Over the course of a quarter of a century, one might expect the style of a composers music to have changed. One only needs to think of Igor Stravinsky, for example, to acknowledge that a composers voice usually alters during such a period of time. With Philip Glass, however, one has to take on board the fact that his style has remained essentially the same since his brand of Minimalism (a term Glass dislikes and considers inappropriate for the vast majority of his music) evolved in the late 1960s, following his study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, that distinguished and formidable pedagogue. It was perhaps with Einstein on the Beach (1976) that this style was firmly established and has served him well in a prodigious output since then.
To anyone still unfamiliar with it, the style might be briefly described in Glasss own words as music with repetitive structures, and consists, invariably, of arpeggiated figures, harmony which is firmly tonal and often consistently triadic, insistent articulation of chords and the use of melodic lines over and above a pulsating accompaniment. The Philip Glass Ensemble basically comprises keyboard players (including the composer) and winds (mainly saxophones and flutes), occasionally augmented by voices and percussion. Throughout these performances, their playing was immaculate.
Glasss work with filmmakers has, until very recently, lain outside what might be termed the commercial world of Hollywood, about which he has voiced considerable disdain, and so it was ironic that the first evening of this series coincided with the announcement that Glass had received a Golden Globe nomination for his score for the Hollywood film The Hours, which stars Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, and is directed by Stephen Daldry. The opening programme of Shorts was partly a Barbican commission and exemplified Glasss whole approach to working with filmmakers. He sees the entire process as a collaborative one (rather than a director shooting a film and then requesting a composer to supply a score) and such is his current eminence that he was able, for this event, to invite collaborators to work with him. Michal Rovner, the director of Notes, in a post-concert talk, confirmed her interest in Glasss non-narrative approach to the interaction between music and images, perhaps calling to mind the collaboration between John Cage and Merce Cunningham, whereby score and dance would be created independently and only co-exist at the moment of performance.
Glasss film music, therefore, does not normally provide any kind of commentary upon the action, or illuminate character or situation. Rather it exists in its own right and may be appreciated purely for its own sake. Having said which there were some impressive moments of interaction however co-incidental between the scores and images in some of these films. The opening of The Man in the Bath with its liquid imagery, found a perfect partner in the rippling music whilst the sombre vision of Passage, which showed men in a funeral procession, was superbly evoked by music which conveyed an altogether darker mood and atmosphere, and flickering flames were evocatively suggested through Glasss figurations. The irregular time signatures employed in Diaspora were well-matched with the disturbing vision of sheep being herded to the slaughter little imagination was needed to suppose what symbol this was intended to convey and in Notes, the sense of loneliness and isolation was apparent on the screen and through the music.
Godfrey Reggio has been Glasss most frequent collaborator in filmmaking. His Evidence, depicting children watching television in a disengaged manner, was accompanied by a performance of Façades for saxophone and keyboard, one of Glasss widely-known pieces, but it was difficult here to see the connection between the film and the music. On quite another level was the superb collaboration on Anima Mundi, a film partially sponsored by the World Wild Life Fund, and showing animals from around the world in their natural habitats. Here movements and flight gave rise to some of the most evocative and apt music of the entire series. The experience was both invigorating and refreshing. In a curious way, this programme of short films (each ranging from about 10 to 20 minutes) was one of the most satisfying. The varied subject matters evidently encouraged Glass to respond specifically to their directors visions, and the sequence as a whole had a pleasing range and diversity.
It is in the more lengthy films that the self-imposed limitations, or restrictions, of Glasss chosen style can become apparent. In La Belle et la Bête and Dracula, where a story is being followed, Glasss music takes on the form of a more customary film accompaniment. The former has live singers articulating the words of the characters and the co-ordination between picture and voices was something to be marvelled at the characters really came to life and in these moments the fusion of music and action was only one step away from live music-drama in the traditional operatic sense. However, there were too often passages of music which just meandered along and where one sensed that it did not serve any particular purpose other than to suggest background or general atmosphere.
The music for Dracula was originally written for string quartet (the Kronos who toured it live and recorded it), but was here given in a version for the Ensemble. Strangely, the original, although less colourful, is more effective in suggesting unease. A flute trilling whenever a bat appeared, for instance, caused considerable amusement and served to emphasise the mood of mock-horror and almost parody at times. Of course, perceptions of drama and film change over time and what audiences found disturbing in the 1930s are not likely to elicit the same response now. Glasss score seemed rather uncertain as to where to pitch itself, but the moments where the music stopped to allow the original soundtrack and dialogue to be heard were very effective indeed.
The two films from Reggios Qatsi trilogy could not have been more contrasted in their impact. In terms of effectiveness, the music written for Powaqqatsi is, frankly, dull a lot of the time, with the exception of the opening which is one of the most exhilarating passages in all of Glasss voluminous output. Its combination of ethnic percussion and childrens voices driven along with rhythmic relentlessness is quite intoxicating (although one missed, in this ensemble/synthesised version, the bite of the real brass and a larger percussion section heard on the film soundtrack). Thereafter, the music often lacks any distinctive colouring and serves merely as a reasonably agreeable companion nothing more to Reggios juxtaposition of nature versus the threat of industrialisation in the Southern Hemisphere.
Its predecessor, Koyaanisqatsi is quite another matter, and it is telling that, in the final analysis, this score and film were the most striking and provocative seen and heard during this series. Reggios vision of the futility of the urban rat race, with people rushing around to little or no avail was uncannily co-ordinated with Glasss relentless and restless music. Setting this off against tranquil images of nature, matched with a deep male voice with a passacaglia-like bass line, both sounding as if they had emerged from the dawn of time, was inspirational and made for a combination of sound and image that was truly complementary and very satisfying.
A week spent in the company of Philip Glasss music may be an off-putting prospect to some, but I found it alternately stimulating and frustrating. Philip on Film was an occasion to ponder where the composer might go from this point. He admitted that there is now an expectation that his music will sound in a certain way, but the planners of Philip on Film cannily saved his (and Reggios) best work to date until last. That Koyaanisqatsi is also the first of Glasss film scores might be a cause of some pondering in itself, from the stance of the potential lack of development intrinsically inherent in the aspects of music (call it minimalism for the sake of convenience) to which Philip Glass has steadfastly clung onto and confined himself with over the past quarter of a century.
- Philip on Film a 5-CD set on