Composer, filmmaker and photographer: Nyman talks about his work across all three disciplines.

Your latest release Collections comprises three parts: a compilation CD, a booklet of photography, and a short film. How did this come to be one single package?

This is a means of presenting the whole range of my current work as composer, photographer and filmmaker. There is an obvious, but pretty rare, I think, continuum between my sonic and visual time-based work – music and film – and a constant interchange between still and moving images. 50,000 Photos Can’t Be Wrong combines, very idiosyncratically I think, all aspects of my preoccupations – music combined with film which is often made up of still images set in motion.

What do you have planned for your time in Australia?

There are two performances at the Sydney Conservatorium of my new piece Doing the Rounds. Then I’ve got a screening of my film NYman with a Movie Camera, and a great art and video exhibition. In a way, this is going to be the biggest and most comprehensive – and comprehensible, I hope – display of all my current work anywhere in the world. It all makes a pretty powerful reason to make long, long, long journeys from London to Sydney and Sydney to Mexico City. It’s really, as they say in the Michelin Guide, worth the detour.

Why is it all taking place in Sydney? Is it all built around your residency at the Conservatorium?

Yes, basically. And Felicity Fenner, who is curating the visual exhibition, I’ve known since she worked in London in the mid-’80s. When I started making the videos and taking the photos I wrote to her and said “Next time I’m in Sydney, let’s do something together.” So, this seems to be the most convenient time to do it. 

While it’s interesting for the Nyman fans to hear a new piece – there generally aren’t many new pieces, and, when there are, they tend to be for the Michael Nyman Band – and to then move over to the art gallery and the film theatre, it’s also thrilling for me. It’s a good time for me to have a major assessment, or reassessment, of what I’m doing.

How was Doing the Rounds initially conceived?

The commission was made on my last visit to Sydney and, since it involves an academic institution, I decided to build a work that was connected with my own academic work under the great English musicologist Thurston Dart at King’s College, London. I built the piece out of the rounds, canons and catches that I researched and edited and published while I was a PhD student.

You mentioned that a new composition is rare these days. Has writing music taken a back seat to your visual work?

No, not really. When I get out of bed and start work in the morning, I sit down at a desk and write music or do something related to the writing of music – orchestrating, editing or whatever. The films are hardly ever planned. I don’t really start working on those until I leave the house with a camera and see something that appeals to my bizarre aesthetic sense.

When you’re making a film, how do you approach the task of adding audio to the visual?

When I’m working with Max, my editor, I generally don’t think they need soundtracks and I usually defer to him when he says, “I think this film would be better with a soundtrack”. Then, it’s a simple process of opening up my iTunes library, which has every piece of music I’ve ever recorded, and choosing something.

When I’m a soundtrack composer for more conventional filmmakers, the process of creating a soundtrack can take weeks or months or sometimes you agree not to agree and cease to work with each other. Those guys have a real problem with finding a way of communicating what they want and committing themselves to what’s being communicated. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to Morricone, it’s happened to Philip Glass. 

Since I’m a composer who writes music first and foremost, and soundtracks occasionally, it doesn’t bother me. Also, if you write a soundtrack that isn’t used, you’ve generated a huge amount of material for either another film or another project – nothing’s ever wasted.

But your work for the Greenaway films – that music stands on its own feet. How much was it influenced by the films you were writing for?

Not at all. Apart from Drowning By Numbers, none of those soundtracks were written for films that had already been shot. The Draughtsman’s Contract was based on a conversation, A Zed & Two Noughts was based on an analysis of the script, as was The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. For Prospero’s Books, he had an album of mine that he’d actually written the script while listening to. So, when I came on the scene he actually said to me, “Michael, if you were run over and killed by a bus tomorrow, I would still have the soundtrack to Prospero’s Books.” So, that’s the way I worked with Greenaway. I really enjoyed it, because it enables you to create something that’s related to the film, but you’re not in a creative straitjacket. 

Is it that kind of restriction and conflict that turned you away from writing film music?

No, actually, I think film music is fashion-oriented and there’s a fashion at the moment for rather anonymous, bland, interchangeable orchestral scores that I’m unable to write. So no one asks me to write them. People know that if they ask me to write something, you don’t get bland – you get something that has some imprint of my personality on it.

I watched Black Swan recently and, as much as I like Clint Mansell, I found the soundtrack was so hysterical that, whether it was by him or Tchaikovsky, it didn’t seem to serve the film particularly well. But, that’s a matter of opinion. I’m sure we’re all highly critical of each others’ work.  

Michael Nyman will be appearing at the Sydney Con on May 27 & 28. View event details here. This interview originally appeared in the May “Film Music” issue of Limelight.