Nyman says he discovered his aesthetic by playing the aria "Madamina, il catalogo è questo" from Mozart's Don Giovanni on his piano in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis, which "dictated the dynamic, articulation and texture of everything I've subsequently done." It subsequently became the base for his 1977 piece In Re Don Giovanni.
He has also composed the music for the children's television series Titch which is based on the books written and illustrated by Pat Hutchins.
Many of Nyman's works are written for his own ensemble, the Michael Nyman Band, a group formed for a 1976 production of Carlo Goldoni's Il Campiello. Originally made up of old instruments such as rebecs and shawms alongside more modern instruments like the saxophone to produce as loud a sound as possible without amplification, it later switched to a fully amplified line-up of string quartet, three saxophones, trumpet, horn, bass trombone, bass guitar and piano. This line up has been variously altered and augmented for some works.
Nyman also published an influential book in 1974 on experimental music called Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, which explored the influence of John Cage on classical composers.
In the 1970s, Nyman was a member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia – the self-described World's Worst Orchestra – playing on their recordings and in their concerts. He was the featured pianist on the orchestra's recording of Bridge Over Troubled Water on the Martin Lewis-produced 20 Classic Rock Classics album on which the Sinfonia gave their unique interpretations of the pop and rock repertoire of the 1950s–1970s. Nyman created a similar group called Foster's Social Orchestra, which specialised in the work of Stephen Foster. One of their pieces appeared in the film Ravenous and an additional work, not used in the film, appeared on the soundtrack album.
He has also recorded pop music with the Flying Lizards; a version of his Bird List from the soundtrack to Peter Greenaway's The Falls (1980) appears on their album Fourth Wall as "Hands 2 Take".
On 7 July 2007, Nyman performed at Live Earth in Japan. Nyman also began a long-term artistic collaboration with the filmmaker Max Pugh which has resulted in many short art films, three experimental feature documentaries and a number of video installations. In 2008 Nyman realised, in collaboration with the cultural association Volumina, Sublime, an artist's book that unified his music with his passion for photography.
In October 2009, Nyman released The Glare, a collaborative collection of songs with David McAlmont, which cast his work in a new light. The album – recorded with the Michael Nyman Band – finds McAlmont putting lyrics based on contemporary news stories to 11 pieces of Nyman music drawn from different phases of his career.
Nyman was awarded an honorary doctorate (DLitt) from The University of Warwick on 30 January 2007. At the degree ceremony, The University of Warwick Brass Society and Chamber Choir, conducted by Paul McGrath, premiered a specially composed procession and recession fanfare by Nyman.
2007 – A Handshake in the Dark (choral piece with orchestra; text by Jamal Jumá [world premiere 8 March 2007, Barbican, London, performed by the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, John Storgards conducting])
2007 – Interlude in C (expansion of a theme from The Libertine for Accent07 touring ensemble)
2007 – Warwick Fanfare (Parts 1 & 2) (procession and recession fanfares used for graduation ceremonies at the University of Warwick)
2007 – 50,000 pairs of feet can't be wrong. (for the Michael Nyman Band)
2007 – A New Pavan For These Sad, Distracted Times (cello concerto)
2011 – On Languard Point (soprano and the Michael Nyman Band)
2011 – Let's not make a song and dance out of it (String Quartet No. 5)
2012 – Through the Only Window (piano quintet)
2012 – Devoción (orchestra)
2013 – Trumpet & String Quartet
2013 – Goldberg Shuffle (piano)
2013 – Symphony No. 2
2013 – Symphony No. 5
2013 – Symphony No. 6
2013 – Water Dances (Symphony No. 8)
2014 – Symphony of sexual songs (Symphony No. 3)
2014 – War Work: Eight Songs with Film (song cycle commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War)
2014 – Hillsborough Memorial (Symphony No. 11)
2014 – Symphony No. 12
2014 – Two Sonnets for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (choir or voice)
2015 – Chromattic (saxophone, accordion, marimba and double bass)
2015 – Empresa Cines Merida (piano quintet)
2015 – Symphony No. 4
2016 – As You Watch The Athletes Score (for the Michael Nyman Band)
2016 – No Time In Eternity (countertenor and viol consort)
2019 – Flute Concerto No. 2 (flute and strings)
2019 – Neat Slice of Tango (piano)
2019 – When Ingrid Met Capa (string quartet)
Nyman's music re-used
Nyman's "The Heart Asks Pleasure First" (from The Piano) is the music on which Italian rock noir band Belladonna's song "Let There Be Light" is based. Released in December 2010, the track features Michael Nyman himself on piano.
Nyman's "The Heart Asks Pleasure First" (from The Piano) was used as backing music for one of the bank advertisements for Lloyds TSB broadcast on television. It has also been featured in episodes of 20/20.
Nyman's "The Heart Asks Pleasure First" was covered by the Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish. Nyman had refused to release the song initially; the band was later granted permission and the song was released on 29 February 2012 as part of the single The Crow, the Owl and the Dove from their album Imaginaerum.
Time Lapse was used in Sky's 2008 'Heroes' advert
Selections from Nyman's catalogue formed part of the soundtrack for James Marsh's 2008 documentary, Man on Wire, a film about Philippe Petit, a Frenchman, who in 1974 illegally strung a tightrope between the top of the WTC buildings and danced between them for 45 minutes, thus committing the "artistic crime of the 20th century".
Nyman's piece "Car Crash" from A Zed & Two Noughts was used for once on the final episode of a Greek series called 'To Kafe Tis Xaras'
Nyman's soundtrack for Wonderland has been used as part of the soundtrack for Juan Rodriguez-Briso's 2014 documentary film, Eighteam based on the true story of the Zambian national football team and its journey from tragedy to glory.
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