Ravenous: A Michael Nyman Soundtrack
The second part of a two part series focusing mainly on Nyman's contributions to the Ravenous score.
Published on June 13, 2014 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film

On June 3, Scream Factory re-released the 1999 horror-comedy hybrid Ravenous on Blu-ray. Ravenous has long been a favorite of horror fans; Antonia Bird’s final theatrical release combines the beauty of the western with a dark anachronistic humor and still manages to find room for a healthy dollop of gore. And then there’s the soundtrack. Perhaps owing to the ambitious nature of the film itself, the soundtrack blends together electronic pop, traditional period instrumentation, and classical scoring without ever losing its tonal consistency. To celebrate the new release of the film, Paracinema writers Matthew Monagle and James Gracey have split apart the uneasy marriage between Blur front-man Damon Albarn and classical composer/ethnomusicologist Michael Nyman. You can read Gracey’s piece on Michael Nyman below, and Monagle’s piece on Damon Albarn here.

Nyman and Albarn

Set during the Mexican-American war of the 1840s and starring Robert Carlyle, Guy Pearce and David Arquette, Ravenous follows a group of soldiers as they descend into a nightmare of murder and cannibalism while snowed in at an isolated fort in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Directed by acclaimed British filmmaker Antonia Bird, who sadly passed away in October last year, it is part gruesome satire, part survival horror and almost all pitch black comedy. Ted Griffin’s screenplay references the plight of the infamous Donner party, aspects of Native American folklore, specifically the figure of the Wendigo, and various eerie notions also explored in the weird tales of Algernon Blackwood; whose protagonists were almost always isolated male characters utterly at the mercy of the elements.

Upon release Ravenous’s odd tone and pacing, and its coupling together of monstrous themes with off-kilter humour, earned it somewhat mixed reviews: “You don’t want to see this bilge” said Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, while Roger Ebert declared it “A dark and atmospheric film… the kind of movie where you savor the texture of the filmmaking.” The years have been kind to it though, as Ravenous has received continuous reappraisal and acclaim. Since its initial release however, one aspect of the film has consistently astounded audiences – in a good way – and that is the breathtakingly rich and distinctive score, created, fittingly enough for such a strange film, by the inspired pairing of minimalist composer Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn, front-man of experimental British indie bands Blur and Gorillaz. The soundtrack reflects both musicians’ idiosyncratic approach to composition and structure, highlighting their differences as well as their similarities, and emerges as an evocative and startlingly original collaboration.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Famous for his experimental approach to composition, Michael Nyman is perhaps best known for his work with director Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and The Draughtsman’s Contract) and music for films such as The Piano, Gattaca and The End of the Affair. Obsessed with authenticity, he apparently reworks his own compositions so that they can be performed on a variety of traditional instruments. Born in London in 1944, Nyman studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and at King’s College, specialising in 16th and 17th English baroque music; its repetitive structures and time signatures eventually finding their way into his own work. Prior to composing music for film, Nyman was a critic for the likes of The Listener, and actually coined the phrase ‘minimalism’ in relation to the structure of music. Now a world renowned pianist and librettist, Nyman has written orchestral concertos, four string quartets, chamber works and several operas, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Nyman is also a musicologist and has devoted himself to the study of native folk music traditions, particularly those of Eastern Europe. In the mid 60s he attended the Conservatoire and Folklore Institute in Bucharest, Romania. Throughout his work on Ravenous he utilises instruments such as violin, Jew’s harp, squeeze box and, for the first time since his 1981 self-titled album, the banjo to evoke the sound and feel of 18th Century American folk music. In conjuring the sound and feel of the Old West, with its military tunes and tragic heroism, and conveying a sense of its incredible landscapes, Nyman draws inspiration from the likes of American avant-garde composer John Cage, whom he also wrote a book about, and appears to have been heavily inspired by the work of Aaron Copland; particularly his symphonic suite, Appalachian Spring. Copland was instrumental in creating a distinctly American style of classical composition, and has been described as the quintessential American nationalist composer.


According to Nyman: “Ravenous was a joint composition in the sense that Damon Albarn composed 60% of the tracks, and I did the rest. He had gotten a hold of the film before I did, and as it was his first film, he was very excited by the prospect and chose the scenes he liked and wrote music. I, on the other hand being a bit more tired and not so excited and involved, just sat back and the cues that he didn’t do, I did… I was rather disappointed, because the one thing I wanted to gain from that opportunity was to add something to his music, and have him add something to mine. But by the time I came on board, his music was so good and self-contained that the only thing I could do was to point him in the direction of an orchestrator!” Nyman’s contributions mesh so well with Albarn’s though, it isn’t always easy to discern which tracks were composed by who, so complimentary are their sounds and textures. Tracks composed and arranged by Nyman include the brass and fiddle-led Hail Columbia, Noises Off (an earlier arrangement he apparently reworked for the film) and Welcome To Fort Spencer; the drunken, swooning marches of which evoke debauched romps through ragtime-era salons. These were performed by Foster’s Social Orchestra, a group of non-musician artists Nyman assembled. Various tracks such as Stranger At The Window (a creeping venture into full-blown horror territory), Ives Returns, A Game Of Two Shoulders, Trek To The Cave, Checkmate, and Ives Torments Boyd And Kills Knox appear most typical of Nyman’s approach to composition – repetition, minimalism – as does Cannibal Fantasy, a haunting and sombre piece for woodwind and strings which echoes Nyman’s work on The Draughtsman’s Contract.

I’ll leave you with Trek to the Cave, which features odd time signatures, brass, banjos, strings and shrill woodwind, and culminates in a frenzied cacophony which forms a perfect backing for the murderous onscreen mayhem.

Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey

  • L. Rob Hubbard

    Some of Nyman’s cues are repurposed from his rejected score for PRACTICAL MAGIC.