Michael Nyman is a world renowned composer, pianist, writer and critic. His lengthy collaboration with Peter Greenaway and his hugely popular soundtrack to Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film, The Piano, have made him a household name in UK classical music. However, having not written any new music in around a decade, he has recently turned his […]

Michael Nyman is a world renowned composer, pianist, writer and critic. His lengthy collaboration with Peter Greenaway and his hugely popular soundtrack to Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film, The Piano, have made him a household name in UK classical music. However, having not written any new music in around a decade, he has recently turned his hand to filmmaking, working with editor Max Pugh. Sheffield Doc/Fest will present the UK premiere of his new audio-visual piece, War Work: 8 Songs With Film, on 6 June. I spoke to him in the run-up to this performance to discuss the new piece, along with his career in music.

You’re well known as a minimalist composer. Is this an ideology you still subscribe to?

In 1968, when I was a music critic, I coined the term ‘minimal music’ by analogy with minimal art, and also simply because of a piece of music that I heard that was just fucking minimal. I wasn’t sitting down and making a category. We all talk about minimal music and minimalism and we all know what we’re talking about, but the initial strike from me as a journalist was something very specific and in a specific context. I didn’t expect then to have mapped out a musical hegemony, of which I would become part as a composer eight or nine years later, and would become seen as a contradiction to and opposing modernism. I drifted into what we would call minimalism from a taste point of view, as opposed to an ideology.

How did you begin your career as a composer?

I’ve been associated as a composer with filmmaking since 1976, when I wrote my first soundtrack for a comedy called Keep It Up Downstairs, directed by Robert Young. This was also a time when Peter Greenaway was making experimental, abstract films. There was a film called 1-100 and he asked me to write the soundtrack. Simultaneously, I was writing commercial music in the style of Edwardian popular music for Keep It Up, and I was writing structural music for Greenaway’s structuralist films. That started me writing music on a more or less permanent basis and giving up being a music critic.

How did you begin the transition into filmmaking?

Basically, leaving my house with a camera and photographing and filming what I see on the street. So I’m a kind of a street photographer-filmmaker. I’ve made about 80 films, which have been put in a collection called Cine Opera.

How did you create the film for War Work?

It deals with pre-existing archive material of the First World War in the context of global politics and the history of war. I’ve read quite a few books about the background to WWI, what happened and why and what the consequences were. Every time I went back to London there would be another 800-page analysis of the war, and I would sit down and try to be a genuine documentary maker, but think, “If these guys can’t agree why it started and what happened or what the consequences are, I’m fucked if I think I can.” We’re showing it at Doc/Fest knowing that it’s not a documentary. It’s an artwork, essay film, whatever you want to call it, but certainly not a documentary.

We followed our noses through the archives and we eventually pieced together a series of interlinking and sometimes contrasting sets of material, and we built up the subject matter of the basis of the film through a kind of conceptual and visual improvisation. There was no plot and no script. It’s analogous to the way I describe my career as a composer – finding these fragments that appeal to me and putting them together and building a kind of language out of minimalism, structuralism, repetition, baroque music, world music, and whatever. Not to create an unidentifiable post-modern collage, but to create something that is Michael Nyman. It’s a film without any dialogue, commentary or interviews, and is basically raw visual material and raw sound material. It’s a thrilling way of making a film and a thrilling way of using images with intelligence.

What kind of footage is in the film?

We found some fascinating footage of French youngsters training to be soldiers. They were like schoolchildren training for school sports day. There’s a sequence of a plane factory in Germany, with woodworkers lovingly creating these planes which were designed to kill people. Yet six months earlier, these crusty old moustachioed furniture makers were making furniture.

One tiny piece of information that I’ve gleaned was that if there had been a 1916 Olympics, they would have been in Berlin. I found postage stamps that were printed for the 1916 games, so right at the end of my film, there’s an image of one. The next shot is of these beautiful young men in their beautiful white singlets training to be soldiers. The point I’m making without actually making it is that these are the kids – because they are kids – who might have appeared in the Olympics in 1916 if they hadn’t been putting them in military danger. Just by flashing two images, I make a point without a historian to explain it.

That’s something you can’t do as a composer. I can’t put together two musical images in the same way and say something about real life. When you’re a composer, you can do intelligent things, but writing intelligent music doesn’t actually tell anyone that I have an opinion on anything. This kind of stream of consciousness approach of being a quasi-documentary maker I think has been the most thrilling film project I’ve ever been involved with, and now I have a real appetite for taking this approach and making other films with available documentation.

What about the music accompanying the film?

When I started, it was going to be a film with an instrumental soundtrack, but then I got the idea to write a song with a text by a German poet called August Stramm. I took a piece of Rossini’s religious music and set this poem by Stramm to it. It was so powerful, to use this very heavily emotional music of the 19th century and to recompose that music and transform it into backings to these poems. I then wrote a song cycle of eight songs, writing one song a day for eight days. So, writing a fully fledged song cycle within the film, I decided to change the title and semi-minimise the film part of the film, just because I was so excited, and my interest as a composer had been reawakened.

Is War Work a pacifist piece?

This was the war that was supposed to end all wars and look at the pile of shit situation we’re in now. I’ve tried to make it as specific as possible to WWI, but anyone with any intelligence will realise that this did not end in 1918, because 1918 is still with us. People are still being killed and deformed and decapitated, and there’s still a political economy that’s built around and sustained by war. I don’t see how anyone with any awareness or intelligence cannot be anti-war.

Michael Nyman’s War Work: 8 Songs with Film takes place at Sheffield City Hall on Saturday 6 June, priced from £15. Tickets available at sheffdocfest.com

michaelnyman.com

Photo by Anne Deniau

Ben Eckersley