Meet Michael Nyman

As we get back into the swing of things, today we’re reviving the “Treasures” category.

The point of posts in this category is to share things that I have found on my journeys that are special, beautiful,  or unexpected. In short, they’re true treasures that I have found that others may not be aware of.

One way in which I view this blog as a “travel blog of music”.

Today’s treasure is one that I found over twenty years ago: the modern British composer Michael Nyman.

I first discovered Michael Nyman when I went to see the film “Prospero’s Books” on my wife’s suggestion. We had recently arrived in Seattle and she saw a new Peter Greenaway film was playing and suggested that we go. I admit, I didn’t know who Greenaway was at the time. I’d heard of “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” but didn’t associate the name Greenaway with it. But I was game to try something new, especially if it was “arty”.

My experience of “Prospero’s Books” is still one of the most amazing and profound film experiences. The combination of Shakespeare’s text from “The Tempest”, the stunning visual elements, the acting of Gielgud (bravo to a man at his age being game to take his clothes off for the film) and most of all, the music.

It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. And, to quote Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” talking about Beethoven’s Ninth: “Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!”

I had to know what that music was and who it was by.

I was lucky that the local video and record/CD store (remember it was 1991!) had a copy of the soundtrack on CD. I snapped it up and started listening to it regularly.

So I met Michael Nyman for the first time.

Typical for me, I would learn what I could about him (much harder in those days before the Internet as we know it). I came to learn that he had been a music critic who took up the challenge of “I’d like to see you do better” by those he critiqued.

Nyman’s style combines so-called minimalist elements with jazz and especially Baroque elements. Purcell in particular plays an important role as an influence in some of his work. Perhaps more than other modern composers, you can get a clear sense that Nyman views himself as part of a long musical tradition and shows it. He’s not looking to distance himself from that tradition but instead be a part of it. And that tradition includes the innovations of the last century including jazz. In that way, Nyman is, in my opinion, a healer of the divides that have riven concert music since the end of the Romantic period.

To that last point, perhaps the greatest thing that Nyman has done is make this music after the era of modernism listenable once again. Nyman is capable of some amazingly beautiful, lyrical pieces. His work for the film “The Piano” is a good example of that. I find it interesting to note that if you know that piece well and watched the old dubbed Japanese Iron Chef (before they changed the music) you’d notice that they use his music from the piano while showcasing the dishes.

If you haven’t gotten to know Michael Nyman, you should take the time. As is typical of British composers, he’s not well-known and not given the credit that he’s due. He’s a true musical treasure and as you get to know his work more and more, you’ll love it and him more and more.