Classical Music Review: New Releases

Ignorant Armies: Philip Glass Scores The Fog of War. Orange Mountain Music.

As a composer who has spent most of his adult life in the theatre, Philip Glass is hardly averse to collaboration. His latest film project, The Fog of War -- available on an Orange Mountain Music CD conducted by Michael Riesman -- is a very close one with director Errol Morris. And though they've worked together previously on The Thin Blue Line (1988), and A Brief History of Time (1992), this one seems to have had its share of surprises. " 'You know what I'm looking for?' he remembers Morris asking him, " ' I'm really looking for existential dread, ' and he didn't know any composer who's better at existential dread than me," which gets a big laugh out of Glass, and his interviewer, too. Later on in our phone conversation last December from his home in New York's East Village, he reflects on how he's perceived. " There've been a number of people who've when they've met me have said ' You know, you're not at all what I thought you'd be like, ' and I said ' Well, what'd you think I'd be like?', and they said ' Your music seems so sad and you seem so cheerful.' I'm not a sad person but I love to write this gloomy music, and I don't know why this is, I have no idea. But I pick subjects -- I mean in the last year I've probably killed off half a dozen poor people in the theatre, in the movies -- in The Hours, and in an opera called The Sound of A Voice, so what am I compensating for? And the man who survives in that (three of the four characters don't) is completely devastated, destroyed, but it's kind of wonderful isn't it?"

Morris' film is hardly a laugh riot. But how could it be when its subject is Robert Strange McNamara, who served as the Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, and is widely seen as being responsible for our protracted involvement in Vietnam? "It's very timely, " Glass observes, " and so much of the strategies and posturings of the present administration are very remininiscent of what was going on in those years. There was a big contingent of people who thought if you didn't support the war you were a traitor. It was going on for years, and finally people just got sick of it, and we had to pull out of Vietnam."

When asked if he concentrated more on harmonic structure than on rhythmic structure in Fog, Glass gets right to the point. "It always comes down to the subject matter. I worked with Errol for 18 months on this damn thing. We talked about it a lot -- he's a big talker -- and he didn't want to commit himself to an interpretation. But basically the point of the conversation was to get me to write the music he wanted me to write, and he succeeded because I wrote the music he wanted. And one of the things he kept coming back to was history and the sheer futility of men trying to order their lives." Morris used the line "Where ignorant armies clash in the night" from Mathew Arnold's great poem "Dover Beach" to inspire the composer. "And ", he says, "if there's one line to describe the film, that would be the line."

Glass' scoring had to fit the dramatic context. " The narrative is about encounters of military kinds and of political kinds and of a social nature. I knew there would be a certain amount of militaristic things so I would have to have brass, winds and percussion. There would also be lyrical things, introspective things that would be less confrontational musically." The score he ended up writing calls for French horns, trumpets and trombones in twos; flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, oboe, English horn and bassoon. The percussion section has xylophone, marimba, tam-tam (gongs), bells (chimes), piano and celeste; as well as harp, the usual strings, and synth. This makes for a dynamic and flexible band which Glass deploys with his usual acuity.

And his decisions are never obvious. One cue, "Private and Public, " starts with black and white images of soldiers landing from a helicopter. A normal composer would have indulged in triumphalist grandstanding here. Glass opts for something quite different -- a kind of Renaissance dirge for English horn and drums which suggests that these fighters will die and be remembered with this kind of music. And though Fog is a documentary -- albeit a supremely artful one wholly characteristic of its director -- its score never has the anonymous feel common to this genre. Instead it's highly personal, as in "67 Cities", which refers to and shows aerial shots of Japanese towns -- and their American counterparts sizewise -- being firebombed by McNamara and General Curtis LeMay -- 900,000 civilians lost their lives -- six months before Hiroshima-Nagasaki. Glass's music here is a string waltz which floats serenely and sorrowfully -- the counts keep changing -- over a ground bass. It sounds for all the world like the musical equivalent of a highly controlled yet deeply emotive speech in a a Racine play, which says yes, this is the way it is, and ever will be. Loss of a life -- one or many -- or loss of a friend or a lover is always sad. And Glass' music for Morris' picture has the character of a universal bereavement for things lost. "War is merely the continuation of ploicy by other means" said the Prussian military historain Clausewitz, whose phrase " the fog of war " gives the film its title. And if we can't do better than this we're in deep trouble. Glass' music is shadowed by this spectre. Of course it's gloomy. But it also serves to transfigure a very dark subject. Think eternal Iraq.

Michael McDonagh
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