Born March 23, 1944, in London, England; son of Mark and Jeanette Nyman; married, wife's name, Aet. Education: Graduated from Royal Academy of Music and King's College. Addresses: Record company--Argo, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
As if describing his own musical career, composer Michael Nyman told Time magazine, "music is power, passion, pulse, pain." Indeed, he has reached the "power" of commercial success. He has exemplified the "passion" of composition-- and has reacted passionately to the lack of respect he has sometimes received from British critics and contemporary composers. His long list of compositions has proved the nonstop "pulse" of his creative output. And despite his accomplishments, Nyman has discussed how the music community once defined him as a film composer and the "pains" he went through to break out of that confinement to gain recognition as a multitalented, crossover composer.
Nyman's interest in music began in childhood. At the age of eight, his talent earned the attention of his instructor, Leslie J. Winters, at the Chase Lane School in Northeast London. "I couldn't sing or play, but he saw some quality in me no one had noticed before," Nyman told Timothy White in Billboard. "It's one of the mysteries of my life."
Nyman went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music and at King's College in London. His mentors in school included English harpsichordist Thurston Dart and the composer Alan Bush. Nyman's instructors purported the idea that serial music--music founded on a set of tones displaying a particular pattern and disregarding traditional tonality--was the only music worth writing. Nyman attempted to write serial pieces, but he eventually gave up composing in 1964. Instead, he went to work as a music writer and critic for the Listener, New Statesman, and Spectator.
In 1968 Nyman introduced the term "minimalism" to musical parlance in a review of English composer Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning. Nyman published a book on minimalism in 1974 titled Experimental Music--Cage and Beyond. In his book, Nyman explained how the work of English experimentalists like John Cage and John White ventured into new areas of composing. He wrote that these composers gave permission to use a single phrase from a classical piece of the past as a resource for an entire composition. In fact, Nyman would later use this same technique in some of his own musical compositions.
Two years after Nyman's book was released, Henry Birtwistle, the director of music at the National Theatre in England, asked Nyman to arrange the music for a production of Il Campiello by Italian librettist Carlo Goldoni. Nyman formed a band for the stage production which featured a combination of period instruments, including rebecs and sackbuts, as well as other instruments, like the banjo and saxophone. During his participation in Il Campiello, Nyman composed some incidental music that effectively revived his composition career. He continued working with the band he'd formed, later known as the Michael Nyman Band, and found his own minimalist style in his composition of In Re Don Giovanni.
Nyman began his long collaborative relationship with filmmaker Peter Greenaway in the mid-1970s, writing the musical scores for Greenaway's sequence of British Film Institute shorts. The two released the first of their 18 short and feature films, One to One-Hundred, in 1976. Unlike most film composers, Nyman wrote the music for Greenaway's films in long, continuous streams before the film began shooting. Once Greenaway finished filming, he would trim the music to fit the visual images, making Nyman's music an integral part of the production.
In 1977 Nyman released two of his works on the Obscure Records British music collection. Bell Set No. 1 and One to One-Hundred filled an entire side of Obscure 6: Decay Music. His music achieved international notoriety with the soundtrack for the Greenaway film The Draughtsman's Contract in 1982. Nyman and Greenaway continued their collaborative relationship throughout the 1980s, scoring films like A Zed and Two Noughts, Drowning by Numbers, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.
During the mid-1980s, Nyman wrote his first string quartet, String Quartet No. 1, for the Arditti Quartet. The foundation for this piece came from Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2. He followed with String Quartet No. 2 and String Quartet No. 3 in 1988 and 1990, respectively.
Another first in Nyman's career came in 1986 when he released his own opera, titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He based the story on a book by American neurologist Oliver Sacks about a music professor, Dr. P, who suffers from visual agnosia (the inability to recognize what he sees). Dr. P depended on certain songs to guide him through his disorder--eating songs, dressing songs, bathing songs. "When I performed that piece for the first time in October 1986," Nyman told Billboard, "I came off stage shaking with emotion. My attitude when writing it was very cool, analytical, yet I somehow injected the material with great empathy."
Nyman ended his long partnership with Peter Greenaway after the release of the film Prospero's Books, based on William Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Nyman used three singers from different genres--rock, opera, and cabaret-- in the work. Prospero's Books was the first musical collaboration between Nyman and German cabaret singer Ute Lemper. It was the last of his pairings with Greenaway, however, because of changes and additions Greenaway made to Nyman's original score.
In 1991 Nyman produced a flood of new compositions. In a single year, he signed a new record deal, with Argo/Decca/London; wrote Songbook, which included the "Six Celan Songs" that he wrote for Ute Lemper and with whom he performed them all over the world; and wrote six song- texts called Letters, Riddles and Writs, a music-theater piece for the BBC's "Not Mozart" series. The music for "Not Mozart" actually consists of reworkings from Mozart's Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, and portions of his string quartets. The words came from letters written by Mozart and his father to each other. Nyman explained in the Independent why he feels such a connection to Mozart, a connection critics had not detected: "Did Mozart write for love? No. He wrote for money. And he had a father who was more of a PR agent than I've ever had: a man who walked around with his son's manuscripts in his back pocket ready to show off to any likely patron. No one held that against Mozart as they would against me."
Despite his break with Greenaway, Nyman continued to write for film. In 1992 he wrote the score for the French film The Hairdresser's Husband, directed by Pierre Leconte. The film score that gained Nyman international commercial success, however, was The Piano, released in 1993. The Piano soundtrack reached gold record status in the U.S. and sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide.
Nyman celebrated his 50th birthday in 1994 with five orchestral commissions; two LPs, The Piano Concerto and MGV and Breaking the Rules; and the Michael Nyman Band's North American debut tour. The following year, he released the score for the dance opera The Princess of Milan by Karine Saporta. Like Prospero's Books, the story line is based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. In early 1995, Nyman was working on a possible U.S. commission for his cherished operatic version of Tristam Shandy, which he describes as the ultimate "stackable" opera.
Despite his warm manner with close friends, reported ABC Radio 24 Hours, Nyman can seem aloof and confesses to a certain shyness. "Work is a great avoidance mechanism," he explained, "it allows me to distance myself from humans." Nyman's long and prolific musical career has brought him prosperity. He lives in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in the French Pyrenees with his wife, Aet, and composes in a converted barn. He also maintains a four-story Victorian home in London with a studio on the top floor. "I don't write music to grab a large audience, though I'm pleased that I do," Nyman told Time. "But success doesn't exactly help you confront that terrible blank page. When I sit down to write a piece of music, it's still the same old Michael Nyman, excited and terrified at the same time."
by Sonya Shelton
Michael Nyman's Career
Music writer, 1964-76; wrote book Experimental Music--Cage and Beyond, 1974; began composing professionally with Il Campiello, 1976; released first film soundtrack, One to One-Hundred, 1976; composed opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, 1986; composed soundtrack for film The Piano, 1993.
- Selective Works
- One to One-Hundred, Argo, 1976.
- Obscure 6: Decay Music (compilation), Obscure, 1977.
- The Draughtsman's Contract, Argo, 1982.
- String Quartet No. 1, Argo, 1985.
- A Zed and Two Noughts, Virgin, 1985.
- And They Do, That's Entertainment, 1986.
- The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, CBS, 1986.
- Zoo Caprices, That's Entertainment, 1986.
- Drowning by Numbers, Virgin, 1987.
- String Quartet No. 2, Argo, 1988.
- The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Virgin, 1989.
- Out of the Ruins, Silva Screen, 1989.
- String Quartet No. 3, Argo, 1990.
- Prospero's Books, Decca/London, 1991.
- Flugel and Piano: For Flugelhorn & Piano, Virgin, 1991.
- String Quartets 1-3, Argo, 1991.
- The Convertibility of Lute Strings for Harpsichord, Argo, 1992.
- For John Cage: For Brass Ensemble, Argo, 1992.
- Time Will Pronounce, Argo, 1992.
- The Essential Michael Nyman Band, Argo, 1992.
- (With Ute Lemper) Songbook, Argo, 1992.
- The Piano, Virgin, 1993.
- The Piano Concerto and MGV ("Musique a Grande Vitesse"), Argo, 1994.
- Breaking the Rules, Virgin, 1994.
- The Princess of Milan, Argo, 1995.
- Mertens, Wim, American Minimal Music, Alexander Broude, Inc., 1983.
- Nyman, Michael, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Schirmer Books, 1974.
- Periodicals ABC Radio 24 Hours, June 1993.
- BBC Music Magazine, April 1993.
- Billboard, October 23, 1993; September 10, 1994; October 1, 1994.
- Classic CD, March 1992.
- Gramophone, August 1991; July 1993.
- Guardian, October 5, 1993; November 12, 1993.
- Independent, November 8, 1991; December 1, 1993.
- Keyboard, October 1993.
- Music & Musicians, September 1969; October 1971; January 1977.
- Musical Events, December 1969.
- Musical Times, December 1973.
- New Republic, July 27, 1992.
- New York Times, May 5, 1991; March 15, 1992.
- Observer Life, February 20, 1994.
- Opera, July 1980; January 1987; June 1987; August 1987; October 1987; March 1990; September 1992.
- Pulse!, May 1993.
- Q Magazine, September 1993.
- Sunday Times (London), January 9, 1994.
- Sunday Times Magazine (London), October 31, 1993.
- Time, November 14, 1994.
- Wire, July 1993.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Virgin Records and Argo Records press materials, 1995.