When Michael Nyman published his study Experimental Music: John Cage and Beyond (1974), he could hardly have foreseen his own contribution to that "beyond". Rejecting the orthodoxies of British modernism, Nyman had abandoned composition in 1964, working instead as a musicologist, editing Purcell and Handel, and collecting folk-music in Romania. Later he became a music critic, in which capacity he was the first to apply the word "minimalism" to music, in a 1968 review for The Spectator of Cornelius Cardew's The Great Digest.
That same year, a chance encounter with a BBC broadcast of Steve Reich's Come Out opened Nyman's ears to further possibilities. A route back to composition was emerging. He wrote the libretto for Harrison Birtwistle's 1969 "dramatic pastoral" Down by the Greenwood Side. In 1977, Birtwistle, by now Musical Director of the National Theatre, commissioned him to provide arrangements of eighteenth-century Venetian songs for the production of Carlo Goldoni's play Il Campiello, to be performed by what Nyman describes as "the loudest street band" he could imagine: rebecs, sackbuts, shawms alongside banjo, bass drum and saxophone.
Thrilled by the results, Nyman kept the Campiello Band together, now propelled by his own piano playing, but a band needs repertoire, which Nyman set about providing, beginning with In Re Don Giovanni, a characteristic treatment of a sixteen-bar sequence by Mozart. Soon the band's line-up mutated, amplification was added, and the name changed to the Michael Nyman Band. This has been the laboratory in which Nyman has formulated his aesthetic, its sound-world shaping a compositional style built around strong melodies, flexible, assertive rhythms and precisely articulated ensemble playing.
Besides concert-hall works, Nyman has written dozens of film-scores for directors as diverse as Peter Greenaway, Jane Campion and Volker Schl�ndorff; and pieces to accompany dance, a cat-walk fashion show (Yamamoto Perpetuo for Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto), the opening of a high-speed rail link (MGV, 1993) and a computer game (Enemy Zero). That acute sensitivity to occasion and context is enriched by a talent, shared with baroque composers, for refiguration: the 1995 Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings develops ideas previously encountered in The Convertibility of Lute Strings and Tango for Tim; the Third String Quartet lies behind the score for Christopher Hampton's 1996 movie Carrington. At every turn Nyman has proved eminently practical. Not for him the ivory tower anguish of a tormented composer grappling with abstract systems, rather an openness to collaboration, a spry sense of humour, a highly literate imagination and an instant, instinctive ability to engage a highly diverse audience.
Michael Nyman's saxophone concerto Where the Bee Dances was written for John Harle, a performer who has had a continuing association with the Michael Nyman Band. The title of the work makes obvious reference to Shakespeare's song for Ariel, in The Tempest, Where the bee sueks, there lurk Il In a cowslip's bell I lie, set by Nyman for Peter Greenaway's film Prospero's Books. References to this setting return from time to time during the course of the concerto. The title has a further reference to the circular dance of bees as they seek to show the source of nectar. The other musical basis of the work is a series of four chords. The concerto was expressly designed to make use of the abilities of John Harle, a composer and performer who has had a significant connection with the performance of contemporary music by composers ranging from Richard Rodney Bennett to David Bedford, Harrison Birtwistle and Michael Torke.
The Piano Concerto is derived from the score for the film The Piano, which provided solo piano music for Ada, the leading character in Jane Campion's film, with its story of tragic marital tensions in a remote New Zealand setting in the nineteenth century. The Scottish widow Ada, with her child, goes out to marry a settler, bringing her piano. The instrument cannot be taken to their house and is, instead, kept in the house of a neighbour, from whom Ada buys it back by allowing sexual favours, finally to fall in love. The film ends with her departure, with the piano now seemingly lost in the waves. The piano music for the film was written in 1991 and the orchestral score derived from it in the following year. The resulting work, The Piano Concerto, which refers directly to the title of the moving film in its own title, was written for the Lille Festival in 1993, and develops the necessarily shorter fragments demanded in a film score into a coherent whole. The work is in one movement and makes use of four distinct elements. These include Ada's Scottish song Bonny winter's noo awa� and, in a third and fourth episode Flowers of the Forest and Bonnie Jean, after a second chromatic element. The four episodes have the titles The Beach, The Woods, The Hut and The Release.