Commentary: At 80, Peter Greenaway remains film’s reigning musical maverick

An older man wearing a cap and shawl sits in a chair surrounded by books.
John Gielgud as Prospero in Peter Greenaway’s operatic Shakespearean film “Prospero’s Books,” based on “The Tempest.”
(Miramax Films)

It can be argued that Peter Greenaway is today’s feature filmmaker with the most wide-ranging musical imagination. His best-known films — “The Draughtsman’s Contract,” “A Zed & Two Noughts,” “Drowning by Numbers,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” and “Prospero’s Books” — were celebrated in the 1980s and early ’90s for their gripping visual imagination, erudite literate texts and provocative subject matter.

But none of that would have had the same effect were it not for Michael Nyman’s propulsive scores, which draw the viewer into the peculiar, perverse and uniquely obsessive Greenaway universe. It is music applied to make the artificial real, the real bearable, decay delectable, bad behavior distressingly engrossing, sex disturbingly unerotic and landscape an outdoor cabinet of wonders. Greenaway makes it not so much possible to see with your ears, which is the case with conventional film music, but rather impossible to see without your ears.

Those neglected cult classics are now the subject of an American Cinematheque series. A recent weekend of screenings with Greenaway present for his first public appearance in L.A. in over two decades attracted largely young and devout sold-out audiences.


And, as if to prove my point about music being central to Greenaway’s art, the director began the series last month with a 90-minute talk at the Aero about his use of music, illustrated by 10 clips. The next day, the tireless 80-year-old Welsh-born painter, writer and filmmaker — who has made dozens of experimental and feature films, written some 60 books, produced numerous exhibitions of his visual art and directed and created opera — spent another 90 minutes in the empty theater before the evening’s screenings agreeably, if not exactly eagerly, answering my questions about his musical thinking.

He, though, asked the first question. “Who is your audience?” he wanted to know. “Who, through you, am I going to be talking to?”

If music people are my audience, Greenaway has never had much to say to us about music. Indeed, he barely mentions it in his writings or published interviews. Nor was he particularly forthcoming in his lecture.

When I did engage him on music, Greenaway, who has a well-practiced talent for offering quotable phrases ever tempting to be taken out of context (and a context he can be reluctant to provide), proved predictably provocative.

Although he has a flair for filming, staging and conceiving opera that has helped revolutionize the art form, this is what he has to say about it: “I’ve never, ever enjoyed opera.

“I’ve always felt uncomfortable. This combination of music and the notion of narrative, etc., doesn’t work.


“And I hate narrative, anyway. So, I have lots of problems.”

What Greenaway — who always wears a dark, striped suit, with or without a necktie — doesn’t offer is that he relishes problems, because he always has lots of solutions. What he doesn’t need to explain, because it shows up in all his work, is his compulsion for irony along with his simultaneous attraction for and repulsion against melodrama. This typically leads him to take a cool and distanced approach to subject matter and embrace of artifice. His understanding of contradiction is that it is the way of the world.

His dislike of narrative is one of his many contradictions. He is a born storyteller, but he is also a born — and trained — painter. He presents himself as primarily a visual artist and views cinema as an enhancement of the visual through the spoken word, acting, movement and music. All need to be primary in their own right. Music consistently comes last. But music then becomes the glue that holds all the arts in Greenaway’s works together.

Peter Greenaway furthers his reach into pure visual art

Dec. 15, 2010

From his earliest days as an experimental filmmaker in the 1960s, Greenaway has bemoaned Hollywood, which, he says, merely treats cinema “as illustrated novels.” Artifice, he contends, is cinema’s glory, “not the ridiculously false sense of realism.”

He doesn’t like movie theaters, either, for that reason. None of us should be here, he told the avid moviegoers at the Aero. Looking at the world through a frame, the screen, is phony.

“You’re going to hate me for saying this,” he told me, “but I think most composers don’t really have a visual imagination. And I found very early on to never give a composer a script, because that only ends up illustrating the goddamn thing, and illustration is not what I’m interested in.

“So, I basically say, go write what you want to write. I will take your music, and I will fashion it to make it relative to what I very subjectively, of course, feel is necessary for the movie.”

An essential influence on Greenaway, he noted in his talk at the Aero and then elaborated on in the interview, is John Cage. In his early experimental films, Greenaway created an alter ego he called Tulse Luper. Aspects of Luper show up here and there in many of his features, and he’s the subject of Greenaway’s most ambitious film — “The Tulse Luper Suitcases,” an extraordinary seven hours of the life of his alter ego as discovered in Luper’s suitcases, which stand for, Greenaway explained, the intriguing question: What do you take when all you can have fits in one suitcase?


Greenaway describes Luper as a combination of Cage, the loquacious Buckminster Fuller, Greenaway’s father (who was an amateur ornithologist) and the famed cinematographer on many of Greenaway’s features, Sacha Vierny. Here, Cage comes first.

In his lecture at the Aero, Greenaway said that he had found a cinematic equivalent of Cage’s musical methodology. To consider the randomness of the world as we find it, Cage would begin each piece with a formal, primarily mathematical, approach. In so doing, he made room for the real world to enter into the picture. Sounds from the outside no longer needed to remain outside.

This, too, has been Greenaway’s approach. He, as was Cage, is a numerologist. Greenaway makes lists galore, and it is through these that he can create fantastical cinematic constructs — the 12 drawings of “Draughtsman’s Contract,” and the 100 curious fictional characters connected to water that help populate “Prospero’s Books,” Greenaway’s take on “The Tempest.” Greenaway offers, as did Cage, packages of information, which give meaning to our information age that unthinking narrative does not.

But whether he admits it or not, music leads a filmmaker who insists that film must constantly move in new directions. Greenaway likes music that has a mathematical basis, a design basis. He was initially drawn (and drawn is the right word in all its meanings) to Nyman through the composer’s 1974 book, “Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond” and by the fact that Nyman was the first to apply the art-world label of minimalist to describe composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and their use of repetitive structures.

Nyman himself became the leading British minimalist composer and the first minimalist to attach the technique to early music (notably Purcell and Mozart), which was further attractive to Greenaway, a history fanatic.

Greenaway and Nyman may have worked independently but they also worked on the same aesthetic wavelength. Through their films, they developed a new way of thinking about opera. What began as music to stimulate the eye gradually led to the grandiosity of the last horridly cannibalistic scene in “The Cook.” A kind of Wagnerian musical instrumental flow creates an operatic suspension of disbelief like nothing else in modern cinema.


The pair reached their peak with “Prospero’s Books.” The Masque wedding scene, with Nyman’s glorious settings of Shakespeare’s songs for two singers, is 15 minutes of rapturous outright opera.

Just about everyone other than the wedding couple and Prospero (John Gielgud in one of his last great starring roles in film) is naked. The scene is lavish beyond description, with endless panning shots. Greenaway uses Nyman’s score as written but breaks it up, overlaying sound effects and Prospero’s voice and whatnot. That was more than Nyman was willing to accept, and it ended their relationship. It also propelled them both into the world of opera.

“It’s a kind of farewell,” Sir John Gielgud is saying about his title role in Peter Greenaway’s new film “Prospero’s Books.”

Nov. 27, 1991

Nyman has gone on to write many commercial film scores, most famously for “The Piano.” None, though, have artistic vitality. That’s to be found in, more than anything else, the operas on Goya and Dada that he also went on to write, however little attention they have gotten.

Greenaway dove into opera directly with the celebrated Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, another minimalist with a strong basis in history. Like so many of Greenaway’s grand schemes, he realized only a fraction of what he proposed, which was a series of 10 operas about composers real and fictional — beginning with Anton von Webern and ending with John Lennon — who supposedly died under suspicious circumstances. Each left a grieving widow. Each died wearing a hat.

“Rosa,” the only one that got written (Greenaway says he completed libretti for all the others), concerns a fictional French-trained Brazilian composer who scored Hollywood westerns. Juan Manuel de Rosa is ultimately found dead in an abandoned abattoir in Uruguay, where the composer had indulged in his love affair with his horse.

I told Greenaway it was the most shocking new opera I had ever seen, and when I filed my review of the Amsterdam premiere for the Wall Street Journal in 1992, my editor said, “It looks like you finally met your match.” Greenaway looked at me unimpressed, and said, “Explain.” I did, and he seemed pleased but not impressed.


Hate opera as he does, Greenaway did admit to loving the loving care that went into staging “Rosa.” He is unhappy that it never has been revived. Even the film he made of the opera is not readily available.

The bestiality may have something to do with that, and I asked how he would feel about a new production by another director. He said he felt the opera was too autobiographical for that but didn’t go into details. No such issues should affect “Writing for Vermeer,” the other opera that Greenaway developed for Andriessen. That sublime work is hands down my candidate for being the the most beautiful opera of the last quarter-century.

Greenaway keeps making films and finding new composers, some of them obscure but all interesting. The latest is the little-known Italian composer Marco Robino, who has scored the upcoming “Walking to Paris,” about sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

There is also a host of new projects. Greenaway has wanted to make a film about Alma Mahler, but he fought with his producer. He has hopes for a film about the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in Hollywood as a follow-up to his “Eisenstein in Guanajuato,” which uses Prokofiev’s music compellingly.

Greenaway can be, so to speak, cagey about his use of music, not all of it, particularly older sources, gets credited. He’s continued to work with some established composers — Brian Eno, David Lang, the late Glenn Branca among them — but not consistently. He wrote a script, he says, about the marriage of Christ that he had wanted Philip Glass to score, but that hasn’t happened.

He disses opera but in 2017, he directed, of all things, a production of Verdi’s early Joan of Arc opera, “Giovanna d’Arco,” for, of all places, a small festival in Verdi’s hometown of Parma, Italy.


“That’s a stupid opera,” Greenaway complains. “We all know that Joan was burnt to death and Verdi suggests that never ever happens. Stupid man.”

When I counter that Verdi was a young composer who was learning his craft and needed money, Greenaway briskly replies, “That’s no excuse.” The attraction of staging “Giovanna,” says the director who himself delights in fictionalized history (to say nothing of himself with Tulse Luper), was purely the visual splendor of an extraordinary 17th century Parma theater.

The production, which Greenaway jointly staged with his wife and frequent collaborator, Saskia Boddeke, was filmed (and recently released on DVD and Blu-ray) and is eye-popping. For a man who says opera doesn’t work, everything works visually and musically. Early Verdi has never seemed so amazing. When I tell him as much, Greenaway, once more, appears little impressed.

He has a slew of projects he’d like to make, and that’s what he cares about. Big films. Big theatrical events, with film and DJs (yes, DJs, although he believes that pop music has limited depth) and multimedia oratorio. He loves getting movies out of cinemas, as he once did on the streets of São Paulo, where buildings were darkened and more than 11,000 gathered for an outdoor screening. He has books to write. Conspiracy theories to pursue. Exhibition plans in unconventional spaces. Revelations about the work of great painters to espouse.

Music, mostly, in all of these, appears an afterthought. But it is always the essential one worth waiting for.