Biography of Michael Nyman Essay

Biography of Michael Nyman

When Michael Nyman published his study Experimental Music: Cage andBeyond (1974, reprinted 1999), he could hardly have foreseen his owncontribution to that ‘beyond’. Disaffected with the then currentorthodoxies of international modernism, Nyman had abandonedcomposition in 1964, preferring to work as a musicologist, editingPurcell and Handel, and collecting folk music in Romania. Later hewrote criticism for several journals, including The Spectator, where,in a 1968 review of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Digest, he became thefirst to apply the word ‘minimalism’ to music.

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That same year, a BBC broadcast of Steve Reich’s Come Out opened hisears to further possibilities, and a route back to composition beganto emerge. In 1968 he wrote the libretto for Harrison Birtwistle’s’dramatic pastoral’ Down by the Greenwood Side. Later, Birtwistle, bynow Musical Director of the National Theatre, London, commissioned himto provide arrangements of 18th century Venetian songs for a 1976production of Carlo Goldoni’s Il Campiello, for which Nyman assembledwhat he would describe as ‘the loudest unamplified street band’ hecould imagine: rebecs, sackbuts, shawms alongside banjo, bass drum andsaxophone.

Nyman kept the Campiello Band together after the play’s run hadfinished, adding his own propulsive piano-playing to the mix. A bandneeds repertoire, and Nyman set about providing it, beginning with InRe Don Giovanni, a characteristic treatment of 16 bars of Mozart. TheBand’s line-up mutated, amplification was added and the name changedto the Michael Nyman Band. This is the laboratory in which Nyman has…

…erto for Gidon Kremer,commissioned by the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, to be premieredat the Musikhalle, Hamburg on August 29th, 2003 under the baton ofDennis Russell Davies and the Festival Orchestra.

Other recent successes have been the play Power by Nick Dear at theNational Theatre, London premiered on July 3rd for which Nyman wrotethe accompanying music and the BBC Concert Orchestra’s programme ofselected Nyman film scores performed at the Royal Festival Hall, onJune 17th 2003.

At every turn Nyman has proved eminently practical. Not for him theivory tower anguish of a tormented composer grappling with abstractsystems. Rather he has consistently displayed an openness tocollaboration, a spry sense of humour, a literate imagination and aninstinctive ability to engage a highly diverse audience.


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