Michael Nyman: Collections

English composer Michael Nyman is best known to lay audiences as the composer of the score to Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano. Extraordinarily prolific in both film scores and concert music (principally for his own ensembles, the Michael Nyman Band and Orchestra), Nyman released three albums on his label, MN Records, in 2010. This album, Collections: Film Music Photography, features a DVD of a short film shot by Nyman, 50000 Photos Can’t Be Wrong, a booklet of his photography titled Cine Opera, and a CD retrospective, Portrait of a Label. The film and photography are visually striking (and the film contains music not found on the disc), but I will focus on the CD in this review.

Portrait of a Label, curated by Nyman himself, consists of one track each from the first 16 releases on his label. The result is almost maddening in its near-cohesiveness. The best tracks are the instrumentals, performed by the Michael Nyman Band. Some of these, such as Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds, are rerecordings of earlier pieces (this was part of Nyman’s 1982 score to Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract), so the retrospective covers not only the past five years, but a majority of Nyman’s career.

While these pieces stand out for their Baroque flavor and forward propulsion, they border on too much similarity, so they are broken up by several vocal pieces. The vocal pieces, fine in and of themselves, stick out and force the album to lose momentum. A few slower and more introspective pieces, such as The Mistress from the score to Laurence Dunmore’s The Libertine and To the Edge of the Earth from The Piano, have a heartbreaking beauty, but come too early in the sequence.

I am also not completely convinced by Nyman’s collaborations with pop singer-songwriter David McAlmont. McAlmont composed new melodies and lyrics (based on contemporary news reports) over Nyman compositions. It is an interesting experiment to juxtapose their two styles together, but they never quite gel, and the two tracks occur so late in the album that they seem grossly misplaced.

Although I would have rearranged the program order and perhaps have been less completist in my selections, I think there is a lot of great music here. This album is a decent starting place for Nyman, though one might get a more satisfying listening experience by purchasing the soundtrack album to The Piano and Nyman’s 2005 rerecording of The Draughtsman’s Contract. Collections can also be a starting place for someone becoming interested in contemporary music. Nyman’s style – a little Baroque, a little Minimalist – would be appealing to many.

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