Me And My Home: Michael Nyman

The composer and musician is no minimalist: there's barely any space left inside his north London house, he tells Joey Canessa
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michael Nyman, composer, performer, writer, record-label owner, photographer and would-be film-maker, lives in a four-storey house in Islington with two pianos.

Michael Nyman, composer, performer, writer, record-label owner, photographer and would-be film-maker, lives in a four-storey house in Islington with two pianos.

I moved in here in 1997, and discovered that Tony Blair lived round the corner in Richmond Avenue. But he moved out as I moved in, so that was that.

Islington is a great place for shops, particularly collectable furniture and books. We used to have Reckless Records, but that has moved now, sadly.

The house was in good condition, but I decorated it throughout and knocked down a wall in my studio upstairs to open the space up. Downstairs, in the kitchen, I took out the "island"; I hate those things. I carpeted the whole house, put up a few shelves, and that was it.

The room downstairs, which would originally have been two reception rooms, is now used mainly for photo shoots and interviews, and I only use the Steinway piano here for flouncy playing, if I have an audience. I have another piano upstairs that I use to compose on, connected to a computer.

This upstairs room is stable, unlike the rest of the house, which is in a permanent state of flux, dynamic and slumbering at the same time. In here, I also have two toy pianos that came from Margaret Leng Tan, an American pianist, originally from Singapore, who is a virtuoso of the toy piano. They are very popular with my grandchildren.

I tend to buy things as I see them, and I've been collecting huge amounts of stuff for 40 years now. Eventually, I go off things and stop buying for a bit. The furniture is mainly old office-style stuff, and I'm not as in love with it as I was. I might try to sell it back to the shop I bought it from.

I buy a lot of furniture from Castle Gibson in Upper Street, which sells a beautiful, ever-changing selection of retro furniture. I find it very hard to resist buying pictures, and now have so many paintings and photographs that there isn't enough wall space for them. They tend to lie around in stacks against the walls.

Most of my paintings are by Paul Richards, whom I've known since the Seventies, and I'm also keen on the primitive Cuban style. Recently I was in Berlin, where I found some beautiful old Russian photographs, aerial views of train stations. I bought them with glee. I'm at the stage of having to appoint a curator, actually. I can't say I'm a tidy person. I find the stairs useful for filing paperwork, and sometimes as bookshelves.

I usually start my working day at 7am or 8am, never later than 9am. Writing music is not the beginning and end of things; if I'm working on a film project or orchestral piece or an opera, there is a lot of collaboration involved, which takes up a huge amount of time, and the writing has to be squeezed in somewhere.

The production of a piece of music doesn't end with the score - I get very involved with the mixing and editing, too. My latest project is the launching of my own record label, which is another "add-on" to my life. It will be a learning curve.

My studio is a lovely place to be. The light is perfect, and there's plenty of room for my manuscripts, which amount to thousands. I'm constantly refiling things, and I need access to all the little bits of unused music that I have kept for the future, so inevitably, there is quite a lot of it on the floor.

On my desks I have several computers, which I use for composing and also for my photography. I am fascinated by photography. I take photos, buy photos and process my own photos. I have a beautiful Leica camera that I take everywhere with me - I've just been to Barcelona and New York. I find that I'm beginning to judge my response to a place by the number of photos I take while I'm there.

A few of my favourite pictures are in my studio, including three lovely drawings by David Bomberg. They are mixed in with some odd things, like some hand-painted barbershop posters I bought on a trip to Mali with Damon Albarn.

I have a pair of chairs in here that are 1950s Americana, fantastically plastic and coloured. I bought them and some similar things from Chris Farlowe, the blues singer. He used to have a brilliant furniture shop, but he sold it. There are a few African masks on the windowsill; I do like to start collections of things.

Two years ago, I thought I'd try to set up a more "horizontal" way of life. Lovely as this house is, you can tire of the endless stairs. I'm a north-London boy, but I loved the idea of moving south, and the thought of being close to the river and Tate Modern thrilled me.

I found a great Bermondsey loft, a converted leather factory, which I renovated. The project was a huge success, as the result is beautiful, but as it was finished I realised that it wasn't for me. Much as the idea appealed to me, particularly in regard to living in an area full of like-minded people, I simply have too much stuff, and would never have been able to shut the door in the evening on the mess I'd created in the day.

It was also fantastically well-equipped technologically, with all kinds of gadgets, all much more tempting than what I have here. It was sad, really. Short of using this house as an overflow and moving my newly minimised lifestyle to Bermondsey, there was nothing else to do but rent it out, and now I've decided to put it up for sale.

I have a lovely garden outside. I think of it as an outside room that I look out on, and sometimes surprise myself that it's so pleasant. I'm not that keen on growing flowers, preferring vegetables. I've planted quite a few things, including a rocket plant I bought six years ago in Santa Monica market. It has self-seeded all over the garden and now grows in every little crack, so it must be happy here.

One day, I suppose, I will burst out of this house, but until then I'll keep on collecting and filling it up.

Michael Nyman's CD label, MN Records, launched with 'The Piano Sings', available now. His opera 'Man and Boy: Dada', will be released this summer