Michael Nyman: Cine Opera
The legendary avant-garde composer talks to Dazed about why one man's melancholy is another's superhuman energy charge
Text by John-Paul Pryor | Published 15 April 2010
Michael Nyman is one of the world’s most celebrated avant-garde composers. He has scored numerous films over the last 30 years (most notably the often surreal and macabre works of maverick director Peter Greenaway), penned countless chamber works and written some of the world’s most bizarrely titled operas (such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat). This week, The Vinyl Factory releases a bespoke limited-edition reimagining of his classic 1989 album La Taversee de Paris entitled Cine Opera, which was originally composed to accompany an exhibition marking the bicentennial of The French Revolution. The release of the album coincides with the unveiling of his new specially commissioned film at the Tate Modern. Dazed Digital hit the Twin Peaks-esque launch party and talked to the prolific composer, photographer and filmmaker about the genesis of his unique musical vision...
Dazed Digital: Cine Opera is powerfully emotive. Is there something you set out to communicate about the human condition in your compositions?
Michael Nyman: Nothing specifically. The adventure of writing a piece of music is to put dots on the page that create musical ideas, which then generate performances that create some sort of emotional climate. It is kind of interesting that sometimes pieces take on an identity, or some kind of meaning, relevance or reference though a title...
Dazed Digital: Titles can certainly imbue meaning. “Crematorium Conspiracy” is a piece of music that I listened to a lot after losing a parent...
Michael Nyman: ‘Crematorium Conspiracy’ was a product of the task that Peter Greenaway asked me to fulfil for Drowning By Numbers, which was basically to re-interpret the slow movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante In E Flat. Everything I wrote for Drowning By Numbers was to be derived from that movement. Basically, I was a classical composer writing variations, Greenaway associated them with certain images, and he named the tracks. When I recorded that piece, it never had that identity, but on the other hand, it never didn’t have that identity because nothing changed in the musical content. That’s one of the joys of cinema for me – being able to associate certain abstract pieces with certain films that then become part of a bigger consciousness. When I first listened to the mix of ‘Knowing The Ropes’ from Drowning By Numbers on holiday, I thought, ‘Fuck, this has gone beyond the manipulation of sound; this has gone beyond the recycling of Mozart, and it’s turned into something that has some kind of incredible profundity.’ I was gobsmacked that I had managed to do something that had surprised and shocked me.
Dazed Digital: Much of your music is melancholic. Would you say you are a melancholic soul?
Michael Nyman: Well, one man’s melancholy is another man’s superhuman energy charge. I’ve written pieces like ‘Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Sheperds’, which I think is as close to rock’n’roll as you can get. When we (The Michael Nyman Band) play this live, it always seems very kind of upbeat and positive to me, but some people hear it as very morbid. Obviously, there have been occassions where I have chosen to do things that are deliberately funereal. For instance, ‘Memorial’ from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover was as an abstract piece of music I wrote in 1985 for a particular architectural and acoustic situation – the equivalent of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in Rouen. In the space, there was this kind of long reverberation time, and I realised all the chord changes would have to be delayed so you didn’t get this overdose of simultaneous harmonies.
I started writing it as a purely abstract composition, and then I sat down one night to watch Liverpool play Juventus in Heysel Stadium, and I saw a massacre rather than a football match. When I read about the people that had died and the whole ripple effect of those deaths – that they represented a kind of social wave of death affecting families and children – the composition translated itself into a piece literally called ‘Memorial’. I spent four years trying to get it performed in Liverpool. Strangely enough, it was just before Hillsborough happened that I realised this was exactly the piece of music Greenaway had described wanting for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, and I gave it to him.
Dazed Digital: There is a strange parallel there, in that both the film and the event at Heysel are examples of human barbarism or cruelty...
Michael Nyman: Sure, but when I realised what use it was being put to – that it accompanied this kind of meaningless fake and imaginary death of some guy who was cooked and then eaten – I thought it was very tasteless and fatuous. I actually felt embarrassed to have taken this particular piece of music out of a genuine memorial situation and to have given it to a situation of gruesome playfulness.
Dazed Digital: Tell us about your own films, they seem very concerned with capturing the everyday...
Michael Nyman: The way I make films is very instinctive: something captures my attention – it could be people in the ghetto area of Venice or it could be a guy spending hours tuning his guitar in Lisbon – and there is a curiousity and a persistence triggered. I think the persistence is where the parallel with the music is. It’s persistence of vision on my part, which I hope sort of creates persistence of attention from the viewer. I mean, I hope people might be fascinated that I have been fascinated by these images, although the events themselves are kind of throwaway.
Dazed Digital: As a filmmaker are you inspired by the Fluxus movement?
Michael Nyman: I was a bit late for Fluxus but it did permeate my life because I knew about it and I knew George Brecht. There are a lot of times where I feel I should be performing George’s 1958 piano piece, the instruction for which is ‘Photograph The Piano Situation’, and I suppose you could say that in Whistle While You Work I have photographed the tuning situation. I think one of the reasons I film is just to see what things look like once they have been filmed. Even though I have now made 50 films, I still leave my house with the same kind of naivety and innocence that I had when I set about making the first.