Wondering Sound AUGUST 1, 2007 - by David Stubbs


Michael Nyman is best known for providing the singularly neo-baroque, minimalist soundtracks to a series of films by the controversial English director Peter Greenaway, as well as Jane Campion's The Piano. But his work isn't limited to film: his career spans the gamut from scholarly musicologist in the '70s (indeed, it was he who conceived the term "minimalism") to composer of modern opera.

Early Nyman works such as Decay Music found an opening on Brian Eno's Obscure label alongside the likes of Gavin Bryars. Like Bryars, Nyman has a way of taking small samples of source material and, through repetition, looping and gradual change, transforming them, often to great emotional effect. However, it was his collaborations with Peter Greenaway which first introduced him to a wider audience. The likes of Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds from 1982's The Draughtsman's Contract set the tone for Nyman's subsequent work with the director - elegant, elaborate, formal, enigmatic pieces, derived from songs by the English baroque composer Henry Purcell. Greenaway's movies often feel as if they are set on chessboards - full of puzzles and puns and motifs such as the recurring swan theme in A Zed And Two Noughts, or the game-playing of Drowning By Numbers. Nyman's soundtracks reflected the cerebral, painterly quality of the movies, the best of his work showcased on Nyman/Greenaway Revisited.

Following 1991's Prospero's Books, however, Nyman had a falling out with Greenaway which at least enabled Nyman to go on to demonstrate the many other strings to his lute. When devising the soundtrack to Jane Campion's 1993 The Piano, Nyman had to take a thought-through approach, devising music that was effective yet simple enough for actress Holly Hunter to play. However, for Hunter's deaf-mute character, the piano becomes, as Nyman put it, "the expression of her character, her mood, her unspoken body language." Drawing on Scottish folk music, the soundtrack to The Piano isn't merely strategically effective, it's also supersaturated with emotional intensity of a sort which was not a trademark of his work with Greenaway. Similarly, when scoring The Libertine in 2005, he properly suffuses the work with a melancholy and sense of ultimate dissatisfaction that was the lot of the film's subject, the debauched poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who coined the phrase "All that Heaven allows" in reference to the brevity and transience of physical ecstasy.

But for sheer emotional weight coupled with applied musicological skill, one looks to Six Célan Songs/The Ballad Of Kastriot Rexhepi. The Célan songs in particular, written for Ute Lemper and based on Paul Célan's efforts to write poetry in defiance of Adorno's dictum that there could be none after Auschwitz, plumb sublime and imaginative depths of empathy.

In more recent years, Nyman has worked with librettist Michael Hastings on two operas, Man And Boy: Dada, based on the life of dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters in exile and Love Counts, about a mathematician's relationship with an innumerate middleweight boxer. Both involve a recurring theme of Nyman's - the unlikely alliances human beings strike up. Nyman's own music is similarly paradoxical - matching ancient with modern, the derivative and the original, the theoretical with the sentimental, the esoteric and the popular - paradoxes he has successfully resolved.