Michael Nyman continues his restless journey through piano, orchestra, film, and opera 

Busy As Usual

Composer Michael Nyman

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Composer Michael Nyman

Michael Nyman is a hard man to track down for an interview. The City Paper spent weeks working with publicists and Spoleto organizers to get the accomplished composer and pianist on the phone, but to no avail.

"He's an extraordinarily busy 70-year-old," one spokeswoman said by way of apology. And she was right. The renowned British artist has built a career on restless experimentation, from orchestral music to opera to journalism to filmmaking, and he shows no sign of slowing down in his twilight years.

Spoleto's An Evening With Michael Nyman will start with his 1990 piece String Quartet No. 3, featuring Melissa Wilmot and Maria Semes on violin, Eve Tang on viola, and Meredith McCook on cello. Next Nyman will play a solo piano set including selections from one of his best-known works, the soundtrack to the 1993 Jane Campion film The Piano (the theme of which Guardian critic Tom Service recently described as "serene/soporific/instantly-memorable/instantly-annoyingly-catchy"). After intermission, Nyman will return to the piano with members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra to perform his piece "Something Connected With Energy," originally commissioned for the 2008 Science Festival in Genova, Italy.

In addition to his An Evening With performance, Nyman will present the U.S. premiere of his opera Facing Goya during Spoleto. He will also participate in a conversation with Facing Goya director Ong Keng Sen and conductor John Kennedy. Martha Teichner will host the talk on May 25 at 3:30 p.m. at the Charleston Library Society.

Nyman's musical catalogue is a mix of experimentation and popular commercial work — sometimes in a single stroke. Film fans will recognize his work from the soundtracks to Gattaca, The Draughtsman's Contract, and Man on Wire. Classical fans and music-theory buffs know him as an exemplar of the minimalist style, which arose from the postwar experimental music scene in America and features repetitive motifs, pulsing rhythms, and gradual variations on themes. Some scholars credit Nyman as the first writer to use the term "minimalism" to describe a musical work, and his 1974 book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond helped explain the connection between composers like John Cage, Phillip Glass, and Steve Reich.

In a 2010 interview with the Glasgow Herald, Nyman recalled that the first minimalist piece he heard, by Cornelius Cardew, was remarkable for sounding "very desaturated" and having "very, very little going on."

"The original use of the word was not to create a category but just to describe a purely physical phenomenon of a piece of music that was very uncomplicated," Nyman said.

Few composers have self-identified as minimalists, but critics continue to employ the term as a useful shorthand. How else to succinctly describe the uncluttered, meditative, repetitive sound of a Nyman piano song like "The Heart Asks Pleasure First" or an orchestral work like his Musique à Grande Vitesse? The latter was commissioned to celebrate the opening of a new high-speed rail line on France's Train à Grande Vitesse, and it captures the awe-inspiring propulsion and humanistic sentiment of the engineering feat.

Throughout his career, Nyman seems to have set himself one challenge after another. Nyman made his opera debut in 1986 with The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, based on neurologist Oliver Sacks' case study of a man unable to make sense of visual stimuli. His 1997 Double Concerto for Saxophone & Cello wrung beauty from an unlikely combination of instruments. In 2002 Nyman wrote a score for Soviet director Dziga Vertov's silent documentary Man with a Movie Camera, and in 2010 he recreated the entire film with footage from his own 20-year personal archive for a project he dubbed NYman with a Movie Camera.

Most recently, Nyman and his raucous Michael Nyman Band have been playing shows across Europe celebrating his 70th birthday. He has a new symphony premiering July 5 as a memorial to the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster, in which 96 people were crushed as fans rushed the field during a soccer game. And on the day when the City Paper hoped to interview him, Nyman was called at the last minute to perform at the Cannes Film Festival.

Extraordinarily busy indeed.

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