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Michael Nyman

Although Michael Nyman's name and music became known through Peter Greenaway's extraordinary films, Prospero's Books may see not just the peak but also the end of their creative partnership. But Nyman has other strings to his bow, as Mark J. Prendergast discovers.

Michael Nyman is undoubtedly best known for his association with Peter Greenaway, providing the soundtracks for all of Greenaway's film's from The Draughtsman's Contract through to the recent Prospero's Books. Nyman's soundtrack for the latter, an extraordinary visual tour de force based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, is widely regarded as his finest work, however it may also mark the end of Greenaway's and Nyman's creative partnership. But Nyman has plenty of other work to keep him busy, most recently completing an album of vocal material with German singer Ute Lemper.

Nyman attended the Royal Academy of Music, studying piano, harpsichord, music history and composition, and from there moved on to King's College for three years of musicological research. Though he had written four pieces of music at the academy, his disenchantment with atonal music of the then current vogue was to put him off composition until the late 1970s.

It was this disenchantment that led Nyman to the position of being England's first great champion of American Minimal music. Meeting Brian Eno proved to be a major turning point in his career, as it led Nyman to discover the recording studio, and forge his distinctive style through merging the cyclical nature of Minimalism with the possibilities inherent in multi-tracking and editing.

Following the release on Eno's Obscure label of Decay Music in 1976, Nyman eventually recorded nine more albums for as diverse a selection of labels as Editions EG, Virgin Venture, Charisma, Criterion, CBS Masterworks and (currently) Decca. Comfortably ensconced in the exclusive Decca signing, 1991 saw the release of String Quartets 1-3, Prospero and the recording of The Michael Nyman Songbook with Ute Lemper, the composer's first record of 1992.


It was, however, soundtrack music that brought Nyman to the attention of an unsuspecting and delighted public. In the 1982 Peter Greenaway film The Draughtsman's Contract, Greenaway's surreal, highly considered images of 17th century aristocratic hi-jinks were pointedly illustrated by a piping hot concoction of strings and brass, which borrowed from Purcell but wove themselves into a more addictive fabric.

If The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), A Zed And Two Noughts (1985), Drowning By Numbers (1988) and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) have seen Nyman explore his palette of aural colours in tandem with Greenaway's growing visual excesses, their latest film Prospero's Books sees the relationship reach its full flowering and according to Nyman, its end. Against the backdrop of Greenaway's stunning and visually alluring combination of video technology and celluloid, Nyman creates a score which could function as a resume of the previous soundtracks, so luminous and diverse are its contents.

Having known Peter Greenaway since the 1960s, Nyman began using an EMS VCS3 synthesizer to write electronic snatches for use by Greenaway in early experimental films which saw the two men working together in the same way that they later did on the major features. The music was composed first, and the film was shot later, with subsequent editing bringing them together.


"Before there was a script or anything he came around to my house and described the look, feel and structure of the film," says Nyman of The Draughtsman's Contract. "No plot, just the facts: a draughtsman makes 12 drawings. Each drawing would have a piece of music so that the location of the drawing would be fixed in the viewer's mind. No relationships between the individuals were dealt with."

Nyman has talked of the advantages of composing separately to the film, as opposed to the usual soundtrack composer's modus operandi of working to a rough cut of the movie. In the past he has found that "the music gets used in an unpredictable way to lubricate a plot while maintaining a separation which I actually find quite exciting". Today, however, he considers that Prospero's Books is left wanting in some respects. "The music in the film doesn't do much for the film, and his [Greenaway's] use of the music doesn't do much for my music." The bone of contention here seems to be the disparate natures of the brilliant soundtrack recording, and the music as used in the actual film. The development of the work is interesting.

"I gave him [Greenaway] a bunch of music, with no particular purpose, to which he grew quite attached during the conceiving of the film. He respected the basic form and structure of this material, which would make up 50% of the soundtrack. The rest of the music was composed especially — the five Ariel songs from Shakespeare's The Tempest, and 'The Masque' which is to all intents and purposes a miniaturised opera, and three or four tracks written in the absence of pre-composed material. It was the longest process of any film I've done with Peter. We started recording in May '90 and I delivered the final film mixes in Feb '91."

It turned out that Nyman had three distinct projects on his hands. One, the three Shakespeare songs (like 'Full Fathom Five' and 'Where The Bee Sucks'), two, 'The Masque', a kind of play within a play, and three, the music which Greenaway already had. These three had to be painstakingly knitted together as scripted music. The song cycles had to be shot to playback with the respective singers who perform them in the picture.

"Myself and David Cunningham [of Flying Lizards fame, Nyman's regular collaborator in the studio] recorded the instrumental tracks and vocal tracks at Abbey Road, and rough mixes were then given to Peter. I was on set for the two days of shooting 'The Masque' which occurred just outside Amsterdam."

Nyman suggests that the danger in soundtrack recording comes from the use of rough versions, maintaining that directors get used to the idiosyncrasies of a rough recording. "With 'The Masque' we just had the voice in a particular position and simply pushed up all the instrumental faders to facilitate an early version for Peter. In the end we spent days on the final mix of that. Basically there's one recording, and a rough mix to work to and edit to. Then there's a final mix of exactly the same recording to playback with the film. And then there's another mix for the album. In some cases we could use the film mix for the album, even though the film mixes are in Dolby Stereo. And then sometimes there's a certain amount of re-recording for the album."

Nyman says that students of soundtrack recording have found his work with Greenaway a fascinating study model. For The Draughtsman's Contract "the soundtrack album is a kind of reproduction of musical cues that are used and composed for the film, repackaged to make respectable tracks. On that also were two cues edited together to make a longer piece. In contrast Prospero's Books was a sort of unscrambling of complete pieces and therefore the discrepancies between the soundtrack and the idealised soundtrack are quite severe. In the end Peter had great problems in balancing out the demands of multiple levels of the text, the quasi-electronic sound effects he used and my music."

Given the visual riches inherent in Prospero's Books it is true to say that one does sometimes forget about the music. Yet all soundtrack music has to have the qualities of Eno's "ignorable as it is interesting" maxim to function properly within a visual format. The beauty of Nyman's recorded soundtracks is that they have always stood up as entities in their own right, their burping horns and slow elegiac passages functioning superbly as CD or vinyl art concept. Nyman has been aided in this by producer David Cunningham. How do the two work together in the studio?

"Well it was quite interesting because Prospero's Books and the Songbook were recorded back-to-back, and were quite different processes. Everything I'd done up to the Ute Lemper album was done like a rock album, using all the layering possibilities inherent in 24-track analogue. I bring in the strings, get as much separation on them as possible with a click track, me conducting etc. Next are the winds, with all the little intonation problems you get when you are recording these things in this way. Then we do a rough mix and bring in the voices. On 'The Masque' there was a Marie Angel stage, then a Deborah Conway stage and an Ute Lemper stage, each with a different approach depending on their experience. Sometimes I'm sitting behind the desk, sometimes I'm down there with the singers, conducting them and cajoling them. Michael Dutton is engineering everything and David is often making suggestions, making notes or keeping quite."


Though an analogue recording, Prospero's Books did benefit from digital hard disk editing prior to mastering. The Songbook was recorded on a 32-track Mitsubishi digital recorder, and as he has moved from analogue to digital Nyman has also moved away from his layering methods of old. "Well I've never gone into a studio and recorded a concert piece. I was able to do this with the Songbook. That recording is divided into two parts, the first being done in a layered way, the second (made up of six tracks) done as a piece. It's entitled 'Six Celan Songs' after the poet. The nature of the music was very flexible, with constantly changing tempos. In the studio I recorded and conducted through the tempo changes. All the musicians were there at the same time and you could see this colourful interaction between the violins and the horns. You got the feeling of something being created in the moment, the balance, the flow, the colours. With Prospero everyone was playing at the same volume, and later faders were used to bring light and shade to the mix."

Nyman admits that Michael Dutton and David Cunningham have spent up to a day preparing the sound for a recording or a mix. (See box for Michael Dutton's account of recording Nyman.) Dutton, from a pop background, records classical music in an unconventional way. "We had ambient mikes, stereo pairs and close mics for the 'Six Celan Songs'. We had the best of both worlds. The rough mix was a pretty adequate representation of the final mix, basically because all the dynamics were there and we'd rehearsed, which we don't do if I'm layering.

"What I'm saying is that there is a totally different process at work on the Songbook album. I think I've cured myself of the habit of automatically recording to a click-track the strings, wind and voices, in that order — although even on the Songbook some voices were put down later. But in essence a piece of music which is modifying, constantly changing its pace can't be easily recorded doing what I used to do to click-tracks. All the instruments have to be available at the same time."

Maybe that's why so much contemporary pop and rock sounds so hollow. Using click tracks, guitar solos in the right place, keyboard bridges and hollow vocals layered in an uninteresting and fatigued fashion. Yet few would guess, from the beauty of 'Cornfield' or 'Reconciliation' on Prospero, without the obvious overdubbed sound of contemporary pop, that they are not the ensemble pieces they appear to be.

"The music in Prospero's Books doesn't do much for the film, and Greenaway's use of the music doesn't do much for my music."

Nyman may be writing for orchestral instruments, and recording increasingly 'live', but maintains a strong interest in electronics.

"I use all the facilities that multitrack recording gives me, like EQ, mixing and electronic devices. I use an Emu Emulator and a Roland D50 at home so I'm aware of all this stuff. You must remember that the source of most of this music is acoustic. There's bass guitar yes. I've occasionally used synthesizers to boost or replace something that wasn't quite right in the first place. Samplers are used at once. An AMS was used on 'The Masque' to repair an error I'd made in the score. If technology is called for I'll use it. With the Songbook we used two Mitsubishi digital mixers to bounce tracks."


At this stage in Nyman's career the variety of his work has moved away from a simplistic 'systems' tag with which it was dubbed in the past, a tag that grew out of the lazy journalism of classical critics who were unable to understand a composer friendly with Eno and at home in any studio. Nyman has strong views about Minimalism, knows Steve Reich and Philip Glass and is much indebted to both. Indeed, 'Twelve Years Since" on Prospero recalls the best of Glass's elegiac compositions. But Nyman is moving on, and having written the opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat in 1986, he feels now very comfortable with voices, particularly that of Ute Lemper.

"I'm really hooked on writing for voices. Working with Ute was very important for me, first on Prospero and now with the Songbook. With a classical singer you plonk the microphone in front of them and they sing. Ute is more interested in what she's hearing, the sound of her own voice in the room and on playback, what the levels are and that kind of thing. Her potential as a singer is vast and she has this incredible ability and way of theatricalising what she sings. Hence the moods of the new album are very distinct and the kinds of harmonics and harmonic language itself much wider spread than on any of my previous recordings."

Lemper, a German singer often associated with the work of Kurt Weill, may seem an odd choice for a "classical" composer, but Nyman is no died-in-the-wool conservatory academic. He has always made avantist choices and stayed one step ahead of all his British contemporaries. Working with Greenaway is his most visibly radical move. He has also opted to score dance pieces for the American Lucinda Childs and the Indian Shobana Jeyasingh. He is a regular on the European concert circuit with his own Michael Nyman Band and, like Reich and Glass, is happiest playing his own music live. He has undertaken unusual mixed media projects like the 1982 I'll Stake My Cremona For A Jew's Trump for electronically modified violin and viola, turned into a film by Sara Jolly, or the 1984 The Kiss And Other Movements a video opera with Paul Richards. He even arranged Sting's 'Spread A Little Happiness'.


Signing to Decca means an awful lot more product, as Nyman's composer status is also brought into play. "Well there was the String Quartets 1-3 album on Argo (a subsidiary of Decca) earlier in the year with the Balanescu quartet who are part of my band. There's the composition '1-100', which dates back to the Brian Eno days, which will be on a Piano Circus album. There'll also be a 'Saxophone Concerto' on a John Harle LP of repertoire material which also features music by Mike Westbrook and Gavin Bryars.

"Distinctions should be drawn here: Prospero and the Songbook are my recordings with full involvement by me. The others are my pieces played by other musicians under the direction of Decca in-house producer Andrew Cornell. Distinctions also lie in the methods of recording. Classical recording is vertical but incomplete. The complete texture is derived from short takes which are in the end edited together. My way of recording has been, say with Prospero's Books, horizontal but incomplete. The texture is in the tracks I lay down, but the picture is not completed until the mix."

The near future for Michael Nyman holds the prospect of a good deal of interesting work, including the soundtrack for a new Jane Campion film, Piano Lesson. "Its main character has been dumb from the age of six and she uses the piano as a means of expression. Holly Hunter performs my piano music on shot. She's a fairly good pianist and doing the film had certain technical difficulties. The music had to be suitable for the medium, be derived from 1860s late Romantic tradition and be mobile and emotional enough to support the content of the film's plot. Then there's this Channel 4 opera 'King Of Hearts' which I'm doing with the same people I made the Oliver Sachs piece The Man Who Mistook His Wife... for. Then there's a tour with Ute Lemper of Europe promoting 'The Songbook' in concert halls, theatres and 'serious' classical type venues. I think that's enough to be getting on with."


Michael J. Dutton, engineer on Prospero's Books and The Michael Nyman Songbook at Abbey Road, recollects some aspects of the recording processes:

"Michael Nyman is more concerned with the musicality of things than with the technology. I combine the classical and rock side of recording: I will put a mike right down into a violin to get the sound I want. I used gated racks on 'Caliban's Pit' and 'Prospero's Curse' to keep the sound punchy. 'Where The Bee Sucks' has this LA, MOR string sound which is all open and airy. I achieved this by having mikes for the violins all at different heights.

"We used various effects used in mixing — we relied on Lexicon, TC Delays and AMS mostly.

'"Full Fathom Five' was recorded at Abbey Road 5 with valve mikes and close mikes. 'Prospero's Magic' was actually done at PYE a year earlier with close mikes. 'The Masque' was recorded at Abbey Road Studio 2, the classical studio, in order to get the echo right. This combined ambient with close miking.

"Prospero's Books was mixed at Abbey Road 3. Bits and pieces were done on the Neve console. 'Caliban's Pit' and the gated stuff had a heavy computerised mix. The rest was like The Draughtsman's Contract, a mix of computerised sounds and real instruments. The Songbook LP had full computerised mixing. Michael is the kind of guy who'd rather do it himself, have a go at it, so we (myself and David) have to set it up for him so he can let fly. For Peter Greenaway some parts of a song had to be stripped away and these bits would be retained to form a completely new track!"


1. Decay Music (Obscure/EG 1976).
2. The Draughtsman's Contract (Charisma/Virgin 1982).
3. Drowning By Numbers (Virgin Venture 1988).
4. La Traversee De Paris (Criterion 1988).
5. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (Virgin Venture 1989).
6. The Nyman Greenaway Soundtracks (4 CD Box, Virgin Venture 1989).
7. Prospero's Books (Decca 1991).
8. The Michael Nyman Songbook (Decca 1992).

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Jan 1992

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Interview by Mark Prendergast

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