Composer strikes a visual chord

The composer Michael Nyman is coming to Sheffield's Doc Fest on Saturday.
The composer Michael Nyman is coming to Sheffield's Doc Fest on Saturday.
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Michael Nyman’s latest project delves into the archives of the First World War. Chris Bond spoke to the composer ahead of his appearance at Sheffield’s Doc/Fest at the weekend.

MICHAEL Nyman is a man of many talents.

As one of Britain’s most innovative and acclaimed composers he’s produced opera scores, film soundtracks and orchestral concertos. On top of all this he’s also a conductor, bandleader, pianist, author and, more recently, a film-maker.

Nyman’s career spans five decades and includes the award-winning score for the film The Piano (1993) and the acclaimed opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1986), and has seen him collaborate with the likes of Sir Harrison Birtwistle and modern day musicians such as Damon Albarn.

His latest project, War Work: Eight Songs with Film, combines his passion for classical music with a growing fascination for old archive images.

Eight Songs is an audio-visual piece consisting of two groups of four songs and fragments of poems written by First World War poets all of whom, apart from the English painter-poet David Bomberg, lost their lives during the conflict.

It’s accompanied by a film based around German, French and American archive footage from the war which meant Nyman and his editor Max Pugh travelling to Paris in order to trawl through the French military archives.

“I didn’t set out to make a documentary and this isn’t one, it’s more of an ‘essay film’ that pertains to the First World War,” says Nyman. “I was interviewed by a journalist and he pointed out that I was born in 1944 just 30 years after the war started and I hadn’t thought about that before. I was a Second World War baby but I’m also closer to the 1914-18 war than I realised.”

His song cycle combines music from likes of Rossini, Schubert and Chopin, interwoven with poetry, visual excerpts and fragments of First World War-era musical motifs. But rather than going for obvious images relating to the war, Nyman takes the viewer and listener on a journey that shows the conflict from a different perspective. “I’ve paired a German poem with English music and a French poem with German music as a way of unpicking nationalism and national identity,” he says.

He is presenting Eight Songs at Sheffield City Hall on Saturday with the Michael Nyman Band, as part of this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest. “It’s only been performed seven or eight times and this is the first time in the UK,” he says. “This is the first time I will have been to Sheffield so I’m delighted to be performing in the city.”

Nyman chose to focus on the Great War but wasn’t sure how the finished piece would work out. “Last year it seemed as though each week there was a documentary on the First World War, and whenever I walked into a bookstore there was a new book about the war, all totally contradictory. So the idea of making the First World War film to end all First World War films disappeared.”

Instead he focused on the archive material that most other documentary makers ignored. “We found a lot of material showing young Frenchmen in their brilliant white singlets training to be soldiers. They have this look of wide-eyed innocence and there’s a ludicrous sequence where one of the soldiers shows the others how to pull a pin on a grenade.”

Nyman uses other, more unsettling, sequences too. “We found footage of two men suffering from shell shock who are unable to stand still and you see them doing this terrible dance of death.”

He says the film works through its associations and connections. “There are no interviews, there are no reconstructed scenes and no voice overs,” he says. “I’ve learned a huge amount about the potency of images and the history that’s contained within them.” He feels, too, that he’s created something different. “We’re presenting something highly charged that’s shocking and thrilling and I plan to go on performing this for the next few years.”

Nyman has been a prolific composer and musical arranger for nearly 40 years. However, it wasn’t his family that started him down the musical path, it was a music teacher who first noticed his interest in playing the piano. “I was about eight years old and a junior school teacher, and I can’t remember how, discovered I had some musical talent.”

He was taken on as a kind of protégé for the next nine years before going on to study at the Royal Academy of Music and King’s College London. “It was a happy accident,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing that should be happening to every child with a hidden talent, but today’s education system wouldn’t allow that to happen, because it doesn’t fit in with the assessment system we have now. I was lucky, I was in the right place at the right time.”

During the 1960s while he was still in his mid-twenties Nyman earned one of his earliest commissions, to write the libretto for Birtwistle’s 1969 opera Down By The Greenwood Side. He later worked as music critic for the Spectator and in 1976 formed his own ensemble, the Campiello Band (now the Michael Nyman Band) which has subsequently performed much of his inventive and experimental compositional work.

Nyman has worked with a string of prominent film directors over the years including Michael Winterbottom and Neil Jordan. But perhaps his notable collaborations have been with Peter Greenaway, providing the soundtrack to a number of his films, including, most famously, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

Nyman’s moving piece, Memorial, which was used by Greenaway throughout the film, was originally created as a memorial to commemorate the deaths of 39 fans, almost all Italian, at the 1985 European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus at the Heysel stadium. The piece had scarcely been performed or heard by the public until Greenaway visited Nyman to talk about his film. “He came round to my house and described the kind of music he wanted for The Cook, which was a perfect description of Memorial.”

He fetched a recording of the piece and played it to him. “I said to him if that was the kind of thing he wanted and he said ‘yes, precisely that.’”

Nyman used it to form part of his Symphony No 11: Hillsborough Memorial, another commemorative piece written in memory of the 96 Liverpool supporters who lost their lives at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final. It was commissioned for the Liverpool Biennial and was performed by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in front of relatives of some of the Hillsborough victims.

Today, Nyman is now in his 70s but rather than simply sticking to what he knows he continues to experiment and explore new ways of looking at the world.

Therein, perhaps, lies a lesson for us all.

War Works: Eight Songs with Film at Sheffield Doc/Fest, takes place at Sheffield City Hall on Saturday at 2pm. Tickets cost £18 and £15. Go to, or call 0114 2789 789.