Orchestral manoeuvres

When Britpop superstar Damon Albarn was asked to write the score for a film about cannibals, no one expected him to turn to classical composer Michael Nyman for help. So was this strange collaboration a success?
Blur's sapphire-eyed frontman, Damon Albarn, had his first major acting role as a cocky cockney gangster in Antonia Bird's British crime thriller Face. He fancied scoring the film as well, but Bird declined his offer, worried that it might be construed as a corny publicity stunt. Instead, she promised him the job on her next movie - which, much to her surprise, turned out to be a gory costume comedy about cannibals in the Sierra Nevada mountains, circa 1847.

Ravenous, which opens on 10 September, is a film with a troubled history. Two directors came and went before its star, Robert Carlyle, sent an SOS to Bird, who arrived like a one-woman cavalry to rescue the movie from disaster. Albarn agreed to help them out with the music on one condition - that the veteran movie composer and celebrated minimalist Michael Nyman help him lose his film-score virginity.

"He wanted me as a collaborator and hand-holder," explains Nyman, whose score-writing credits include The Piano and The Draughtsman's Contract. "He'd never done a film score before, so there were lots of things he was totally unaware of. I was both nursemaid and work-colleague."

Albarn was an apt pupil. "I felt like the sorcerer's apprentice," he recalls. "I'd be sitting at one end of the studio, and Michael would be at the other, watching the monitor, listening to the mix, and writing another piece of music at the same time."

Their score for Ravenous reflects the sinister script: horror chords from an army of Moog synthesisers; bluegrass rhythms; Native American laments. For his research, Albarn went to a mountain reservation in Oregon: "A week with a guy called Quilt Man, in the greatest state of grass-induced sedation of my life."

At Sir George Martin's Air Studios in Hampstead, London, the two composers got down to work. "Damon responded to the film's more gruesome moments, and I was grateful for that, because my music doesn't really respond to those situations," says Nyman. "I would have done the Bernard Herrmann bit if I'd had to, but Damon had already evolved a musical language, full of weird sounds and textures." Albarn puts it rather more bluntly: "I really revel in writing music to aggression and bloodshed and gore."

The experience of working with Nyman has propelled Albarn towards other film projects. He has just completed the soundtrack for A Decent Ordinary Criminal, with Kevin Spacey, and is currently working on Reykjavik 101, a drama set in the Icelandic club scene. The benefits for Nyman have been rather different. "I don't think I'll ever really become a rock musician, but now I can talk about `me and Damon', it gives me a certain amount of street cred."

The `Ravenous' soundtrack is released by EMI on 13 September; Michael Nyman's soundtrack for the film `Wonderland' is released by Virgin on 30 August