Michael Laurence Nyman, CBE (born 23 March 1944) is a British composer of minimalist music, pianist, librettist and musicologist, known for the many film scores he wrote during his lengthy collaboration with the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, and his multi-platinum soundtrack album to Jane Campion's The Piano. His operas include The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Letters, Riddles and Writs, Noises, Sounds & Sweet Airs, Facing Goya, Man and Boy: Dada, Love Counts, and Sparkie: Cage and Beyond, and he has written six concerti, four string quartets, and many other chamber works, many for his Michael Nyman Band, with and without whom he tours as a performing pianist. Nyman stated that he prefers to write opera rather than other sorts of music.
Nyman was born in Stratford, London. He was educated at the Sir George Monoux Grammar School, Walthamstow. He studied at King's College, London under Alan Bush, and was accepted at the Royal Academy of Music in September, 1961, and studied with Bush and Thurston Dart, focusing on piano and seventeenth-century baroque music. He won the Howard Carr Memorial Prize for composition in July 1964.
In 1969, he provided the libretto of Harrison Birtwistle's opera Down by the Greenwood Side and directed the short film Love Love Love (based on, and identical length to, the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love") before settling into music criticism, where he is generally acknowledged to have been the first to apply the term "minimalism" to music (in a 1968 article in The Spectator magazine about the English composer Cornelius Cardew). He wrote introductions for George Frideric Handel's Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 and conducted the most important interview with George Brecht in 1976.
Nyman drew frequently on early music sources in his scores for Greenaway's films: Henry Purcell in The Draughtsman's Contract and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (which included Memorial and Miserere Paraphrase), Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber in A Zed and Two Noughts, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Drowning by Numbers, and John Dowland in Prospero's Books, largely at the request of the director.
Nyman says he discovered his aesthetic playing the aria, "Madamina, il catalogo è questo" from Mozart's Don Giovanni on his piano in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis, which "dictated the dynamic, articulation and texture of everything I've subsequently done."
He has scored numerous films, the majority of them European art films, including several of those directed by Peter Greenaway. His few forays into Hollywood have been Gattaca, Ravenous (with musician Damon Albarn), and The End of the Affair. He wrote settings to various texts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for "Letters, Riddles and Writs", part of Not Mozart. He has also produced a soundtrack for the silent film Man with the Movie Camera. Nyman's popularity increased after he wrote the score to Jane Campion's award-winning 1993 film The Piano. The album became a classical music best-seller. He was nominated for both a British Academy Award and a Golden Globe.
Among Nyman's other works are the opera Noises, Sounds & Sweet Airs (1987), for soprano, alto, tenor and instrumental ensemble (based on Nyman's score for the ballet La Princesse de Milan); Ariel Songs (1990) for soprano and band; MGV (Musique à Grande Vitesse) (1993) for band and orchestra; concertos for saxophone, piano (based on The Piano score), violin, harpsichord, trombone, and saxophone & cello recorded by John Harle and Julian Lloyd Webber; the opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1986), based on a case-study by Oliver Sacks; and four string quartets. In 2000, he produced a new opera on the subject of cloning on a libretto by Victoria Hardie titled Facing Goya, an expansion of their one-act opera Vital Statistics. The lead, a widowed art banker, is written for contralto and the role was first created by Hilary Summers. His newest operas are Man and Boy: Dada (2003) and Love Counts (2005), both on libretti by Michael Hastings.
He has also composed the music for the children's television series Titch which is based on the books written and illustrated by Pat Hutchins.
Many of Nyman's works are written for his own ensemble, the Michael Nyman Band, a group formed for a 1976 production of Carlo Goldoni's Il Campiello. Originally made up of old instruments such as rebecs and shawms alongside more modern instruments like the saxophone in order to produce as loud a sound as possible without amplification, it later switched to a fully amplified line-up of string quartet, three saxophones, trumpet, horn, bass trombone, bass guitar and piano. This line up has been variously altered and augmented for some works.
Nyman also published an influential book in 1974 on experimental music called Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Catalan, Spanish and French translations), which explored the influence of John Cage on classical composers.
In the 1970s, Nyman was a member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia – the self-described World's Worst Orchestra – playing on their recordings and in their concerts. He was the featured pianist on the orchestra's recording of Bridge Over Troubled Water on the Martin Lewis-produced 20 Classic Rock Classics album on which the Sinfonia gave their unique interpretations of the pop and rock repertoire of the 1950s–1970s. Nyman created a similar group called Foster's Social Orchestra, which specialised in the work of Stephen Foster. One of their pieces appeared in the film Ravenous and an additional work, not used in the film, appeared on the soundtrack album.
He has also recorded pop music with the Flying Lizards; a version of his Bird List from the soundtrack to Peter Greenaway's The Falls (1980) appears on their album Fourth Wall as "Hands 2 Take."
On 7 July 2007 Nyman performed at Live Earth in Japan. On 2008 Nyman realised, in collaboration with the cultural association Volumina, Sublime, an artist's book that unified his music with his passion for photography.
In a collaboration with friends Max Pugh and Marc Silver, Nyman is now beginning to exhibit his films and photography. Nyman’s video works are filmed with a hand-held camera, often before and after concerts and as part of his international travels, featuring everyday moments. Some works are left relatively unedited whilst others undergo split screens and visual repetition. Soundtracks to some of the video works use location sounds, whilst others recycle existing scores from his archive or a combination of both.
In October 2009, Nyman released The Glare, a collaborative collection of songs with David McAlmont, which cast his work in a new light. The album – recorded with the Michael Nyman Band – finds McAlmont putting lyrics based on contemporary news stories to 11 pieces of Nyman music drawn from different phases of his career.
"David did the research and chose most of the musical pieces," Nyman explains. "I suggested a few pieces,too but I really didn't do very much, although I think it's a true collaboration. You can identify who was responsible for what, but both aspects create a perfect synergy in which neither element can exist without the other."
Although the album was recorded in just two days, there was a huge amount of preparation and rewriting before they entered the studio. "They're third generation songs and when you listen to them, you ask 'Is it Nyman?' 'Is it soul?' 'Is it rock'n'roll?' It's all and none of them," the composer says. "I think we've created a new musical language. I'm no good at writing pop cliché – when I try, it invariably comes out sounding quite different."
The project has a long gestation for the pair first met in 2004 at a exhibition opening and talked about working together. Nothing came of it for almost five years until they got together again via Facebook, met up for lunch – and the idea for The Glare was born.
"I was surprised and delighted by what we've came up with," Nyman says. "So much so, that when I now play these pieces solo, it sounds like something's missing and the music needs David's voice and approach. That's a remarkable thing, because I've been playing these pieces for years. Of all the many collaborations I've been involved in, none has ever given me more pleasure and I'm desperate to take it on the road and play these."