Friday, April 17, 2009

Philip Glass: Portrait in Sight and Sound

By David Luhrssen
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When he was part of New York’s “downtown scene” in the ‘70s, Philip Glass was the target of vituperative put-downs by critics and the older generation of modernist composers, who scripted their music according to the dictates of intellectual theories. Fortunately, the spirit of those composers has migrated to academic cultural studies programs, where they can do little harm. Glass won the argument he never wanted to have. His work is performed at opera houses and concert halls around the world. His foes are dead, their music largely forgotten.

The documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (out April 21 on DVD) reveals a surprisingly unpretentious family man, fun and funny, with a touch of the romantic. Although few composers can score the sound of foreboding and dread better than Glass, there is little in this film by Oscar-nominated director Scott Hicks (Shine) to suggest sources for angst. As Glass reflects on his salad days, he easily brushes off the negative response of critics who didn’t understand his mesmerizing, crystalline cycles of sound. Perhaps his daily regimen of Buddhist rituals taught him to let go of any hostility.

Among the interesting conversations recorded by Hicks are discussions between Glass and the filmmakers for whom he has composed scores. Woody Allen (Cassandra’s Dream), Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line), Martin Scorsese (Kundun) and Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) all speak of their fertile collaborations in sight and sound. Glass talks about the origins of his music in the convergence of two teachers in the ‘60s, through the rigorous piano training of Nadia Boulanger and the loving exposure to Indian music from Ravi Shankar. Out of this intersection of East and West came a new music, Zen like in its calm reflection yet rooted in the mechanical repetition of the contemporary world.

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