How does anyone sit still during a performance by the Michael Nyman Band? So insistent, so physical, is the English composer’s music that members of his band admit to struggling to endure a single selection, let alone an entire concert. Many of the players nod and sway wildly, maneuvering through the repetitive notes. In return for these endurance tests, they are met with perfectly still, deferential audiences. Perhaps the calmness is a sign of respect, but if any music ever deserved a pogoing crowd, it is Nyman’s.
Of course, the classical music world in which Nyman exists is a rather closed, calm world. Closed, at times, it seems, even to the esteemed composer himself. His insider/outsider status is one of the ideas raised, but not fully explored, in Sylvia Beck’s Michael Nyman—Composer in Progress. The documentary is an all-too conventional portrait of an extraordinary artist, but the film’s occasionally surprising insights and revelations do bring us briefly inside the world of the composer as he continues to grow beyond the zones for which he’s most well known.
Having achieved acclaim and commercial success with film scores for Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract and Jane Campion’s The Piano, Nyman enjoys the benefits of being known to a wide audience, but he’s not necessarily embraced by the exclusive audience that many composers seek. In other words, many casual music listeners/filmgoers can hum along to selections from The Piano, but that doesn’t translate into acceptance from the classical music elite. As evidence of this struggle for status, the film positions his inclusion in the 2009 BBC Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall as a belated and hard-won vindication. Although Beck concludes with this suggestion of a career triumph, the film is ultimately too episodic to link such a high point with a comprehensive arc of Nyman’s life and work. More interesting are observations about what inspires and defines the composer’s creations and motivates him to seek new artistic experiences.
Interviews with Nyman and his band members reflect a passion for constantly pushing the limits of composition and performance. His passion is genuine, triggered by an early fixation with Mozart that transformed into an aggressive piano style. Carsten Nicolai, an artist and musician who appears in the documentary, describes this style as “machine like… very dense and even manic.” Nyman’s band members, many of whom have played with him for two decades, take up the mantle of pursuing music that, according to trombonist Nigel Barr, is nearly “impossible” to play. Violinist Gaby Lester says, “Playing Michael’s music hurts. It hurts my arm.” She admits to faking it during loud brass parts so that her arm doesn’t wear out. The trombonists, she says, don’t have the opportunity to sit anything out, and the result is that their lips have been known to bleed from the effort.
These testimonials—set to “An Eye for Optical Theory”, a mainstay of the band’s set that baritone saxophonist Andy Findon says is difficult to even imagine playing live—could make Nyman seem like a joyless taskmaster. Though he does appear to want maximum control over performances of his compositions, he is good natured and complimentary of the band and their skills. His music also provides them with the unique opportunity to really “play out”. Barr comments that the Michael Nyman Band is the only place a brass player can play so loud and not be told to quiet down.
The picture of Nyman that emerges in these interviews is that of a man who has figured out the precise sound he wants to hear and assembled the right people for the job. On his own, however, he’s more adventurous. We see his recent forays into photography and video art, which he describes as a way to “turn passing reality into objects”. His visual work has an unmistakable beginner’s quality—a fact he acknowledges as he asks a gallery owner whether he would have received such an exhibition if his name weren’t Michael Nyman. In another scene, he sits at a table with his brother David and takes digital photographs of old family pictures. At a piano store, he requests the “worst” piano and is led to the basement, where he plays a purposefully, humorously atonal selection from The Piano. All of these scenes reveal his youthful enchantment with art, music, and the mundane objects of life that are easy to overlook. This quest for new inspiration keeps the composer “in progress”, and Beck’s film is most effective when the cameras run parallel to Nyman’s present search rather than trumpet his history.
Included in the box set with Michael Nyman—Composer in Progress is another DVD, Michael Nyman In Concert. While the documentary is a functional overview of the composer, the concert DVD is by far the better feature, as we see the Michael Nyman Band at full speed. Recorded on 22 October 2009 at Studio Halle, and directed by Oliver Becker, this concert features the German premiere of “The Musicologist Scores” as well as several other highlights from Nyman’s career. Particularly well represented are scores for Peter Greenaway films The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed & Two Noughts, and Drowning by Numbers. Though there are a few bobbing heads in the audience at Studio Halle, most of those in attendance are respectfully still. However, the DVD release of Michael Nyman In Concert allows viewers at home to follow the lead of the Michael Nyman Band and move to the music. Home viewing also allows pausing to avoid exhaustion—a luxury unavailable to Nyman’s dedicated players.