Michael Nyman

Professor at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Michael Nyman (b. 1944) is an English composer, writer, and music director. He is a well-known composer of film music (especially for his eleven-film collaboration with Peter Greenaway and for his soundtrack for Jane Campion’s movie The Piano) and an influential proponent of experimental music. Nyman has also worked as a music critic for the Spectator, New Statesman, and The Listener.  He studied musicology at King’s College London and was also accepted at the Royal Academy of Music where he studied with Alan Bush and Thurston Dart. In 2007, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick and, in 2008, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

After completing his studies, Nyman started working as a music critic and, according to Steve Reich, introduced the word “minimalism” in relation to music. In 1974, he wrote the highly acclaimed book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond that charts the history of experimental music from John Cage until the 1970s. In this book, Nyman explored the development of American minimalism and offered critical insight into the works of LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. He was also one of the first critics that noticed the importance of post-minimalist composers such as Brian Eno and Harold Budd.

Nyman’s musical work began in 1976 when Harrison Birtwistle, Director of Music at the National Theatre, asked him to arrange Venetian popular songs from the 18th century for a new production of Carlo Goldoni’s Il Campiello. The group of musicians that performed this music was first known as the Campiello Band but, in the early 1980s, they became the Michael Nyman Band. Nyman himself states that he started composing new and original material to keep the band together.

His breakthrough came in 1982 with the soundtrack for Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract. After this movie, Nyman continued his collaboration with Greenaway on his most important films: Drowning by Numbers (1988), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), and Prospero’s Books (1991). However, his best-known film music was created for Jane Campion’s Academy Award-winning film The Piano (1993). This soundtrack was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score and also for the BAFTA Award for Best Score. The main theme is based on a traditional Scottish melody “Gloomy Winter’s Noo Awa” and the most famous track from The Piano is certainly “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” that accompanied adverts for Lloyds/TSB bank. Another interesting work is the score for Antonia Bird’s black comedy horror film entitled Ravenous (1999) that Nyman composed together with pop star Damon Albarn from the British band Blur. According to Nyman, this soundtrack was not a collaboration but a joint composition in the sense that Damon Albarn composed 60% of the tracks and Nyman did the rest. Other notable soundtracks that Nyman composed include Carrington (1995), Gattaca (1997), The End of the Affair (1999), and Man on Wire (2000).

Although he is widely recognized for his movie scores, these works have a tendency to obscure the rest of his achievements. Nyman has additionally composed a number of operas: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1986), Noises, Sounds & Sweet Airs (1987), Letters, Riddles and Writs (1991), Facing Goya (2000), Man and Boy: Dada (2003), Love Counts (2005) and many other musical works including numerous concerti, string quartets, and chamber works. In 2014, Nyman composed an hour-long Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial, that is based on music he was recording when the tragedy in Sheffield happened. The symphony was performed at Liverpool Cathedral by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and a local-born mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, who sang the names of 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives at Hillsborough stadium during the FA Cup game.

Together with his friends Max Pugh and Marc Silver, Nyman ventured into film and photography. One of their first projects was Nyman With A Movie Camera, “a 64-minute, shot-for-shot remake of Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera with a live score played by the Michael Nyman Band.” Nyman’s s first encounter with the Russian masterpiece of silent cinema happened in 2003 when he composed a musical score for this film. In his visual work, Nyman uses a footage that he recorded in the period that spans more than two decades to reconstruct Vertov’s film. In 2013, the film was presented as an 11-screen video installation at the Edinburgh Festival and, after that, the installation traveled to Miami and Mexico City. His latest film-and-music piece (2015), edited by Max Pugh, is entitled War Work. Nyman explains that “the ‘film’ has been designed mostly around footage selected from the French, German and US WW1 film archives.“ This archive footage is accompanied by the music of the Michael Nyman Band and the voice of contralto Hillary Summers, who sings, in their original language, poems of English, French, German, and Hungarian poets who all (with the exception of David Bomberg) died during World War I.