In 1991, after the release of the soundtrack to Prospero’s Books, the fifth full length movie collaboration with director Peter Greenaway, Michael Nyman needed a little break from film scoring. After more than a decade of establishing one of the best composer-director relationships in the history of cinema, Nyman broke off with Greenaway when the director added electronic music over the composer’s score without consulting with him. In interviews following the release of the film Nyman was disillusioned: “I’ve been talking about Greenaway for seemingly my whole bloody life, and basically, I don’t want to talk about Greenaway because he never talks about me.” Nyman went back to working with his ensemble, releasing an album of songs with Ute Lemper and writing orchestral works. His career could have been a continuation of relatively small commissioned modern classical work and scores to obscure films had he not received a fateful phone call from New Zealander director Jane Campion, asking him to write the score for her next film. So started the seed to what became the soundtrack to the film The Piano, one of the most romantic soundtracks in modern cinema, a sharp turn from Nyman’s signature style that accompanied Peter Greenaway films.
Michael Nyman met Peter Greenaway in 1961 and over the next two decades they collaborated on and off on short films and documentaries. They shared an interest in counting and variations within categories, an obsession that would find its way into Greenaway’s films in the 80s. In 1982 they started working on full length movies and had a great streak for the next ten years with The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed and Two Noughts, Drowning By Numbers, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, and Prospero’s Books. The working methods varied between the films, ranging from the standard scoring of the scenes after they were shot, to Nyman composing music for the film before a single shot was taken, to Greenaway using pre-existing material Nyman wrote for other purposes. Nyman, a musicologist who is equally knowledgeable of music of the past as well as modern composers, has said of himself that he always had one foot in the 18th century and the other in the 20th. The combination of baroque and minimalism matched Greenaway’s films like hand in glove. Nyman commented on this: “I have a brain that deals in musical analysis, and there is a serious connection between contemporary pop music and Baroque music and the new tradition of minimal music. So, a piece of minimalism by me is obviously minimal, but it refers back to 17th century variation techniques and forward to techniques of writing pop music. There’s a lot of melody. There’s more melody in my music than any other minimalist.”
The Draughtsman’s Contract, a murder mystery set in rural england at the end of the 17th century, found Nyman using themes written by Henry Purcell as source material. Nyman regards Purcell as the all-time best British composer and used the Baroque composer’s material as a base on top of which he applied his pulsating strings and saxophones: “I write everything at the piano. This accounts for why my saxophone writing has a kind of a ‘strike’ attitude rather than the mushiness that is often associated with the instrument.” Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds from that soundtrack is a good example, based on movement from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur opera.
Greenaway directed another twisted murder mystery in 1988, bringing his counting fixation to the forefront by embedding the numbers 1 to 100 throughout the movie, usually in the background of the scenery. That movie is my favorite of the soundtracks Nyman wrote for a Greenaway flim. The soundtrack is based on Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra and is rich with slow orchestral passages (Drowning by number 3) in tandem with aggressive rhythmical pieces (Bees in Trees). The soundtrack is an essential part of the movie but it is an enjoyable listening experience on its own, proving Nyman’s sharp observation comparing his work with Greenaway’s: “My music works on its own – his images don’t”.
Perhaps the best known use of Nyman’s music in a Greenaway film is a piece of music Nyman wrote during the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster where a European Cup Final game between Liverpool and Juventus resulted with 39 fans crushed to death following hostilities instigated by English football fans. The composition is based on the aria What Power Art Thou, again from Purcell’s King Arthur. It was written in 1684 and sounds remarkably modern, and Nyman turned it into a piece he fittingly named Memorial.
Several years after the piece was composed Peter Greenaway used it in his film The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover. The last scene, in which the lover’s body, after being prepared by the cook is being served by the wife to her husband (well, this is a Peter Greenaway film), is meticulously choreographed around the music.
The score Nyman wrote for Greenaway’s films spiked Jane Campion’s ear when she was looking for the critical element of music for her film The Piano. The aggressiveness of the repetitive patterns played by the horns and strings were far removed from the mood she was looking for, but there was something else that appealed to her. Nyman was surprised by her interest, and she told him: “I don’t want any of that Greenaway shit”, but his ability to express an emotion with the smallest amount of notes was what she was looking for. Campion: “The music Michael wrote for The Draughtsman’s Contract had such clarity, voice and vision that I knew he was the person I needed. However, because my film was dominated by a piano, I didn’t want the driving-strings sound he’d used for Greenaway. He was stunned and told me they were his signature. I thought “Oh dear!” and asked, in the politest way possible, if he could try something different.”
The script required a different approach than the one Nyman was used to with Greenaway. Ada, the film’s heroine, a by-choice mute Scot who is sold into marriage to a New Zealander, expresses her emotional world with her piano playing. Nyman: “I had to work out how she, a mid-19th-century woman, would do this. For a male composer with a history of minimalist writing at the end of the 20th century, finding that voice didn’t come easily.” But Nyman found that voice, and The Piano became a milestone in his career: “I was brought up in the minimalist school, thinking you don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. It’s a very formulaic approach, with structural disciplines that I find comfortable. However, The Piano expanded my repertoire. I have become much more spontaneous. All my subsequent soundtracks have been informed by the lyricism the film opened up in me. I might never have found it otherwise.”
Several factors influenced Nyman’s new approach when he started writing the score for The Piano. The first was his search for new source material. Going back to the well of Purcell and his contemporaries of the 18th century would not do this time around, and Nyman decided to look for old Scottish folk tunes instead. He found a beautiful melody called Gloomy Winter’s Noo Awa, written by Robert Tannahill and published in 1808.
Nyman named the melody after a short poem, number 536 in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems – ‘The Heart asks Pleasure – first’. The poem describes what the heart desires most – pleasure. In lieu of it, it will seek leaving life without suffering pain, and then painkillers, sleep and finally death.
The second factor was Ada’s character and the type of music she should play in the movie. The score could use the obvious choice of period classical piano music, but that wouldn’t be personal enough to reflect her inner emotions. Nyman: “The role of the piano in Ada’s life is not that she has an exterior repertoire that she can draw on, but that the music comes from inside. So I had to create the music as though she herself had created it. I was composing a composer”.
The third factor, and a critical one, was the fact that the piano pieces are played in the movie by the lead actress Holly Hunter. Hunter studied classical piano quite seriously as a child starting at age nine, but stopped when she was sixteen. She was not the first actress that came to Campion’s mind for the role of Ada, but Hunter was persistent and knew that her musical abilities gave her an advantage: “Jane was ready to go with a double for the piano scenes. But I thought it would be much more potent if you could see the real relationship between Ada and her piano.” Nyman corresponded with Hunter to ensure that she can perform the music he writes: “Holly sent me some music that she played. Bach and Chopin. I kind of discovered that she was good at playing slow music and she wasn’t good at playing Michael Nyman. So I wrote, in consultation with Jane and the script, some very slow music. She sailed through the first things so I made them more difficult”
On its release, The Piano’s success became a turning point for Nyman, Campion and Hunter. They were all nominated and sometimes won in their respective categories at all the major film awards in 1994. The Piano is unique in the film score repertoire in how the music is used to substitute for the human voice and convey a character’s thoughts and feelings. A rare moment in the history of Oscar acceptance speeches by leading actresses took place when Hunter thanked Nyman for the music he gave her. The film score, with Michael Nyman playing the piano, sold three million copies. Nyman became a sought after film composer, but he was not after a career of comfortable, predictable film score provider. After a few large productions in the 90s including Gattaca and The End of the Affair, he continues to write music for the motion pictures, mostly documentaries and small-budget films. But The Piano holds a special place for all of them. Hunter said half jokingly that the erotic scenes with Harvey Keitel, the first nude scenes in her career, were less intimidating than the piano-playing scenes. The crown jewel of the music score is The Heart Asks Pleasure First, based on that old folk Scottish melody. It became an obligatory piece in Michael Nyman’s live concerts. Here is the last track from the film score, combining The Heart Asks Pleasure First with The Promise, two of the most beautiful melodies and arrangements you can find in cinema:
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