Michael Nyman is a British composer best known for scoring films like Man on Wire, The Draughtsman’s Contract, and Gattaca. He also composed the original soundtrack for Jane Campion‘s 1993 masterpiece, The Piano. Nyman’s album was nominated for Best Original Score at the Golden Globe Awards that year and would go on to earn a nod at the BAFTAs, as well. This week, The Guardian published a retrospective essay on the score, as recounted by both Nyman and Campion themselves.
As Nyman explains, The Piano posed a unique challenge because its main character (played by Holly Hunter) is a mute who expresses herself not in words, but with music. As such, Nyman knew that his score wouldn’t just provide the aural backdrop to Campion’s landscape; it would provide its language, too.
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.
Nyman also had to compose his piano pieces with Hunter in mind, since it was she who would be playing them onscreen. To prepare, he listened to recordings of the actress, and ultimately decided that her style would best be suited to “reflective, lyrical music,” not the “usual Michael Nyman-type stuff.” Hunter certainly didn’t disappoint, performing her pieces, as Nyman says, with “an emotional power that still influences me whenever I perform the score.” Hunter acknowledged his critical contribution during her emotional acceptance speech at the 1993 Academy Awards.
Campion originally contacted Nyman after hearing his work for The Draughtsman’s Contract and several other Peter Greenaway titles. She appreciated the “clarity, voice, and vision” apparent in his earlier works, but knew that he would have to take a slightly different approach to The Piano, urging the composer to diverge from “the driving-strings sound” that had become his signature.
Her direction, however, was more rooted in emotion than composition:
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 it came to keeping schedule, though, Campion was notably more decisive. “After doing the piano pieces, we started on the orchestral soundtrack,” Nyman writes. “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.”
You can find the rest of Campion and Nyman’s essay over at The Guardian.