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WONDERLAND – Michael Nyman

wonderlandOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In my opinion, Michael Nyman has never been particularly good at “warm” music. Throughout his career, Nyman has always shown an aptitude for using interesting orchestrations and for creating a number of moods – from forlorn longing in The Piano, to coldness and sterility in Gattaca, to horror in Ravenous, to the peculiarity that characterizes his work for Peter Greenaway – but never has he written something that one can immerse oneself in the way that you can with, say, a romantic Williams theme or a soaring Marc Shaiman melody. Therefore, it comes a something of a surprise to realize Wonderland is a bit of a departure for him, in that the music has a kind of welcoming, inviting feeling. It’s music that genuinely wants to be listened to, to be experienced, and to be liked.

Wonderland, directed by Michael Winterbottom, concerns a weekend in the life of three sisters (played by Shirley Henderson, Gina McKee and Molly Parker), and the people they encounter in and around the city of London. It’s one of those plotless, dialogue-heavy movies in which people simply interact with each other for a couple of hours, undergo various personal traumas and revelations (childbirth, meetings with estranged fathers, dying dogs, scooter accidents, muggings), and emerge from it all unscathed with a potentially bright new future. Quite how Michael Nyman’s classically exquisite score fits in with such a gritty, realistic portrayal of life I can’t work out, but one thing’s for sure – on disc, it is a real treat.

Winterbottom’s usual composer is Adrian Johnston (Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo, I Want You), but whoever persuaded him to hire Nyman for this feature should be congratulated. Each of his 11 cues are named after a character in the film, and each has its own tone and style. There is very little recurrent material in this score in terms of themes, but the orchestrations remains the same throughout, with a rich bed of strings supported by saxophones, flute, bass guitar, a trio of brasses and Nyman himself on piano.

Several cues stand out as being particularly of note, especially the opening pair of ‘Molly’ and ‘Eddie’, both of which sway mesmerically to Nyman’s familiar deliberate violins. ‘Nadia’, ‘Debbie’ and ‘Franklin’ all feature lovely piano solos; ‘Dan’ has a melody that comes across as surprisingly lively and carefree, sort of like an upbeat Gattaca, and which is recapitulated on piano in ‘Jack’ (in the film, Jack is Dan’s son); while ‘Eileen’ is delicately sorrowful, with a tender and expressive saxophone melody.

I’ve never encountered Nyman music like this before: simple, beautiful, memorable and easy to sit back and listen to. In the past, Nyman’s music has always struck me as being intelligent, without a doubt, but rather too soulless for my liking. His orchestrations are clean and pure, but too often there is no heart, no feeling in the music. Film music at its best should wrap you up in a swathe of emotion and carry you along with it, enraptured. I am extremely happy to say that, for the first time ever, a Nyman score has done just that to me. Wonderland is a greatly pleasurable surprise.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Molly (2:53)
  • Eddie (3:58)
  • Nadia (2:55)
  • Dan (2:19)
  • Debbie (8:16)
  • Bill (2:15)
  • Eileen (3:42)
  • Jack (5:59)
  • Darren (2:32)
  • Unnamed (3:40)
  • Franklyn (3:08)

Running Time: 41 minutes 45 seconds

Virgin 7243-8-48207-2-5 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by Michael Nyman. Performed by The Michael Nyman Band. Recorded and mixed by Austin Ince. Album produced by Michael Nyman.

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