Michael Nyman, composer
Jane Campion called me while I was in the middle of watching Neighbours one lunchtime. We had never met, so I asked her “Why me?” She said she thought I was the one who could present a visual emotional world with the smallest number of notes in the shortest space. Then there was a slight pause and she said: “I don’t want any of that Greenaway shit.” She wanted a different style from the music I’d written for The Draughtsman’s Contract, and the three other films I’d scored for Peter Greenaway in the 1980s.
Jane had the vision to see, through that music, that I could do the emotion she wanted. I read the first couple of pages of the script and realised, from the compelling way she’d written the opening, that I was going to love it. So I rang her back and pretended I’d read the whole thing and accepted.
My more rough-and-ready, high-energy stuff would have been totally inconceivable for The Piano, so Jane forced me to do other things. Although I’d done a bit of lyricism in the past, I hadn’t really focused on it. I felt my wings were being clipped a little and persuaded her to let me write music with a marginal amount of energy for the aboriginal scene [Here to There], so the world would know that I could write stuff that wasn’t all constrained in crinolined hoops.
Strangely, although the soundtrack sounds very easy and improvised, getting the right voice was difficult. Ada, the heroine, is a mute Scot who is sold into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman. As she can’t speak, she formulates an emotional world by composing music. 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.
When I went through the script with Jane, she indicated where Ada needed a piano piece. I asked her: “If Ada could speak, what would she be saying?” And Jane gave me an annotated script showing the emotions for each scene, to give me some sense of the purpose of her playing. I decided that she’d have been familiar with Scottish folk music and so I became a musicologist, going to the London University library and copying transcriptions of songs. I couldn’t write music that was too anachronistic, or music that had nothing to do with myself as a composer, so the result was a compromise: the feel of 19th-century salon music with 20th-century minimalist techniques. As Ada was a radical character, I thought she could have been a radical composer.
I had listened to recordings of Holly Hunter, who played Ada, performing Bach and Brahms and thought she’d be best suited to reflective, lyrical music – and useless at the usual Michael Nyman-type stuff. I must have pitched it right because she played with an emotional power that still influences me whenever I perform the score. The soundtrack helped define the feel of the film as it was shooting: Hunter said, as she accepted her Oscar, that it helped her create the character of Ada.
Nobody, me included, ever dreamt that the main theme tune, The Heart Asks Pleasure First, would achieve the popularity it did. I wrote it in a house full of builders in France, on a synthesiser resting on a Black & Decker workbench, because there was no piano or table. A most unromantic setting for such a romantic piece.
After doing the piano pieces, we started on the orchestral soundtrack. Jane was in a hurry so she locked me in a hotel room with a piano and said she wouldn’t let me out until I’d finished it. I wrote eight minutes of music and she let me out for some lunch.
The Piano was so dominant that my career as a soundtrack composer now falls into two halves: pre-Piano and post-Piano. Some producers don’t bother with the Greenaway style, which is my normal voice, because they just want The Piano sound; and others claim I trashed my voice when I accepted the commission. It was a Faustian pact and I’ve perceived doors closing, sometimes gently and nicely, in the 20 years since we made it.
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.
Jane Campion, director
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.
My musical knowledge is so bad it’s embarrassing. When composers discuss music with someone as primitive as myself, they have to talk about it in terms of senses and emotion, rather than keys and tempo. When I wrote the screenplay, even though the piano is an integral character, I heard no music in my head at all. So the only brief I gave Michael was to compose quite a few pieces that we could choose from. I let him have free rein, but we’d discuss what he’d done and I’d tell him if something could be sadder or happier.
When he first visited, I hired a piano thinking he’d want to work through a few ideas, but he sat down, played a couple of notes, and said: “Let’s go shopping!” I assumed this was a musical genius at work, so decided I’d better go along with it. I trailed him all afternoon, while he bought a shirt and watched some cricket. Finally, I asked if he’d had any thoughts and he said he’d decided to research Scottish folk songs. I knew immediately that this was perfect.
We had to have all the music ready before we started shooting, since Holly had to learn it. My job was to negotiate between the two of them. Sometimes I’d send her a piece and she wouldn’t like it so I’d say it was still in development. Some people don’t understand about the process and I think the secret of my success is my Pollyanna attitude that everything will work out. Michael was very motivated throughout. I think he knew he was going to make a small fortune out of it.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.