Jean Martin composes music for film, TV, theatre and performance. He is also a writer and lecturer at University of Brighton

Skip top navigation

Skip secondary navigation

Michael Nyman interview

on 13.11.1991 in his London house
by Jean Martin

JM: I first came across you as the author of the book “Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond” and not as a composer. How did you start your musical career?

Nyman: I composed when I was a kid. I remember never completing a single piece of music by the time I was 17 or 18. I then went to the Royal Academy of Music and studied composition with a fine English composer called Alan Bush, while I was simultaneously studying the piano and also doing a music degree. So I had these two sides to my life which seemed always to be present - my interest in classical music from an academic point of view, and composing. Then I subsequently trained to be a musicologist, just after I left the Academy, with Thurston Dart who basically was the father of modern musicology in England. And I did a bit of research on Purcell and I did a scholarly edition of the Händel Concerti Grossi op. 6 in the late 60s. So it is all that background. And then in 1964 before I became a musicologist I stopped composing for the very simple reason that I became involved in the British avant-garde with Maxwell Davies, Goehr and Birtwistle.

JM: And Cardew?

Nyman: Cardew was later. Maxwell Davies, Goehr and Birtwistle were part of the onrush of excitement post Webern, Boulez - all that kind of thing. And it was made very clear to anyone who wanted to be a composer that if you didn’t write modernist music according to those kind of principles then you may as well not write at all. And if you wrote any other kind of music that was influenced by Shostakovich or Britten or Tippet, then intellectually you were considered to be totally inferior and musically you were totally irrelevant. So I tried to write my one 12-tone piece and after ten minutes I realised that it wasn’t for me and I stopped. In the meantime I did a lot of things but eventually became a music critic in 1968 (for The Spectator). In a way there was an interesting shift. My initial interest was still in 1968 in Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio and all that. And then I had suddenly by pure chance, totally unexpectedly, by accident discovered a particular piece by Cardew - The Great Learning §1. This was a kind of revelation, I never heard any music like this and the music seems so effortless, it wasn’t trying to mean something, it wasn’t trying to be great music or trying to bully me. It wasn’t trying to be an important cultural event. It was when I reviewed that piece that I coined the term Minimal Music, strangely enough. So I am responsible. And I apologise and I resent and regret. But in relation to that piece, if you have been listening to Stockhausen for years and Birstwistle and then suddenly came upon this piece which came from a totally different tradition. So I discovered Cardew and subsequently discovered Cage, Christian Wolff and simultaneously Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Phil Glass etc. So by 1970 when I first met Steve Reich, when he came to England on his way to Ghana and I did the first European interview with him, my allegiance had shifted so I was much more interested in this new American-based music than I was in European-based music. And I was then able to see that a piece like Stimmung had in fact originated from La Monte Young very directly which is something that Karlheinz - when I approached him about it - was very unwilling to admit. He said: “How can I have possibly been influenced by La Monte Young? La Monte Young was my pupil!”
So there was this kind of - do we call this an epistemological shift? So out of those discoveries and out of those studies and research that I started doing into the whole Cage tradition, the book arose. It arose out of the practice of me being a music critic and I was just getting so involved with that music, and culturally, musically, conceptually it was to me the opposite of the music I had been listening to previously. Then I wrote the book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond which dealt with this kind of dichotomy between these two musical worlds.
Cardew criticised me for making a distinction between Stockhausen and Cage. He said “They are both bourgeois composers. What is the distinction between them?”.

JM: Do you think in general New Music is at a dead end today?

Nyman: Well, that New Music! I think New Music, that concept of New Music is a dead end but on the other hand it is still propped up by money and support and funding and writings in radio stations and cultural institutions. They are still propping up this old, rather tired cathedral of modern art music.

JM: This progress in this kind of New Music has lead to a certain alienation between composers and the audience. Do you think, coming back to film music, composing for film is a way of escaping this dilemma?

Nyman: I am in a strange position. Obviously I have become best known through the music I have done for Greenaway films. But that is a continuation of and representation of the music that I write when I am not writing for film. This is what is crucial to me: when I sit down and write an opera, or what I have just done - an album with Ute Lemper, which has six settings of songs of text by Paul Celan - I don’t become a very different composer when I am setting Celan or writing Greenaway. Obviously the demands of a film score and the demands of a song cycle based on text by Celan are very different demands. But my approach to the task is exactly the same. I think my film music has opened up to a wider audience not because it is film music - although the Greenaway films have been very good in the sense that they have allowed me to reach a much wider public than you would reach either by concerts or through the opera house or through records - but I think the reason that it has broken through to that audience is because there is something in the music, not because it is film music or it is not film music. Whatever is in that music happens to appeal to a wide cross section of the audience, whether it is 14 year old Spanish girls who know nothing about experimental music or sophisticated students of American music since 1945. Now, if you ask me to analyse what it is in the music that appeals to people, I can say “this, this, this”. But you can’t control the effect of a piece of music on anybody. It is a big secret and that is the magic of music. And the lack of magic in a lot of avant-garde music, the dead music that is still with us unfortunately, is it doesn’t seem to have an effect other than what you put into the piece comes out. It is a very mechanistic approach. There is no magic. There is no great resonance except in one or two masterpieces of avant-garde music which you can count on the fingers of one hand.

JM: For example? What are your favourites?

Nyman: Well, something like Gesang der Jünglinge is one of the earliest and best pieces of tape music ever written, ever likely to be written, and maybe electronic music should have stopped then because I don’t think it has ever been improved.

JM: You use mainly traditional instruments. Don’t you like synthesisers and computers?

Nyman: I have an Australian composer friend who works in Los Angeles who did a lot of television music and has been trying to persuade me to become computerised. I actually went to Sam Ash’s music shop and was about to buy some programmes and I am about to buy the new Mac Powerbook. Because one of the problems is, if I am shifting around all over the place and if I use a computer as a kind of musical tool, I can’t be carrying around some great boxes. So I think the Mac 140 is ideal (in 1991! - JM) for me and there are one or two programmes that would be very useful a) to print the music b) for sequencing c) as a composing tool. But I work so fast and I have so much writing to do - and I think I am a computer-illiterate - that the time it would take to work out how to process my music through this kind of alien medium might be so frustrating that I’d rather get the pen out and a rubber.

JM: I was more thinking of creating new sounds.

Nyman: In principle I am very interested in sampling, but I am not really interested in sampled orchestral sounds. One of the problems with synthesisers is: I buy a new synthesiser every 2 years, 18 months – e.g. the latest D50, Korg M1, all that stuff. I did make a one minute title music for a BBC documentary on birds where I sampled bird sounds and then I made a typical Michael Nyman piece out of it. So instead of having a Baritone Sax playing above the bass line I would have whatever bird would pass and it sounded fantastic. This is a way to be myself but to use this wonderful new repertoire of sounds.

JM: In your Michael Nyman Band you use electric amplification for the instruments, e.g. in a concert in the Berlin Hebbel Theatre in the 80s.

Nyman: I like power. I like the sheer volume. But also, even though you are using classical instruments in a classical way, the transformation of the sound quality. Especially now I have a much bigger orchestra, so I have maybe 15 sets of sound, 15 sets of slightly different intonations to be combined, and the mass of this combination amplified takes you into a totally different world.

JM: What is your relation with tradition? You use parts of Mozart or Purcell. Is there a limitless availability of historical music styles for modern composers?

Nyman: Well there is for me. Although it may sound strange, it was Cage who says - and I don't know when or why he said it: the history of music is just so much material for us to use. Of course he used it in a particular way. He used it in terms of quantity rather than quality. It didn’t matter to him what he used.

JM: As in his piece Europera.

Nyman: Exactly. Choosing music by chance, using it by the yard, so it didn’t matter to him which of ten Donizetti operas it was, which of 15 by Mozart. So I still have the same attitude towards the whole of music history being available as a resource. But since I am a post-Cagean, what is crucial to me is the material that I use. So for instance the profit-and-loss duet which uses the Catalogue Aria (Leporello’s aria about Don Giovanni’s conquests - JM) - what is crucial to me about using that is that it has a particular harmonic sequence which I don’t think you could find anywhere else in Mozart and also the texture is arranged in such-and-such a way, it has all those rock ’n roll, well I turn them into rock ‘n roll, repeated notes on the strings - so it is absolutely crucial to me to make specific selections as against Cage making non-specific selections. Once I discovered that little piece of Don Giovanni I thought, wow, here is the whole of the opera, I can write hours and hours of music based on Don Giovanni. I went through the whole of the opera and couldn’t find any other chord sequence or musical texture which suggested a personal treatment. So my aesthetic judgement is very critical to the choice of material from other composers. I wish it was as random as Cage. I wish it didn’t matter to me. Also in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat I went through the whole of Schumann’s song repertoire and 98% didn’t interest me. It may have interested me as music if I sat down in a song recital and said: “Yes, these are wonderful songs”. But as a composer the musical material didn’t suggest musical treatments that were comfortable to me. So it is a very slow, painstaking, very individualistic aesthetic choice, because in the first place I have to be attracted to it, in the second place I have to be able to rework it as a composer, whereas Cage just takes a length of music, puts it in a designated space and that is fine. I have to be able to make something new out of it and personal.

JM: You still use the tonal system. Is this to keep in touch with a broader audience?

Nyman: No. No. Louis Andriessen came to see an opera of mine and criticised the reification of the triad or is it the fetishisation of the triad. I really just get great excitement from diatonic chords, as Mozart and Bach, Brahms and Wagner, maybe even early Schönberg got great excitement from putting together progressions of chords which have a kind of power and sense of dynamic progression that no other music has. You don’t find that in Renaissance music and you certainly don’t find it in modern music where the whole kind of harmonic structure and superstructure was dismantled. Cage would say, maybe Schoenberg and Boulez would say that the cadence has done more damage to music than anything else, and they could just as easily say that sentence construction and verbs have done more damage to language. I still find cadencial music, for want of a better term, absolutely thrilling. My music relies on the logic and power of chord relationships more than anything else. I can then use a totally illogical, say, numerical system or formal system of some sort to disentangle, to slightly diffuse the power of these tonal progressions. But harmony is the basis of everything I do - real harmony that we know from the 17th century and harmony that we know from pop music. I remember when I first heard the Beatles I didn’t relate their music necessarily to rock ‘n roll which I didn’t know very well, but I related it much more to Purcell, ground basses and chaconnes and things like that, and I still think like that.

JM: So you write music history by example.

Nyman: Yes. But the curious thing is that I actually think that culturally and intellectually there are interesting things going on in this music but the people who are the curators of modernism - all they hear in my music is an entertaining surface. They do not bother to enquire, and that is really what offends me. I have written three string quartets. This is not the music of an idiot. They may not like it but since most critics and commentators seem to set great store by the value that the potential for analysis gives to a work - if a work is heavily analysable it is automatically of great significance. It might be a piece of sh** as music. So here I have written these 3 quartets which are analysable, it doesn’t make them good or bad, but because they deal in a musical language which these people find either trivial or very uncomfortable, they don’t bother to make any further enquiries. That is why it would be very interesting for me to have an article in MusikTexte, for somebody to take my first string quartet and actually see what I do to John Bull and to Schoenberg and whether they interrelate or not. They may still find it a terrible piece of music, but there are numerous terrible pieces of music that are automatically given the benefit of the doubt because they sound like every other piece of music. There are no quality controls on that music. That is one of my major criticisms, but why should I worry?!

JM: Writing a string quartet is a rather difficult thing because this genre of music is so loaded with meaning.

Nyman: Exactly. And when I wrote the first quartet I felt the task was a very oppressive one, which is why I thought I would diffuse the whole thing by doing a John Cage and just making a piece out of the whole history of string quartets. The first string quartet I picked up was the only one I had upstairs in my studio, which was for some reason the 2nd Schoenberg string quartet. I looked at the 4th movement and I found this little pattern and I thought: I can make some nice harmonies out of that. I spent three days making harmonies out of that and I didn’t bother to look at another quartet.

JM: You use and quote parts of old music. That’s nothing new in music history. Mahler did it for example.

Nyman: Exactly! Mozart did it, Beethoven... Look at Händel, he was citing himself all the time.

JM: The way you quote old pieces or models reminds me more of Mahler because you do it in a somewhat ironical way. So is your music a musical comment about music?

Nyman: Yes. It is a comment about what I was saying about the connection between the Beatles and 17th century variation forms. It is actually a serious comment. If you distinguish between Mahler citing popular music and Stockhausen citing national anthems in Hymnen, the difference is that I am much closer to Mahler because I can shift from Mozart to Nyman without you feeling that I am speaking a different language whereas Stockhausen using national anthems in this electronic context is basically saying: “Here are two totally different worlds which I am trying to either bring together or to keep apart”. I can shift from making a direct Mozart quotation to music which has nothing to do with Mozart without having to change gear.

There are younger composers around who are still modernists and I have read reviews of their pieces and they say the music did such-and-such a thing for 20 minutes and the man showed this great braveness by having a coda in pure F-sharp major - as though we are dealing with alternatives here and in fact I am not dealing with alternatives. I was not Maxwell-Davies using foxtrots to make some point about banality. I don’t use material that I find banal. I use music that I just find immensely attractive. You may say I am feeding off other composers’ work but composers have been doing this since the beginning of music and I think I actually pay back what I take with huge amounts of interest. The other thing is: I take something from Don Giovanni - Don Giovanni still exists. So it is not as though there is now a vacuum in every performance of Don Giovanni because Michael Nyman has stolen the first 16 bars of the Catalogue Aria. But there is still something didactic in my approach. Maybe it is because I was a musicologist. I like to demonstrate these cultural cross-connections. Brian Ferneyhough once called my music trans-historical - the first string quartet -which I thought was a really good term.

JM: If I asked you whether you claim artistic autonomy for your music it is perhaps not the right question.

Nyman: No, it is. This is the paradox. Here am I as a film composer - which is basically the composer serving someone else’s work, providing music which is functional - here I am saying that I am a film composer on the one hand, on the other hand demanding and claiming that the music is autonomous because it is, certainly with Greenaway, if only because I write the music before the films are made. He may put it to a particular use. He may combine a particular piece of music or part of it with a particular image. What I say is that piece of music has that life but the use with that image doesn’t define what the music is.

JM: So your music on your CDs is autonomous although it can be combined with pictures.

Nyman: That is how I like to be considered. Those particular pieces of music happened to be brought into being generally, not always by that particular film. These pieces of music are grouped together because they all serve a purpose. But in musical terms, again, the process of composition is almost completely autonomous. Sometimes, interestingly enough, the most successful pieces of music in a Greenaway film are ones which were written as concert music. The music for A Zed and Two Noughts for the speeded-up decaying animal sequence, that very fast piece of music was originally written for a dance by Lucinda Childs. In The Cook, the Thief, the Wife and her Lover the kind of baroque, heavy pompous piece was written for a concert. And a lot of music in Prospero’s Books was also written independently of the film for a totally different context.

JM: Which film music did you like best?

Nyman: As an individual piece of music and as a track used in a film, I would say Memorial in The Cook, maybe the best piece of music and it certainly has the strongest effect on the film and is the most necessary to the film because without that music the film is very blank. As an overall score I would obviously have to say The Draughtsman’s Contract because we were innocent. This is the freshest score when I was not trying to build on previous successes. In terms of overall musical quality and variety I would say Prospero’s Books. But on the other hand a work that surprised me most is Drowning by Numbers because the film had a particular atmosphere. I basically had to discard all the normal Michael Nyman signatures, the pulsating, repetitive chords and had to invent and work on a totally different area of musical activity which I hadn’t really concentrated on.

JM: It is very smooth.

Nyman: Yes. It is very lyrical, very elegiac and that hadn’t been part of my music.

JM: I think the music in The Draughtsman’s Contract worked best.

Nyman: Maybe the music works so well because it is based on music of the period that you are actually looking at on screen, but also there is this intangible quality of what music is and what the music does. There is a wonderful unity in The Draughtsman’s Contract between image and the music which I don’t think we could ever reproduce. So that is the magic of innocence. We sort of knew what we were doing but it was Peter Greenaway’s first feature. It was the first time that I had written a whole score based on someone else’s music. Obviously I had written that Don Giovanni piece four or five years earlier, so the principles of reworking other composers’ music was something I had already stumbled upon.

JM: But this kind of mannerism fitted perfectly into the film. It was not only on the surface. Once again what do you think generally about the relationship between art music and functional or applied music?

Nyman: For me there is no difference. As I said, Paul Celan poems demand a different kind of treatment. When you talk about functional music I suppose you have to think about what the outlets for functional music are. They are basically television and film. I have been very lucky that the music that I have chosen to write or that has chosen me, that I write naturally, instinctively happens to be the music which has appeal for the producers and consumers of TV and film. Now, your Brian Ferneyhoughs or your Michael Finnissys - they could maybe write a score for one very specialised documentary or one kind of angst-ridden feature film, but maybe they would do that once in their lifetime. So maybe that’s all what they want to do.
I am in the fortunate position of writing the musical language which suits the project and which is of interest to the audience who watch the film. If I could have made a conscious, concrete decision that because I wanted to do certain kinds of applied musical work the best musical style to evolve would be the one I now use - if it was as conscious as that, I would be very clever, but it is a pure accident. The music I started writing in 1976 has grown and developed but it has basically remained the same. It just happened, I am very fortunate. I am very happy and very lucky, but it is just one of those Zeitgeist things that my musical phase just happens to fit at this particular point. I can’t deny that and I wouldn’t want to. I could then become very cynical and say that, because I have seen that a certain kind of piece has a certain effect or certain popularity, all I would do is to reproduce that. I don’t do that.

JM: That doesn’t work anyway. The audience is very sensitive about that.

Nyman: It is very easy to parody myself and occasionally I do it for a particular effect, but the whole process of composing for me is a continuous learning process - and a continuous training in a funny sort of way to write opera. The more films I do the more enriched my vocabulary becomes and the more I allow myself to escape from systematisation, then the more qualified I become to write the operas that I want to write.

JM: So the ultimate aim is to write operas?

Nyman: Absolutely.

JM: Why is that?

Nyman: I like voices. I like text. I like the idea of making a piece of music which has an intellectual content over and above its musical content, so there are certain ideas that I have that I like to put together to make either an intellectual point or some dramatic point. And I like using voices, principally using texts. I like the effect that that has on my music. Again being a - lapsed - disciple of John Cage, a text becomes an abstract system. The form or the stresses of a particular line bring forth musical ideas, which is great. Certainly in these Paul Celan songs: the whole musical fabric is and has to be so impregnated, influenced and dedicated to expressing these very difficult texts that actually that is the most exciting work that I have produced. That’s because for the first time in my life (this may sound strange: I have obviously worked with interesting Greenaway texts ) with those Celan songs I have worked with another artist’s material that I was totally in awe of. I just felt that I had to treat this stuff with kid gloves because it is such great poetry. It had an extraordinary effect on my work, and also working with Ute Lemper.

JM: Will you do it in German?

Nyman: Oh yes, which is far more effective. The English translations are only adequate. I don’t know German nor do I speak it... the song cycle is about 35 minutes and I think there was only one stress that I got wrong, so there was this instinctive expertise in setting German and I was very pleased with that. Also, working very closely with Lemper, the songs are very much moulded to her voice. I think it is going to be really shocking for a German public - who obviously have an image of her as either a chanteuse or a Kurt Weill specialist - to hear her singing totally different music. And she is very excited by the prospect of doing it.

JM: Composing for film is a question of trust between composer and director.

Nyman: (laughs) This is a very sore point. I have been working with Peter Greenaway for 15 years and we have done 20 films together. Given the demands of putting music to film - even though he loves having the music ahead of time so that he can edit sequences to the music - given that he is making something that isn’t just an illustration of the music, he makes sometimes quick artistic decisions where the music should go or how it should be edited. I have been very lucky - up until Prospero’s Books, when I think he had his hands full of so much kind of visual, verbal, acoustic information that the music was not used with his normal brilliance and sensitivity. Let’s just leave it like that. In fact he really wasted the music. I think if he had used the music more intelligently the film would be 20 times better, but I think he was just blinded with modern technology.

JM: Often really good film music was produced in the life long co-operation between pairs of directors and composers, e.g. Hitchcock and Herrmann.

Nyman: I think the score for Psycho is probably the best string orchestra music written since the War. Now it is kind of heretical to say that, but it happens to be true. There are some Morricone scores which are far more original than your average concert piece.

JM: There is a parallel to your development, in that Morricone started with New Music as well.

Nyman: Yes. He was in Nuova Consonanza as a trumpeter and I think he still possibly does improvisations from time to time. You don’t really hear it in his film music but someone who has had that experience would have to write interesting music. He is much more serious about the concept of film music, and serious about protecting the quality of film music. He is a sort of one-man film music protection society. He is very dedicated. I take my work seriously as a film composer but I do my work - not with tongue and cheek but with a sense of irony. This is only a film, but he would die for it.

JM: What are your future opera projects?

Nyman: Well, I have a long-term opera project that is sort of unrealisable because it is so complicated, which is to make an opera out of Tristan Shandy. It is impossible but it could be so fascinating. It deals with so many things that I find exciting. It deals with questions of simultaneity.
But I am also doing an opera called Vital Statistics which I wrote a small part of in 1987, which has to do with the principle of measurement and the impossibility of measuring things. I discovered by pure chance again some writing on a 19th century so-called science called craniology. Craniology is a science whereby through measuring the size of the skull and weighing the brain you proved that whites are superior to blacks and that men are superior to women, so it was a kind of racial philosophy. That is the starting point. That part is already written. In the next year my librettist Victoria Hardy and I are going to take that as a starting point and broaden it out into some digest of 20th century history and end up dealing with Aboriginals and the way that they perceive their ownership of land and how that differs from the way we perceive ownership of land. And that should be finished within a year. (This opera has not been realised yet… JM)

up arrow

Top of Page