Watching a master at work

Michael Nyman amid the working clutter at his desk and piano. Picture:  Francesco Guidicini

Michael Nyman: Music from and for Film

Malvern Theatres


ONE of my favourite composers, Michael Nyman is also highly respected worldwide as a pianist, conductor, author and musicologist.

This current European tour combines Nyman's distinctive musical form with his unconventional style of observational film-making. Promoted as ‘a very special and rare evening of piano music and film' and ‘a fascinating insight into a visual and musical world uniquely represented' I knew that we were going to experience just that. I had been looking forward to this concert for months. I was already excited. And then I realised we had the best seats in the house.

Over the course of ninety minutes, the audience was treated to compositions which accompanied a series of short films made by Nyman as he has travelled the world over the last fifteen years. Projected on to a big screen, each work or ‘Cine Opera' documents a particular location, event, mood or group of people in a way which feels intimate yet not at all intrusive.

Nyman's odd angles and sudden splicing give the footage a warm, friendly quality, so that we could almost be watching a relative's home movies, albeit with a rather splendid soundtrack. Everyday scenes are however always lifted above the quotidian by Nyman's affectionate focus. ‘Slow Walkers' simply shows older people going about their usual activities and ambling along streets, which in other hands could come across as mocking or voyeuristic. Yet it is shot in such a way as to convey Nyman's utter respect for his subjects and love of humanity with all its frailties.

‘Love Train' is a bizarrely mesmerising piece which features nothing more than train couplings and side buffers as trains steam along endless tracks. Nyman shows us the strangely romantic dances of pairs of buffers as they gracefully push and pull together and apart, sometimes brushing against each other with their greased ends. To me, this selection of cinematography showed Nyman as a man with a sense of humour and also of wonder; a man who sees the beauty in everything and everyone around him.


Some films were in vivid colour, others in black and white. There were new compositions and adapted arrangements from some of his famous film scores. Nyman didn't have a page-turner or even a music stand. Instead he had a pile of wide sheets of music strewn across the top of his black grand piano, which he would sometimes read from, sometimes glance at and sometimes ignore as he watched parts of the short films.

When he had finished with a piece of paper he simply threw it on to the floor behind him and continued to play. In some short breaks between pieces he would stand and move to the centre of the floor, bow three times and then return to his piano stool. Dressed all in black apart from striped socks, glasses pushed up onto his head, Nyman cut an unassuming figure. He strikes one as peculiar, bordering on eccentric, clearly loving what he does but without displaying even the hint of a smile all night.

From my front row seat my feet could feel the music's vibrations through the theatre's wood laminate flooring. Watching Nyman's fingers close-up as they recreated music so familiar to me was magical, and to see and hear the composer of The Piano play sections of The Piano on the piano not two metres away from me . . . Some moments simply can't be expressed in words. Once he'd played music from The Piano I did find myself wanting a taste of my favourite film score of his – The Draughtsman's Contract. Inspired by Purcell, this grand and majestic soundtrack features a range of instruments such as electric bass and saxophone which would clearly render any reproduction without a small orchestra impossible.

I had forgotten though that Nyman composes all his work on piano and soon we were regaled with his solo version of An Eye for Optical Theory. This was played alongside scenes of what appeared to be an outdoor Italian feast day, with men playing a fast and passionate game of ‘rock, paper, scissors' on a table laden with food. Sun-drenched colours filled the screen, the men's chatter still audible beneath the sound of the piano: a near sensory overload, and then silence. For me it was a happy night.

The whole performance was magnificent and moving. Nyman's is music which touches the heart, and I had tears in my eyes at several point throughout the evening. For me, the music would have been enough, but the film portraits only added to the experience, with their celebration of all human life and the marvel of existence.

 At the end of the show, Nyman simply bowed again, clapped to show his appreciation of the audience, then fumbled his way backstage through closed curtains behind his piano. An abrupt finish, but fanfares and encores somehow would not have been fitting.

In the foyer afterwards I thanked Nyman for a beautiful evening. ‘Thank you,' he replied. ‘A woman came and told me that that was the most miserable evening she's ever had.' There really is no accounting for taste. 30-10-13

Amy Rainbow

Michael Nyman: Music from and for Film moves on to Sardinia, Belgium and Luxembourg. 


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