Composer Nyman shows ‘Piano’ forte

Even before Jane Campion’s much-awarded film “The Piano” opens this Friday, the film’s soundtrack — composer Michael Nyman’s intensely dramatic compositions and performance with members of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra — has been honored with an original score award from the Australian Film Institute.

And previous to the soundtrack album’s release in the U.S. last month on Virgin Records, it reached sales of 250,000 in only six weeks and six international markets, striking gold in Australia and platinum in Taiwan.

“The Piano” is clearly the most mainstream project for the London-born composer, a ’60s student at the Royal Academy of Music who’s earned acclaim for his chamber, orchestral, vocal and choral works, plus his opera “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”

His numerous film soundtracks include numerous Peter Greenaway projects (“The Draughtsman’s Contract,””The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, “”Prospero’s Books”) and three for French director Patrice Leconte, including the upcoming “Villa Trieste.”

Nyman is the featured keyboardist in “The Piano’s” orchestral score; however, star Holly Hunter performs all the on-camera solo work as the film’s focal character, Ada, a willful Scottish mute displaced to untamed New Zealand as a mail-order bride who expresses herself through her passionate piano playing.

“I’m full of praise for Holly’s playing,” Nyman said. “Not only did she cope technically with everything I threw at her, but she put emotion in the music and made it very, very personal. Two years ago, I wrote a few pieces that she found childishly simple, so that gave me a chance to write stuff that was more challenging. It really gives the film its flavor. Her playing enables you to get a strong fix on the character and the depth of music in her life.”

Because Nyman’s compositions act as the voice for Ada, they had to be geared to Hunter’s performing abilities and to the possibilities of Ada’s own mid-19th century repertoire, even if it hinted at avant garde styles not heard until the late 20th century.

“It was very important to me to make it appear that the music came directly out of Ada, and wasn’t music that she had learned,” he says. “And if she was a woman composer in the 1850s, what kind of music could she have written.

“So some of the music wasbased on popular Scottish music, and that’s when things really began to fall into place. The real encouragement was a wonderful line in the film where the aunt describes Ada’s piano playing as ‘a sound that creeps into you.’ That was a clue to the fierceness and intensity of the music, which gave me the option to create memorable musical images.”

Unlike most movie scores, “The Piano’s” music is the driving force behind the film’s plot and character development. “It really intrigued me that I had to write music for a film where it was absolutely necessary,” Nyman said.

“Background music or under scoring is more necessary for the film than for the plot. But here was a film where the plot is truly articulated by the music. What is important is not just the fact that there is music there, but what is important is what that particular music does.”

On the heels of four solo concerts of “The Piano” music in Italy, the London-born composer arrives in Los Angeles today to meet with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

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