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cover image michael nyman interview for apartamento magazine

Michael Nyman

Michael Nyman

In the southernmost section of the Colonia Roma lives Michael Nyman. This neighbourhood has undergone a very profound transformation, perhaps becoming the best example of gentrification in Mexico City, but it’s still surprising to find such an unexpected character roaming a still-traditional environment, spending time amid second-hand bookstores, tortillerías, and restaurants that offer biodynamic wines and fusion meals. He combines these days with long periods in Milan, where he spends almost all the rest of his time, and increasingly sporadic periods in London, where he visits family and does the odd piece of work. His house, a building from the ‘30s meant to be the home of a large and well-off family, is gradually becoming a bookshelf for all sorts of collectables: photographic archives of several families, designer furniture, antiques, a magnificent grand piano, and books from almost any time and about any topic. Every room is an extension of his studio, and piles of documents and photographs and work-in-progress sheet music and the like can be found lying about almost everywhere. He is presently working on his first grand exhibition in Mexico City, and this may be the reason for such extreme (apparent) disorder. 

Nyman is best known for his music. Hearing his name immediately leads us to the composer of Jane Campion’s movie The Piano, or to his outstanding collaborations with Peter Greenaway. One of his most salient characteristics is that he has a solid theoretical background as an artist, not only in music, combined with a vast personal knowledge of very important artists and a depth of personal experience, which is relatively uncommon. Nyman is not only a composer but also an important music critic, who, among other things, coined the term ‘minimal music’. A lesser-known facet of his career is his work as a photographer and filmmaker. These two aspects appear to have gained greater importance in his life in recent years, and he seems determined to express them more and more. The 14 years of his life in Mexico appear to be an intense and permanent search for new experiences, both in personal and professional terms—and if this is so, it’s in deep contrast with a much more rigorous and systematic past.

Michael Nyman receives us in his house, beside his computer, listening to the news and writing on a bunch of sheet music. He is surprised by the number of cameras that Ryan, the photographer, brings in, particularly the analogue ones, and most of all the 16mm movie camera.

 

A Bolex! It’s been ages since I last saw one. It’s like the one I used to have! Peter Greenaway and I each had a Bolex in the mid ‘60s, and we filmed the demonstrations against the Vietnam War all around London. Most of these films are shelved, but one of them gave rise to Love Love Love, the only film I had finished, with appearances by Allen Ginsberg and edited by Greenaway in 1968, using ‘All You Need Is Love’ by The Beatles as background music. A Bolex only makes films that last 30 seconds. I had totally forgotten. So how did I make that film using 30-second pieces?

It’s somewhat surprising that everyone thinks of you as a composer but that you were a filmmaker a long, long time ago.

Actually, at that time I was foremost a music critic. Filming was a short-lived affair that I am now again engaged in. After Love Love Love I had a second and failed attempt at filmmaking, which is a very strange story: I showed the film to a BBC TV producer and he really liked it. He had a friend he recommended me to, the architect Willy Frischmann—by the way, the father of Justine Frischmann, who became a rock star in the ‘90s.

Elastica’s Justine Frischmann?

Precisely.

She’s amazing, she also discovered MIA in the early 2000s.

As I was saying, in the late ‘70s Willy Frischmann was the designer of one of the tallest buildings in the City of London and wanted somebody to film how it was built. He invited me to direct that documentary. I was not a filmmaker; I was a music critic. I wasn’t even a composer. From 1968 to 1975 I was a music critic, but somehow I was tempted by the proposal. Willy explained to me that the principle of the structure of that building was based on the principle of the structure of a tree and that the roots are the same length as the height of the tree. He designed this tower block, the tallest building in London at that time, on the principle of the tree. Why was he telling me this? Why should I know this? Why did I accept this challenge? To make this film I sold my Bolex and bought an Arriflex.

So there was this musician doing a film about the most important building in London that still is one of the most iconic skyscrapers in London. I shot all the preparation, all the digging, and then they started building above ground, and I even went to Basel and Zurich to film wind-tunnel tests. Can you imagine? It’s like asking a perfume maker to do—oh, whatever. And then when the building began to be taller and taller, I realised I couldn’t carry on filming. It was not vertigo; I just couldn’t do it. I gave Willy the footage, I sold the camera, and I bought a Sony cassette recorder with which I started recording music.

And then what happened with your career as a music critic?

I carried on doing it for a while. The beautiful thing of me being a music critic was that I hung out with composers. I hung out, among others, with Karlheinz Stockhausen between 1968 and 1970, and then I changed my musical interests and started moving into what I have called ‘minimalism’. I started hanging out with Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Gavin Bryars, and Cornelius Cardew. I played in the first European performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming in Pamplona, Spain. The interesting thing that people don’t know is that Philip and Steve played in each other’s ensembles in 1971. They were still friendly and not competitive enough to avoid being able to play in each other’s ensembles.

I had the advantage of being a non-composer among composers when I was a critic. They were obviously more interested in me as a music critic, and now as a composer I don’t really spend any time with composers. I spend more time with architects, painters, photographers, or filmmakers.

Your book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond is very well known. Yet you are also credited with having coined the term ‘minimal music’.

Post-war experimental music always interested me, and it was easy to write a text on Cage, La Monte Young, and their generation. Oh well, about minimal music. I first saw Nam June Paik in 1968, in London at the ICA, playing with Charlotte Moorman. It was a spectacular piece, with extremely few elements, by Danish composer Henning Christiansen. During the performance I thought to myself, ‘This is definitely minimal music’, and when I wrote the review on the concert for The Spectator, the editor ironically put the headline ‘Minimal Music’, and this is how the term was coined. So I invented it, but not deliberately. And then it was applied to Steve Reich and also applied to Philip Glass and also applied to John Adams. Well, maybe he is post-minimalism. And applied to this and that and applied to Terry Riley and whatever.

To me it was just something local, but for 51 years the accidental, incidental use of these two words together has become customary. It is paradoxical that I coined this, as I obviously knew about minimal art. In 1968, the book Minimal Art, edited by Gregory Battcock, was published in America and England and I’d read almost all the texts about minimalism, such as ‘ABC Art’ by Barbara Rose. So I knew about minimal art and I knew that there was kind of minimal music around, which wasn’t called as such, related to Sol LeWitt’s ideas. But I was the first person to apply minimal to music.

You coined the term as a music critic, but do you consider yourself a composer of minimal music?

The term is applied to several composers, including me. I’m happy to have my music described as minimal. Historically, since I was a kind of musical historian at that time, my music comes from a tradition which started in the late ‘60s and which we can call minimal music, but the word ‘minimal’ also has a very specific meaning: a small quantity of information. It is strange when a piece of music within this musical language seems to have a lot of information, but still recalls minimal music, such as the score of Einstein on the Beach. I find it really interesting that this music was a very, very reduced minority’s music. In the late ‘60s nobody listened to Philip Glass, nobody listened to Steve Reich, except for minimal artists like Sol LeWitt or Michael Snow or whatever. And all this has changed and gone beyond classical music, and presently serious rock musicians like Brian Eno are basically using ideas that were developed by Reich or Arvo Pärt or Terry Riley or me.

You seem to have a special relationship with Brian Eno.

Of course, a very special relation. In 1976 he produced my first recording, called Decay Music, on his Obscure Records label. The underlying idea I think I stole from Morton Feldman, and Brian stole it from me and invented ambient music. Brian was honest with me in this rather unpleasant chain of events.

What can you tell me about Obscure Records?

Brian used to hang out with a lot of composers like me and Gavin Bryars and experimental music composers. So he made Obscure Records. He recorded me, made the first recording of John Adams, and also recorded Carla Bley, John Cage, Harold Budd, and Robert Wyatt. It was a mixture of jazz, improvisation, and experimental music. And it is a fantastic series. I think the collection is composed of nine or 10 records. We all learned a lot; we all were very naïve musicians who learned a lot about recording techniques, about the record industry, and about confidence. I say no more than that.

Did you continue working together after he released Decay Music?

Only when I started the Michael Nyman Band; he recorded two tracks with us. After that he moved to New York, probably to avoid doing the final mix. Not true. It’s a very interesting mix because it has a lot of bass clarinets, and underneath he just went crazy with that. Then I never worked with him again. In 1979 I introduced him to Jon Hassell in New York. And in 1980 I introduced him to David Byrne through Kristine McKenna, the journalist who just co-authored Room to Dream, David Lynch’s biography. Brian and I are still friends. I don’t see him that much, but I read about him and his projects. I don’t listen to his music, but I don’t listen to anyone’s music.

That is something that caught my attention. Your house has all sort of things. A tremendous and eclectic book collection, a rich archive of photographs, a piano that doesn’t disappoint what we expected to find at Michael Nyman’s house. But I’ve been looking for a good sound system with some impressive speakers and I can’t find anything like it. Nor a superb record collection.

There’s no sound system, and if I listen to anything it would be on my laptop. I do sometimes listen to this incredible compact disc collection of music recorded in remote places by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, and whenever necessary to my own music.

Soundtracks rocketed you as a musician, yet it’s been a long time since you’ve made any new ones.

I haven’t written music for a feature film for about 14 years. I’m very happy to have been made redundant in Hollywood and Europe. I’m very happy with the music I’ve made, because I added some kind of value to filmmakers’ work. And I’m very happy that my career started kind of accidentally with Peter Greenaway and it ended when nobody asked me to write more soundtracks. But now, one director, Patrice Leconte, with whom I collaborated in 1989 and 1990, asked me after all these years to write a soundtrack and I’m very happy to do so. I love the idea of working with him again because it’s chamber music. In Hollywood everything is so fucking big, everything is loud, everything is unsubtle, and for me soundtracks are first of all music and then they become film music scores. The soundtrack for The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover started as a piece of concert music and then I gave it to Greenaway to use it on the film.

As a composer, is it the same process when you do the music for your own films as when it’s for other directors?

It is exactly the opposite. Every film director, all the fiction film directors—it is different with documentarists—they all think that their work is wonderful, and they would like wonderful music and they choose me, which is great, and then they have ideas about what kind of music they want, and I spend my time trying to realise their ideas in my musical language, and when it works it works well and when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t. The peculiar thing about music is it is impossible to explain!

It’s hard to describe the kind of music you want, and I as a composer write that kind of music within the range of my musical references. As me, as Michael Nyman, as an artist. And sometimes I can surprise myself with the musical results, as I did with The Piano, but sometimes the director is totally unsatisfied with the result after seeing their film and my score. So the process of writing music for films of other directors is slow—sometimes very pleasurable, as it was with Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, or very quick, as it was with Wonderland by Michael Winterbottom. Sometimes the music is written before a single frame of film is shot. For The Draughtsman’s Contract, the whole score was written before Greenaway started making the film. The whole score of The Piano was also written before Jane Campion started making the film.

But with my own films it is different. I make a film and when my editor, Max Pugh, and I start editing we always end up going to my iTunes library and we choose one of my compositions and we add it to the film. That’s a decision that might take 10 or 15 seconds, so in 30 seconds we have added music and film and it’s always the perfect decision.

Do you only use existing music?

Always existing music. So I don’t have the problem of writing and recording and assessing.

Why did you decide to do the score of Man with a Movie Camera, a 1929 film, in 2002?

In 2002 the British Film Institute commissioned me to write the soundtrack. I’d owned that movie for many years but had never seen it. Then the film really impressed me. Later Max Pugh pointed out similitudes between my filmmaking and Dziga Vertov’s. I don’t think I will ever make a film as radical as Man with a Movie Camera, and obviously the politics and the visual philosophy are totally different from what I do. After that commission ended, Max persuaded me to do NYman with a Movie Camera.

There are several examples of well-known classical composers working with great film directors creating cult pieces, such as Philip Glass with Godfrey Reggio or Terry Riley with Bruce Conner. Unlike them, your most resounding work is film music. How did this affect your career as a composer?

Because of the success of my film music I came to be seen as a kind of populist, which makes me unpopular with serious music critics, it makes me unpopular with conductors, it makes me unpopular with record labels, it makes me unpopular with orchestral managers, and it makes me unpopular with festivals.

How did your link with Mexico evolve?

Felipe Ehrenberg was my very first contact with Mexico. I met him in 1973 through mutual friends. I was writing about Fluxus, and they knew Felipe had some connection with them. He invited me to his house in Devon with my family. I thought it would be a relaxing weekend in the countryside, but when I got there I realised it was a production factory. He had a printing press and an artist press. Suddenly there was this Mexican guy and other people and they were all producing books. I felt forced to produce a book in five days; I don’t have a copy.

It took Felipe 12 years to persuade me to come to Mexico City. I finally came in 1985, May or June. I spent three weeks at his house with people who are still part of my circle of friends in Mexico. A few months later there was the earthquake. So my second relation with Mexico City is me phoning Felipe and my other recent friends. After this I came several times in the ‘90s to Mexico City, and 14 years ago I came for a few concerts and stayed 10 days in a hotel in Condesa, most of the time editing films in the room, and I loved the neighbourhood. I basically wanted to leave London, where I had lived all my life. There was a simultaneous rejection of European cities. Berlin is too cold, Paris is too French, Barcelona is too touristic, etc. I got the sense that Condesa was a very different kind of environment and it seemed a place worth living in. I began searching for houses in Condesa but I found none, and someone told me to look in La Roma instead. I didn’t know La Roma and hadn’t seen it was very close to Condesa.

Fourteen years ago La Roma was not in fashion and wasn’t gentrified.

I saw three houses first, but when I was leaving Mexico City undecided I stopped by this house on my way to the airport. I liked it very much and Max Pugh insisted that I buy it. I made a deal with the owner, got in a taxi, and went to the airport. I’m the only person you’ll ever meet who bought a house on the way to an airport. That was in May; I came back in June to sign the contract and moved in in October. I bought one piece of furniture. There was no internet, nothing. So I lived in this house on my own for weeks with literally no stuff but the things in my suitcase.

Your house is a lot different now.

Indeed! I now have a huge collection of photographs from several archives I have bought. A whole room of my house is dedicated to the Loaiza family tree. I have several other collections, including recent series by Enrique Metinides, who uses his classical photos of accidents and murders as the background to his more than 3,000 toys, consisting of ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks. I have also bought entire collections from other photographers, and, as you may see, many pictures have been taken by me.

It’s strange to find a pair of Shoemaker chairs, which remained forgotten for decades but now are eagerly sought out in Mexico. That nearly rustic, almost Papa Bear–like style has become the ultimate object of desire in Mexico, especially after his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City three years ago.

I knew nothing about Shoemaker when I bought them, following an antiquarian friend’s advice. They are now a central and well-loved piece in my house.

Have you bought everything in Mexico?

Most of the things have been bought here, but I also spend long periods in Milan and to some extent London, where I go for work and to visit my family. In Mexico I have excellent antiquarian friends and a passion for flea markets. The one in Pushkin Garden is an important landmark in my Mexico City life. Some things I have brought from abroad, mostly from London, such as this chair and the matching table you cannot see, given the books that cover it, designed by Alvar Aalto. The lack of bookshelves and my search for new organising systems made me cover that table with books by authors I have met at least once.

I also see piles of books and documents lying on the floor all around the house.

Sometimes this is also a systematic approach. I am presently working on a great exhibition for the San Ildefonso Museum, and each pile represents a topic I must research.

I see that ruins are a recurring topic of interest for you. In the entrance you have Bob Schalkwijk’s pictures of buildings that were devastated by the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City and an entire collection of your own pictures of the shattered ruins of the famous Ópera cinema, as well as many objects in a poor state of preservation.

Ruins are a topic by mere coincidence. Yet, what I’m doing now is a film called Nyman’s Earthquakes, which is basically my personal history of every earthquake that I’ve been associated with, either as a TV viewer or others in which friends were caught. Or the last earthquake I lived, when I was in this house in 2017. I was sitting downstairs and my assistant told me that we needed to leave for the streets. I saw a beautiful white new Porsche crushed by a school’s tower. Knowing I could be of little help in Mexico City I decided to go to London, where I realised the magnitude of the tragedy.

In the past 14 years you have spent in Mexico, have you worked with Mexican artists?

No, I haven’t. I would like to, but I feel guilty because most artists have a very limited budget unless you’re very rich or have access to big foundations. I am an expensive artist, I’m very happy not to collaborate with Mexican artists, but this has nothing to do with the quality of their work. It is related to money. If Alfonso Cuarón asked me to write a soundtrack I would say yes, because it is international money and I wouldn’t be taking resources from Mexican artists. In the past Alfonso and I were about to work on a project together, but then his career went in a totally different direction after Y Tu Mamá También. He became a different filmmaker. We wanted to write an opera together, but after a big discussion we decided not to. I am certain he knows where I live, and I find it strange that we never spoke about his Roma film project.

I didn’t want to mention it because it is an obvious commonplace, given the hype of the film, but it is impossible not to notice that both houses are extremely similar and only two blocks away from each other.

Both houses are from the ‘30s and the layout is very similar, so it is not a surprising likelihood, except that mine is better, mine is bigger.

interview, issue 24, music
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