Though Michael Nyman has worked with a variety of film directors, most notably Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion, his film scores are instantly recognizable. The horns sound regally, the strings pulsate and his band swings so wildly that the music threatens to fly apart. As a music critic in the 1960s, Nyman coined the phrase “minimalist” to describe the repetitive music of composers such as Cornelius Cardew and Steve Reich. His own music employs some of the same techniques, though to quite different ends. Frolicking through music history, Nyman is effortlessly postmodern. He borrows a passage from Brahams here, a theme from Purcell there, looping them into an updated version of the Baroque that is at once fresh and comfortably familiar.
Nyman’s latest project is the musical accompaniment to Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera.” Made in 1929, the film is the cinematic documentary of just that: a man with a camera careening through the postrevolutionary urban landscape of Moscow. Constantly manipulating the tension between portraying reality and transforming it, “Man with a Camera” still seems utterly modern. Like many artists of the time, Vertov was intoxicated by the idea of revolution. He superimposes shots of workers over those of machines, fusing labor and technology in much the same way that the film’s dizzying editing attempts to fuse the filmmaker with his instrument.
For the most part, Nyman’s score gallops at the same ferocious velocity as Vertov’s film. At times, however, as the camera moves past belching smokestacks or endlessly revolving assembly lines, the music turns quiet and becomes, perhaps, a elegiac reminder of the death of Vertov’s dream.