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Excellent two-disk collection featuring some of Nyman's best work
on 27 February 2008
Michael Nyman is best know for his soundtrack to Jane Campion's film The Piano, and for his unique working relationship with British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, from 1980 up until 1993. His work on The Piano remains his most iconic, still being used to this day in bank commercials and on those "new-classical" compilations; whilst his work with Greenaway stands up as some of the most beautiful and intricate pieces of neo-classical "minimalism" ever composed. His work since his last venture with Greenaway, 1992's Prospero's Books has become slightly more melodic, creating memorable and often quite haunting scores for filmmakers as varied as Michael Haneke, Neil Jordan, Andrew Niccol, Patrice Leconte and Michael Winterbottom, and even working with Britpop's favourite son Damon Albarn for the cult cannibal-themed western Ravenous.
Disk one of this excellent two-disk set collects the most memorable pieces from those early Greenway films, with the compilation opening with a live version of Bird List from Greenaway's great mock-documentary The Falls. From here we progress onto the sublime genius of Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds and An Eye for Optical Theory taken from Greenaway's post-modern masterpiece The Draughtsman's Contract, both highly influenced by Purcell's The Fairy Queen. The collection then has pieces from other great Greenaway works A Zed and Two Noughts and Drowning by Numbers, before reaching something of a peak with the epic Memorial from The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover. Memorial is probably the greatest work Nyman ever did for a Greenaway film, with the melodic and continually progressive structure referencing The Frozen Music from Purcell's King Arthur as well as referring back to the wondrous Time-lapse from A Zed and Two Noughts; which again, used elements of Biber's Requiem. In his short sleeve-notes, Nyman talks of how the music was originally composed as a larger piece in 1985 to commemorate the Jueventus fans that died at the Heysel stadium.
Memorial is the last real piece of music we get from a Greenaway film, though there is an early version of Miranda (Miranda Previsitied) from 1989, originally commissioned for La Traversée de Paris, an exhibition commemorating the bicentenary of the French revolution. It's a shame there isn't more music included from Prospero's Books, since it really is one of Nyman's very best scores and is probably the main reason to watch the film for people who can't quite get past Greenaway's grotesque/ostentatious visuals. To over-compensate the lack of Prospero-related material we get some other high-calibre entries in the form of Homage to Maurice - a Bernard Hermann inspired ode to Maurice Hatton - and few pieces from Patrice Leconte's film Monsieur Hire. Disk one comes to a close with four piece of music taken from The Piano, amongst them the rousing Dreams Of A Journey, the lyrical All Imperfect Things and the iconic The Heart Asks Pleasure First/The Promise, which Nyman described as "...a setting of the Scottish traditional song Bonny Winter's noo awa'.
Disk two opens with Escape from the film A la Folie, before moving on to Fly Drive and The Infinite Complexities of Christmas, which Nyman describes as "...English 20's and 30's country style without resorting to pastiche or known musical models". Abel Carries Ephraim from Volker Scholdorff's film The Ogre is the only score not to use strings, instead featuring a bass-heavy sound with a lot of brass, whilst the following four tracks are all taken from the greatly underrated sci-fi parable Gattaca. It is here that Nyman's style begins to become warmer and less minimal, employing sweeping orchestrations and creating an underlining sense of emotion that has often been (purposely) neglected in his work with Greenaway. This will eventually lead us into the beautiful music he created for Michael Winterbottom's best film Wonderland (tracks 13, 14, 15 and 16) and the aching melancholy of his work for Neil Jordan's great adaptation of The End of The Affair (tracks 17 and 18).
Before that however, we have Convening The Coven, a piece from the film Practical Magic, notable since Nyman's original score was rejected in favour of the characterless work of another composer. We also have two of the more Nyman-esque pieces from Ravenous in the form of Stranger At The Window and Cannibal Fantasy (sadly, that hauntingly melodic banjo refrain used throughout is absent... though it might turn up on a "Best of Damon Albarn" one day!!) before we get to those great tracks listed above. Wonderland is one of Nyman's very best collections, easily as great as previous peaks like The Draughtsman's Contract and The Piano, with Nyman finding a sense of pathos and tranquil lyricism to nicely undercut the cynicism and dejection at the heart of Winterbottom's film; whilst the two tracks from The End Of The Affair (Sarah Dies and the title track) show Nyman moving towards a kind of music that is much more emotionally expressive.
Disk two comes to a close with two tracks from Winterbottom's Wonderland follow up, the snowy-western/morality tale The Claim. Here, Nyman is allowed to reference the master of cinematic composition with a few nods to Morricone sneaking into The Shooting, before taking things even further with the operatic closing piece, The Burning. Nyman's music is brilliant, managing to further the story and compliment the visuals of the films it was intended for, but also standing up as a work of music that can be enjoyed without the accompanying film. This collection demonstrates Nyman's ability to create music that somehow transcends the film, marking him out as one of the most important and unique composers currently at work.