orchestra that repurposed, among his own music, a phrase from Purcell’s opera King Arthur. Nyman had first presented the Purcell as Memorial, a piece written in memory of the Juventus FC fans killed in the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985. It has also appeared in his soundtrack for Greenaway’s revenge tragedy The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, bringing memories of that film’s brilliant yet brutal scene – in which the wife’s lover is served to her husband at a banquet – to bear on the commemoration of a real-life tragedy.

So is Nyman’s Baroque-styled parody, perhaps, the sign of a composer who, having discovered his voice overnight, struggles to find new things to say? Certainly, his creative frustrations over the years have been many: with Greenaway for an insensitive use of his music in their final film, Prospero’s Books, which marked their falling out after an 18-film collaboration spanning more than a decade; with the British opera scene – though he has written three operas, he has never been commissioned by the Royal Opera House or English National Opera; and with Hollywood – his theme for The Piano (not even Oscar-nominated, he would later complain) led to the Jude Law sci-fi Gattaca, his Daman Albarn collaboration on Ravenous and Neil Jordan’s adaptation of The End of the Affair, but never to being fully embraced by the film industry. Meanwhile, the contemporary music scene has been sniffy – about Nyman’s large audiences, his soundtracks, his crude engagement with the business of making money. And so it is that Nyman, who in recent years left London to live in Mexico City, now embraces his status as British contemporary music’s outsider.

Yet, even in his late 70s, he is also one of the most commercially successful British classical composers. The sound of his band – chugging rhythms, borrowed Baroque bass lines, ramped-up repetitions – is unmistakably his own. Likewise, his reflective solo piano works are not only popular but distinctive, the rippling rustic Romanticism and folksy melancholy that you find providing the voice for the mute Ada in his score for Jane Campion’s film The Piano clearly rubbing off on that other popular composer-pianist Ludovico Einaudi (whose music Shane Meadows has in turn popularised on film with This is Britain). Far from offering a sign of expediency, Nyman’s borrowings have found a more nuanced expression on the operatic stage, not least in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (1986), based on neurologist Oliver Sacks’s case study of a professional singer whose love of Schumann’s Dichterliebe in turn provides Nyman with much of his thematic material.

Nyman’s Re Don Giovanni (1977), with its single chord progression taken from Mozart’s opera, broken up into a series of repeating pulsations, is perhaps the first full expression of his style. Like the repeated high As of his ‘Birdlist Song’, it is mechanistically joyous, balancing on the cusp of brilliance and the banal – music that embraces and pays homage to the past while suggesting a frustrated desire to break free from it. In those early years, Nyman would make the distinction between his European-based minimalism and the American brand that assimilated African and Indian music, but his sphere of influence would later widen to include dance projects Flicker and Exit no Exit with Indian choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, and a tour of India to select musicians for his 2000 work Three Ways of Describing Rain. His style, too, would become more lyrical – meeting the demands of directors whose films had stories to tell – while continuing to embrace Reich-like rhythmic momentum, such as his 1993 Musique à Grande Vitesse, celebrating the opening of the TGV line between Paris and Lille.

But it was Greenaway’s images – dark and mystifying painterly canvases that embraced Baroque opulence, sexual imagery, black humour and arcane rituals – that gave Nyman the most powerful visual anlogy for his anti-empathetic raucousness and refracted historical perspectives. For his first feature-length collaboration, The Falls (1980), Greenaway requested 92 variations – one for each of the film’s characters – on four bars from the slow movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. The same piece would resurface in Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers, its score based on themes from the Sinfonia’s slow movement, the three bars (58-61) recurring after each husband drowns. In A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), Nyman returned to the Baroque techniques of his Draughtsman’s Contract score: ground basses and bouncing bass lines accompanying Greenaway’s images of decaying animals and fruit.

In many ways, Greenaway provided the ideal collaborative partner – though Nyman would write to Greenaway’s brief, the images were cut to the music, allowing the composer to develop ideas that would remain intact on screen. Since then, Nyman has continued to explore the relationship between sound and image, performing live to silent films, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, a 1929 Russian film depicting a day in the life of a Soviet city, and of which he has also created his own version, replacing Vertov’s images with his own in NYman with a Movie Camera.

‘I’ve had the good luck to write an iconic theme [for The Piano],’ Nyman said recently, ‘but just as being a film composer has damaged my reputation in the classical world, so writing iconic film themes has damaged me as a soundtrack composer, because no one employs me.’ Hopefully history will be more kind.

Best recordings of Michael Nyman's music

Michael Nyman
Peter Greenaway Film Music

EMI 084 7752

This disc of themes from his best Greenaway scores includes ‘Memorial’ from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

The Piano Concerto

Kathryn Stott (piano); Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

MN Records MNRCD115

An attractive 32-minute concerto that reworks the score from The Piano.

String Quartets Nos 1-3

Balanescu Quartet

Decca 473 0912

Nyman’s influences, including Schoenberg, John Bull and Romanian folk, come to the fore.

Symphony No. 11

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Kathryn Rudge

MN Records MNRCD136

Nyman, himself a football fan, pays touching tribute to the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster.

Illustration by Risko


Nick ShaveJournalist and Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Nick Shave is a writer and sub-editor for the Guardian, and has written for BBC Music Magazine on topics including video game scores and composers and artists such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Keith Jarrett, John Adams and Michael Nyman.