An artist who can′t be pidgeonholed | Music | DW | 23.03.2014
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An artist who can't be pidgeonholed

Michael Nyman is considered one of the most important and creative contemporary composers. His film music, in particular, brought him world renown. On March 23, he celebrated his 70th birthday.

His oeuvre nearly boggles the mind: Michael Nyman's work as a composer ranges from operas and orchestral works to chamber and film music as well as pieces for music theater and dance. However, the innovative artist was irked that he never completed a symphony.

He can now set that frustration aside. As Nyman said in the documentary "The Nyman Sessions - 2 Days, 2 Symphonies," he decided on Christmas 2012 to give himself a 70th birthday present and write ten symphonies. The first two - numbered two and five - have just been recorded with the World Orchestra under Josep Vicent.


Michael Nyman's creative versatility is remarkable.

A scene from a German staging of Michael Nyman's opera Facing Goya

Nyman's opera "Facing Goya," staged in Karlsruhe, Germany

With a worldwide reputation as a gifted composer and pianist, he's also a conductor, band leader, author and music scholar - and in recent years has devoted himself increasingly to photography and film artistry. The composer took up residence in Mexico City, saying in a 2008 interview with London's The Telegraph, "It's a visual paradise, and you're never at a loss for somewhere to point your camera."

Born in London in 1944, Nyman studied at the Royal Academy of Music and King's College London, focusing on piano and music history. In the 1960s, he began working as a musicologist and music journalist.

In 1968, he is said to have been the first to use the term "minimal music," a genre now associated with towering artists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who are among Nyman's key influences. His book "Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond," published in 1974, is a standard work on the topic of experimental music.

Michael Nyman at the piano during a Japan concert

The composer at the piano for the Live Earth concert in Kyoto, Japan

Breaking new ground

In 1976, Nyman founded his own ensemble, the Campiello Band, from which the current Michael Nyman Band grew forth. His unmistakably low key style is sometimes dancelike, sometimes meditative and dreamy. His apparent love of musical and artistic experimentation makes him impossible to categorize. His music may invoke Debussy or Chopin, while drawing in pop and jazz elements. In the end, though, he arrives at a signature sound entirely his own.

Moving effortlessly and fearlessly between divergent forms of expression, Nyman has written music both for a runway show by avant-garde designer Yohji Yamamoto and for the computer game "Enemy Zero."

Enduring success

Nyman's film music, which brought him his greatest commercial successes, made him a global star. He composed soundtracks for twelve films by Peter Greenaway, including "The Draughtsman's Contract" and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover." The music for Volker Schlöndorff's film "Der Unhold" (The Ogre) comes from his pen.

A still life from The Piano

A still life from "The Piano"

But undoubtedly one of his most famous works for film was the music to Jane Campion's "The Piano," for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination in 1994.

A birthday concert is set to take place on April 30 to honor the composer in London's Royal Festival Hall. On the program is his Second Symphony, written specially for the occasion.

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