The Draughtsman's Contract (Charisma, 1982) contains seven fragments
of Nyman's soundtrack for the Greenaway film.
Queen Of The Night mixes the renaissance-like grace of the strings and the melancholy melodies repeated by the winds. Then the strings rise in a majestic, baroque largo and are joined by a harpsichord for the emphatic finale.
The Disposition of the Linen is even more baroque and uptempo, a breezy dance in a salon of mirrors. The minimalist repetition is subtle but induces much more movement than it is evident.
The technique is, instead, fairly programmatic in An Eye for Optical Theory and in
the longest theme, Bravura in the Face of Grief.
Elements of Albinoni's Adagio float inside the shimmering filigree of
The Garden Is Becoming a Robe Room (for strings and harpsichord) which
eventually bursts into a hymn-like frenzy.
Nyman thus began a career as a major composer, specializing in symphonic
tours-de-force with ever more complex ensembles of strings and winds
through which he vivisected, decomposed and reassembled the tradition of
chamber music from Henry Purcell to Mozart.
Peaks of this period were the narcissistic caprices of
Images Were Introduced, scored for nine-unit ensemble with
vocalist Dagmar Krause engaged in a virtuoso operatic performance,
Nose List Song (1985), an accelerating whirlwind of a dance again
with Brecht-ian operatic vocals,
and especially the
Water Dances (1984), perhaps his masterpiece, a
fantastic algorithm of melodic progression
that borrows from the
Penguin Cafè Orchestra's approach
to classical music but pushes the boundaries of musical counterpoint and
augments it with a grandiloquent breathless finale.
These three were collected on The Kiss (Editions EG, 1985).
And Do They Do (1986) is a cycle of four untitled songs.
The first one boasts the most propulsive and dynamic crescendo, in which
different patterns and groups of instruments alternate at leading the collective bacchanal.
The second one is, instead, a gentle elegy.
The third and the fourth resume the mad pace of the first one, although with
A Zed And Two Naughts (1989) is a soundtrack divided in twelve
The melodies are almost always retro-captivating, and
the range of moods is disorienting to say the least:
Swan Rot are comic skits, almost accelerated versions of senseless
charleston-era dances, whereas Car Crash boasts a dramatic panzer-like
tempo and Time Lapse (possibly the standout)
is a cubistic rendition an Albinoni adagio
scored for robotic orchestra, but no less poignant.
The soundtrack keeps shifting style, first indulging in
Delft Waltz and then in the
sublime pop aria Venus De Milo.
The soundtrack for Greenaway's
Drowning By Numbers (1987) is ostensibly a series of variations on
Concertante, scored for a 20-unit ensemble.
Nyman's method was beginning to crystallize: the strings repeat elementary
staccato melodic patterns with increasing strength and minimal variations,
and then soloists weave moving themes in the vein of the classical adagio.
Nyman focused on the juxtaposition of vehement tension
(the pummeling repetitive instruments) and tender gravity
(the hummable lead melodies).
Drowning By Numbers appropriates elements of renaissance, baroque
and romantic music, and casts them in a firmly aseptic, modernist light.
(the melancholy adagio of Trysting Fields,
the elegant dance of Sheep and Tides,
the festive aria of Bees in Trees,
the plaintive melody of Drowning by Number 3).
Minimalist repetition turns those innocent tributes into harmonic catastrophes:
the string-driven progression in staccato of Wheelbarrow Walk is a
therapeutic trauma; while incursions in popular music cast a doubt on the
gravity of the proceedings (see the grotesque Wedding Tango).
The longer suites, such as Drowning by Number 2 and
the eight-minute Endgame, mix and balance the
postmodernist and the modernist urges.
The chamber opera
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1986), scored for soprano,
tenor, baritone, harp, piano and string quintet, harks back to the British
tradition of chamber operas, but also to Britten's chamber lieder
(Your Husband's A Painter), to
Broadway show tunes (Pawn To King 4),
to Robert Ashley's conversational operas (I Cannot Tell You What's Wrong) and
even to baroque music (What's The Time).
There are relatively few Nyman-esque progressions (That's Why I'm Here,
But What Of The Parietal Regions).
The Cook The Thief (1990)
closed the tetralogy of soundtracks for Peter Greenaway.
It included the majestic death march of Memorial (1985), another peak
of the composer,
in which the strings endlessly repeat a Purcell melody and
the trumpet turns it into an epic refrain a`
la Ennio Morricone. Towards the end
a soprano and a saxophone enter the scene, the soprano unleashing long
desperate cries and the saxophone joining the funeral procession.
The other pieces focus a lot more on the melody than on the process of
the horns "sing" a sublime melody in Book Depository.
The eleven-minute Miserere is a dialogue between a
contralto and a choir, with the contralto living in a relatively modern era
and the choir stuck in the age of sacred medieval music.
Out Of The Ruins (1989) was instead a choral requiem for the victims
of an earthquake, inspired by Gregorian Chants and sacred music of the baroque
age. These works clearly displayed a bleaker mood than his early compositions.
Nyman had started out by toying with classical structures, but now it seemed
like he was trying to deliver meaning and not just form, and that meaning
had to do with the human condition.
After the successful collaborations with director Peter Greenaway, particularly
in The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), Drowning By Numbers (1988), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) and Prospero's Books (1991),
Michael Nyman became one of the most prestigious composer of film soundtracks:
Monsieur Hire (1989),
La Traversee' De Paris (Criterion, 1989),
Le Mari de la Coiffeuse (1990),
A La Folie (Virgin, 1994),
The Piano (Virgin, 1993), Carrington (Argo, 1995),
Diary of Anne Frank (1995),
The Ogre (1996),
Gattaca (Virgin, 1998), Wonderland (Venture, 1999), Ravenous (EMI, 1999), co-scored with Blur's vocalist Damon Albarn, The End Of The Affair (Venture, 2000), The Claim (2000),
Man With a Movie Camera (2000),
Subterrain (2001), La Stanza Del Figlio (2001),
24 Heures De La Vie d'Une Femme (Maive, 2002),
The Actors (EMI, 2003),
and many, many others, of lower and lower quality. He soon became an
assembly factory of cliches for film soundtracks.
Film Music 1980-2001 (Venture, 2001) is an anthology.
Prospero's Books (1991) alternates between operatic arias,
orchestral adagios, and his
typical exuberant ascending repetitive-pattern instrumentals
(Prospero's Curse, Prospero's Magic, Miranda,
History of Sycorax);
but this is hardly innovative anymore. It often sounds childish and
derivative (of his own style).
The Piano is perhaps the most celebrated of Nyman's soundtracks.
It features both orchestral and piano pieces.
The orchestral ones range
from the nostalgic adagios of To The Edge of the Earth and
A Wild And Distant Shore
to the moving elegies of The Promise and Lost And Found,
with peaks of pathos in
the majestic crescendo of Deep Into the Forest
the final apotheosis of Dreams Of A Journey.
The piano pieces
(the romantic piano sonata of Big My Secret,
the rousing piano rigmarole The Heart Asks Pleasure First,
the mournful aria of The Sacrifice)
are not all that different in mood.
Live (Virgin, 1995) and Live in Concert (Virgin, 1999) show
how trivial his performances are.
Nyman has mostly failed to impress in the forms of traditional chamber music.
He has composed four string quartets, of which the first is a weak work
(inspired by some John Bull variations, it uses a Schoenberg fragment as
the building block for its 12 movememts), while the second (1988), in six movements, and the third (1990), in two long
movements, recycle themes from previous works (the latter from Out of the Ruins) aiming for the mainstream rather than for groundbreaking solutions.
The second movement (fast-paced and intricate) and
the playful sixth movement are the highlights of the second quartet,
The vigorous second movement of the third quartet is also notable, if nothing
else for the weay it fragments and then layers up its languid melody.
The fourth (1995), originally a solo violin composition, is by far the most significant: the performer is left free to choose five of the original 12 movements, and arrange them as she pleases.
The first three are collected on String Quartets 1-3 (Argo, 1991);
the last three are collected on String Quartets Nos. 2-4 (Black Box, 2002).
The Suit & The Photograph (EMI, 1998) contains the 12-movement
String Quartet 4 (1995) and Three Quartets (1994), which combines
a string quartet, a brass quartet and a saxophone quartet in one single piece.
Time Will Pronounce (Argo, 1993) contains three chamber works from 1992:
Time Will Pronounce, The Convertibility of Lute Strings,
For John Cage.
After Extra Time (Virgin, 1996) contains
After extra time,
The final score,
These are all mediocre works.
Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs (Argo, 1994) is the score for an opera-ballet based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (again).
Taking a Line for a Second Walk (Work Music, 1994) contains the 1986 work for orchestra and the Water Dances (1984).
An Eye for a Difference (Tring, 1998) has compositions for the London Saxophonic.
His main compositions of the 1990s were the concertos:
the saxophone concerto Where The Bee Dances (1991),
the Violin Concerto (2003),
Three of them (Harpsichord, Trombone, Double Concerto)
appear on Concertos (EMI, 1997).
The Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings (1995) is a laborious (and not
always successful) work in six movements: the
geometric patterns of the first movement achieves a multidimensional frenzy
lead to the jubilant Russian-style dance of the second, and the quasi-pop
aria of the third leads to the manic pounding of the sixth.
The Concerto for Trombone (1995), perhaps the most complex,
starts out with a mournful invocation but then plunges into ever
more chaotic and hysterical constructs. It finally relaxes a bit when the
trombone intones a nostalgic melody, and then, signaled by drum beats, it
launches into a last gallop only to stumble into dissonant percussive confusion
and decay into barely audible laments.
Neither concerto is fully convincing.
The Double Concerto (1997) for cello and saxophone, perhaps the most
brilliant and phantasmagoric, is in five movements:
a slow crescendo of repetition with the two lead instruments engaging in an
almost Middle-Eastern whirlwind while the orchestral mass becomes heavier and
heavier, a carefree allegro propelled by a bucolic saxophone refrain, a grandiose if brief baroque dance, a chaotic agonizing lento that eventually radiates tranquillity, and an epic final march worthy of the Celtic jigs.
The Piano Concerto (1993), which recycles music from The Piano,
is well documented:
The Piano Concerto (Argo, 1994),
The Piano Concerto/ On the Fiddle / Prospero's Books (Tring, 1995),
The Piano Concerto and other Themes (Las Nuevas Musicas, 1995),
The Piano Concerto/ Where the Bee Dances (Naxos, 1998).
He also scored music for a multimedia event based on David King's book The Commissar Vanishes (Venture, 1999).
His operas include Facing Goya (2000), released on
Facing Goya (Warner, 2002),
and Man and Boy - Dada (2004).
Sangam (Warner, 2003) is a failed attempt to reconcile (improvised) Indian classical music and (composed) Western classical music. The result is mostly background muzak for cocktail party.
The Piano Sings (MN, 2005) offers piano-only versions of some of this film themes.
The Libertine (MN, 2006) is a mediocre film soundtrack.
Lanciato dalla colonna sonora di The Draughtsman's Contract, Nyman
diventa compositore serio, producendosi in tour-de-force orchestrali con
organici sempre piu' complessi di archi, fiati e voci recitanti, con i quali
viviseziona, decompone e ricompone la musica da camera (in questo caso Henry
Purcell). La musica si fa quasi neo-classica, se non addirittura
mozartiana, come nei narcisistici capricci di Images Were Introduced, per ensemble di
nove musicisti con Dagmar Krause lanciata in una sequenza di vocalizzi d'opera,
Water Dances, incalzante filastrocca seriosa sullo stile della
Penguin Cafè Orchestra
con grandioso minuetto finale a perdifiato,
Nose List Song (1985), vorticosa danza in progressione con canto
La soundtrack di
Drowning By Numbers e` una serie di variazioni sulla sinfonia
concertante di Mozart, orchestrate per ensemble di venti strumenti.
La tecnica di questi brani e' ormai cristallizzata: gli archi incalzano in
progressioni travolgenti che ripetono con sostenuta violenza e minime
variazioni frasi elementari perfettamente consonantil; uno e piu' strumenti
solisti intessono commosse melodie da adagio settecentesco. La musica
di Nyman scaturisce dal contrasto fra la tensione veemente costruita
dalle parti martellanti e ripetitive e la tenera serenita' delle parti
Il coronamento della sua carriera e' l'opera da camera
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1987), per settetto,
che continua e trasforma la grande tradizione britannica delle opere da camera,
facendo leva sul minimalismo romantico di Adams, sulla liederistica
espressionista di Britten, sulla canzone da musical di Sondheim, sui
brani-conversazione di Ashley.
Out Of The Ruins (1989) e' invece un requiem corale (per le vittime
del terremoto armeno) che si ispira al canto gregoriano e alla musica sacra
Queste ultime due opere sono condizionate da un umore molto
piu' depresso, paranoico, quasi apocalittico, nel segno di un fatalismo cosmico
di fronte al destino umano.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)
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