[Interview - Michael Nyman]

Michael Nyman, the man who defined "minimalism" and gave us some very unique scores to such films as Drowning By Numbers, Prospero's Books, The Piano, Gattaca and Ravenous, recently received a Golden Globe Nomination for his score to The End of the Affair. I had a chance to talk with Michael earlier when he was visiting Los Angeles for the Golden Globes.

Your score to The End of the Affair seems to be a departure from your style (usually heard in the Greenaway films), and takes on a more traditional romantic style of scoring. Why did you choose to take the "traditional" approach on this film?

It's a question I ask myself on a daily basis. In the Greenaway scores, what you hear is Michael Nyman in his own right, so to speak. Greenaway asked me to do certain things, and he allowed me to write the music that I naturally wrote. When I naturally write, whether it is an opera, a string quartet, or a concerto, I'm still writing the kind of music with that same energy, diversity, tone, colors, and rhythmic ideas that you find in the Greenaway scores.

So there exists a type of continuity from before The Draughtsman's Contract to the opera "Facing Goya" that I'm writing at the moment. Since just before Prospero's Books and certainly afterwards, my scores have, because of the subject matter, required stuff that's more lyrical. That lyricism was certainly not that apparent in The Draughtsman's Contract although you can find it. It became more apparent in films like Drowning By Numbers - but I didn't have to reinvent myself. No director has ever put a film in front of me where I've been able to let it rip and show all my tricks. Andrew Niccol was very precise about the type of music he wanted for Gattaca. For The Piano Jane Campion knew my Greenaway soundtracks and admired them and chose me over Gabriel Yared because she thought I was one of the few composers that could create a whole tangible definable world through sound. But then she said, "I don't want any of that Greenaway crap."

The End of the Affair, being the type of film that it is, would be unsuitable and disruptive to write a type of 90's up-tempo piece of minimalism. So I'm basically doing the job that's required of me not only by the director, but also by the film. I'm like a decathlete who does all of the events he's used to, but is being forced by certain circumstances to focus on three events, and being forced to focus on events that he wasn't that interested in, and also weren't his strongest events. You may have listened to The Draughtsman's Contract 17 years ago and then wonder, "How the hell did Michael Nyman end up doing this type of music?" But it's stuff that I love doing, and I think I do it very well and I do it differently than everybody else - anyone can write a lyrical score.

Would you have preferred to been nominated for The End of the Affair, or Ravenous - which some say was a far better score (and more "Nyman-esque")?

Well, The End of the Affair was all of my own work, and Ravenous was a joint composition in the sense that Damon Albarn composed 60% of the tracks, and I did the rest. He had gotten a hold of the film before I did, and as it was his first him, he was very excited by the prospect and chose the scenes he liked and wrote music. I, on the other hand being a bit more tired and not so excited and involved, just sat back and the cues that he didn't do, I did. It wasn't collaboration in any sense whatsoever except for the fact that you see the composer credits as being "Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman". My stuff was totally self-contained. Damon improvised and wrote his into a musical sequencer. We did work together to assemble a team of people (orchestrator, programmer, music editor) to turn it into a soundtrack. A lot of work needed to be done on Damon's ideas - which were very good, instinctive, fresh, and quite stimulating - before they could become a soundtrack, whereas I, the old hand, just sat down and did what I needed to do.

I was rather disappointed, because the one thing I wanted to gain from that opportunity was to add something to his music, and have him add something to mine. But by the time I came on board, his music was so good and self-contained that the only thing I could do was to point him in the direction of an orchestrator!

Given some of the limitations of film scoring, do you prefer to write concert pieces over film scores?

I love doing both. The film scores, the operas, the string quartets, and the instrumentals. I feel free basically to slap down any ideas that interest me. I was on BBC radio with a snotty critic who said that film music is a form of degenerative art because the composer's not free to do what he or she wants to do and is influenced by this or that. I was about to interject, "Poor Mozart - he wasn't free to write The Magic Flute because he had to submit to various low art schikenade." None of us is free. When this critic says that the symphonic composer sits down with a blank piece of paper and writes exactly what he wants, it's not true. There's always a question of duration, there's a question of who the orchestra is. No one is free to write what you want - you collaborate on a film score, and one of the good things is that someone else's work is motivating you. The director might give you an idea, or you might be inspired by what you see on the screen. I'm glad I'm not a full-time film composer - I think it might drive you mad. I'm happy with my life doing both. There are certain types of films I would love to get my teeth into - a bizarre action film where I can use all that type of driving music.

What happened with Practical Magic?

What happened with Practical Magic was that I wrote the best score I think I've ever written for a film that engaged me not at all. It's a miracle how my relationship with Griffin Dunne and his encouragement to write a particular kind of score brought out a score from me that did all of the things I wanted it to do. It had the new Nyman lyricism, and had some very wild Greenaway kind of stuff. It had lots of irony, it was very sexy, it was humorous, it had some sleazy music, and it had some scary music. In terms of range, it was very diverse. In terms of quality, it was very high quality. But when it was shown to the head honcho at Warner Bros., the film had a lot of problems as a film - the narrative didn't make sense, and Lorenzo De Bonaventura took one look at it and said "this score has got to go". Not realizing, of course, that I had six weeks to work on the score - and they had two years to work on the film - so I was the whipping boy.

It was a very curious situation when there were two soundtracks for the film being composed simultaneously - my score, and the songs. I was confident that my score was the score that Griffin wanted and was the score that was going to make the film a success. I'm not saying that there weren't other inherent problems with the score that couldn't have been overcome with a bit of remixing, but why did they ask me to do it, and why did Griffin ask me to do it this way, for a film that had nothing to do with American vernacular?

It wasn't an American film score, it wasn't a Hollywood soundtrack, and it had a lot of irony to it. I didn't think that it would rescue the film, because I think the film - with all due respect to Griffin, he was pulled in too many directions simultaneously, - I think my score would have at least made it feel very different. There's some gorgeous music in that score, which alas will never be heard.

But the first issue of the soundtrack album had two of your cues on it...

Well, the soundtrack album was obviously recorded before my score was dumped, and I regret the fact that those cues are on the album because I think they're remarkable pieces of music - and they have no use whatsoever, except to sit in the archive of the people who have the CD. It did, at least, prove that I was involved in the project. I'm not saying that the score I wrote was in any sense a difficult score, but it's a totally different take than what an American would do. I've learned lessons from that, but I've not learned anything from them. I keep doing things my way, and if it works, it works. And if it doesn't, it doesn't.

What would your dream project be?

I can't say precisely what it would be, but it would unlock the breadth and range of what I do. Constantly I have to pull back from all that 8-beats in a bar, 160 beats per measure that I've been doing since the Seventies. With the addition that since I've written all that music in the Seventies, since I've written The Draughtsman's Contract, partly because of The Piano, partly because of The End of the Affair - but I think my musical language has actually grown and deepened and has more subtlety. To write the kind of youthful naivete and openness of 1981 today would actually be quite interesting. Maybe I would just sit down and write a score and tell the director, "Take it or leave it".

What future film projects are you working on?

I'm starting work on the new Michael Winterbottom film that is called Kingdom Come and is shooting in Calgary. It's the transposition of Thomas Hardy's "Mayor of Casterbridge" to the California Gold Rush with Nastassja Kinski and Milla Jovovich.

While he sadly did not win the Golden Globe, his beautiful score to The End of the Affair is available on Sony Classical. His contribution to Ravenous is available on Virgin Records. Two tracks from Practical Magic might be hard to find, but appear on selected albums from Warner Brothers.

Special thanks to Hanna Bolte and Derek Power for their help in arranging this interview.