Interview: composer Michael Nyman on being an accidental filmmaker

Interview by Chris Broughton | 09 February 2009
A screenshot of a video showing dolls' faces and black guns in square sections.

Image courtesy Michael Nyman

Composer Michael Nyman takes a break from operas and composing movie soundtracks and reveals another side of his work in Videofile, showing at Bexhill's De La Warr Pavilion. Chris Broughton finds out what it's all about.

I gather this is the first time this work has appeared in a public exhibition?

It’s the first time I’ve shown this many pieces. I've shown one or two in other contexts, but not so many all at once, and never so permanently. So the fact that this is up for nearly two months I think is staggering. I’m startled, and it takes a lot to startle me.

Now the films are in a big public exhibition for the first time, do you feel exposed?

I’m very confident about them. I’ve obviously seen a lot of video art, and much of it leaves me cold. But I’ve shown these to various people in different situations and states of undress, so to speak, and people seem to respond to them very positively. The other difference is that I never intend to go out and make videos – I’ll be in a particular place with my camera and something happens that interests me and I film it. That’s all there is to it. I’ve been collecting a lot of footage at home, and it's only been in the last two years or so that I've thought, ‘Ok, maybe I can make some films out of this footage.’ I'm a kind of accidental filmmaker.

Have the films acted as a visual diary?

I suppose so, yeah - if you look at the locations where I've made the videos and taken photos, they cover everywhere I've travelled as a performer or composer. I judge the value of a place by the degree to which it inspires me to take photographs or make films. I must find London extremely boring, because I don’t take many photographs in London.

I like the bus piece, though.

The bus piece is great, but that’s the only one where I kind of went on an assignment, because I knew that journey would take place on that particular day, and I knew I had to capture the event. But otherwise, it’s all accidental. I chanced upon the Portuguese guitarist in Lisbon, the metal bangers just happened to be there, the Morra game came about just because some friends of friends of friends invited me to lunch. They had lunch, played the accordions and started playing this game. That’s just what they do - they didn’t object to me filming the game, but nor was it played as a show, for my benefit.

So all the pieces rely on a degree of serendipity?

A lot of really surprising things happen in surprising places at surprising times, and in a lot of cases, when I document something I'm the only person who's done so. I've got artworks out of it as well. How could I not be happy with that?

Some of the film pieces have soundtracks - I gather they use music you've already written?

The purpose of these films is not to employ me as a soundtrack composer, and the soundtracks have only crept up on me accidentally in the editing process. The pieces were never intended to gather soundtracks around them. The music in Love Train is obviously used ironically, for example, and in another piece I had the idea of using the start of my answer to a question to trigger a piece of music to replace my answer - it just seemed the logical thing to do. The musical ideas just crept up on me.

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