Last month, Michael Nyman released two CDs of highly original vocal music: a song-cycle named Acts of Beauty based on some 16th-century Italian poems about the physical charms of women's nether regions, plus an instrumentalised reworking of World Cup commentaries; and a re-recording of Six Celan Songs which he'd originally composed for Ute Lemper. This month he has released a CD of brass band arrangements of his film music - including "Chasing Sheep", his signature-tune from The Draughtsman's Contract - recorded in a school hall in Bolton. At a time when record labels are rationing living composers to one CD per year - and absolutely never letting them re-record their work - how has he managed this? On his own label, of course.
The story of how that label came into existence goes to the heart of what's wrong with the record industry. Until the big labels' focus switched from classical music to pop, Nyman had had a satisfactory ride: almost alone among contemporary composers, he had seen almost all of his work recorded and released. His soundtracks came out on Virgin, and his "serious" stuff on Decca: both labels were run by men of unusual commitment and steadfastness.
"I had the best of both worlds," says Nyman, cosily surrounded by the clutter of his composition and idiosyncratic art-collecting. "But 15 years ago things began to change. Roland Kommerell left Decca, Universal came in and brought a policy change, so I moved to EMI, where I did two albums of concerti and quartets. But I didn't excite them, and they didn't excite me." So he moved on to Warner for two more releases, Facing Goya and his Indian collaboration Sangam. "When I signed for Warner they were shedding a lot of major performers, but for some reason they retained me - I began to feel like the only gay in the village, the only living composer on the Warner Classics list."
Those two albums were promoted well: "You got your two-week chance to do your interviews and shine, with the help of Warner's big support system - but that was it. After that, you sank or swam alone." It wasn't a love-match, and he and the label agreed to part. "And the question was, where next? BMG was the only big label I hadn't done, so we had a meeting and the person was keen, but two weeks later he was sacked, and BMG was bought by Sony."
At which point he took stock of the situation. "The very few outlets on major labels mean you are totally dependent on a few very powerful figures. And my face didn't fit at Nonesuch - which was that part of the Warner empire where I might have felt at home - any more than my face fits at the Proms."
The late John Drummond, who ran the Proms in the Eighties, disliked Nyman's music so much that he went out of his way to be offensive about it. Nicholas Kenyon, the current Controller of the BBC Proms, smiles sweetly whenever Nyman enquires about possibilities, but no commission ever comes. "Doors are closed: in contrast to the world of visual art, where if one door closes another opens, exclusion in classical music can be final. Patronage is great if you're in favour, but lethal if you're not."
Realising that his eclectic output would never fit the labels' rigid categories, and that the rights from old albums were reverting to him, he decided to follow the trail blazed by composers such as Philip Glass and Gavin Bryars and create his own label. The huge success of his soundtrack for The Piano had given him a financial cushion: "I don't have a yacht, or drive a car, or take expensive holidays, and I own my house."
He linked up with Declan Colgan, his old boss at Virgin, who had also just come off the big-label merry-go-round, and in 2005 MN Records was launched.
His first release was a collection of piano pieces, The Piano Sings: "Just me playing, very gentle stuff, saying, here I am, and here is the music in the form it first assumed, before getting worked up into something more elaborate." Then came several more CDs in quick succession, including re-recordings of existing tracks from the Greenaway films. "They sold very badly, because we omitted to say they were new recordings. That was a mistake, which we must rectify by putting a sticker on." He sounds entirely relaxed about this commercial gaffe.
Then came a beautifully produced CD of his new opera Man and Boy: Dada. "It was important that I reminded people that I wrote operas, as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was released in 1987 on Columbia Masterworks, and there hadn't been an opera by me for 14 years." Then came the soundtrack to the film The Libertine, which bombed when the film did. "But the album is still there - it would by now have been deleted by a big label. Basically I'm building up a catalogue, and I'm prepared to see it sell slowly.'
He's planning a "homage to Mozart" CD, unbothered by missing the anniversary by a year, but says he's still short of 15 minutes of music. This reminds him of a Mozartian piece he wrote for amplified violin, viola, and singer, as part of a projected opera on Tristram Shandy which he's been writing since 1980. Then he almost jumps out of his chair. "Thanks for coming, Michael, you've prompted me to find the missing link! I needed 15 minutes, and this is it." Thus do the wheels of the Nyman industry turn.
He does his own photography: "Taking the pictures squares the circle for me. I sit down and write the music which becomes the disc. Then I create the square image for the box." And he loves the process of selling. "With The Piano Sings, I behaved like a rock band, touring to back its sales. And I found I enjoyed sitting there signing CDs so much, that after the interval I had to be dragged away to play. As a kid, I always wanted to have a stationer's shop - that dates me, I know - but this has the same satisfaction. And with performing being so isolated, you suddenly realise, when you ask people why they're buying this or that, that you may also be doing something useful, maybe helping with a difficult patch in their lives."
For a moderniser who sells his products on the net, Nyman is surprisingly uninterested in gizmo-culture. "I bought one of the first iPods, and though I took it out of the box, I've never used it. I'd rather carry CDs around - I like the CD as an object. Musically I'm a fragmenter, and a recycler of other people's fragments, yet I have no sympathy with the iPod philosophy of four-minute music-bites. I suppose I'm a victim of my own old-fashionedness." And all the better for that.
For more information, see www.michaelnyman.comReuse content