Classical Music Review: New Releases

Philip on Film: Shorts.  Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman, conductor, and music director. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA (12 October 2002).

It was certainly a shock when the lights went down at Davies, and the house went dark, completely black. And then Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble, all clad in black, save the composer, in his usual off blue suit, strode in, and sat at their amplified instruments -- winds, percussion, and six black keyboards. Conductor Michael Riesman sat at his, back to the audience, called the sound man, and the first of six short silent films, Peter Greenaways's 10 minute The Man In The Bath (2001), with specially written wall-to-wall music by Philip Glass, appeared on the big screen above the band. "When a body is wholly or partially immersed in water" went the cursive script as images of that liquid were elaborately framed and re-framed within other frames, along with with shots of a an attractive nude man seen in and out of a bathtub. The pictures, as so often in Greenaway's later work, were slow, formal, stylized, while the music was mostly fast, with dense textures, and surprising harmonic shifts. This was odd, joyful, fanciful stuff. And, as the concert went on, I realized that the music was Glass' unconscious response to the images, and that that response has to come out of a dark place where the artist doesn't know who or where he is.

The 11 minute Passage (2001), billed as "an audio visual work by (Persian artist) Shirin Neshat and Philip Glass," brought this this fact home in a very powerful way. Neshat's film, after all, is about death, and what could be more unknowable than that? Her short, which showed a funeral procession of black clad male mourners carrying a body sheathed in white, happened in a starkly beautiful landscape, with black robed Muslim women digging in the sand as a little girl arranged stones in a circle. Glass' music, which is dominated by a 12-beat figure first heard in the keyboard's lower register, was powerfully ritualistic. And though I'm sure the music functions perfectly well on its own, it also gives Neshat's picture a stunning otherworldly feel, and the strange, but completely apt vocal writing -- four in the band are required to sing and play keyboards -- added to its haunted atmosphere.

Atom Egoyan's eight-minute Diaspora (2001) seemed to have images of Armenia's ethnic cleansing -- the director is of Armenian parentage and his new picture, Ararat, concerns this appalling historical fact -- though it was hard to tell since everything looked intentionally blurred. Glass' music here is monumental, highly percussive -- guests Frank Cassara and Mick Rossi played a wide array of drums in unconventional ways -- and full of complex cross-rhythms. And though these are often insistent, the beat seems to drop out at the very beginning. The score also functions as a musical metaphor for the short's title, and Egoyan's visual tactics -- it holds itself in, then disperses. Andrew Sterman played an exquisite flute solo, though the brass sounds, which were central to the music's impact, were sampled, and stored in the players' keyboards.

Godfrey Reggio's eight-minute Evidence (1995) is Glass' fourth score for the director, although this music was actually written in 1981 and subsequently discarded from Reggio's final cut of KOYAANISQATSI (1982), and made its first appearance as "Facades", on Glass' vinyl debut on Columbia, Glassworks. It looks like Reggio cut Evidence to the music, and it's a perfect match. The score, at any rate, with its wind arabesques over a steady harmonic base, deftly mirrors the psychological disconnect the children in the film experience while they're watching TV. The original string part of  "Facades" -- one violin, one violoncello, plus synth -- is a program in Eleanor Sandresky's keyboard. Jon Gibson's soprano sax solo here was however played in real time, and very touchingly too.

Michal Rovner's 12-minute Notes (2001) was the weakest link in the program. Her treated black and white images of five people on five-staved music paper were so harmless that one wondered how Glass could get inspired by them. But he did, and his somber, ethereal score had many beautiful moments, like the lovely duet that Sterman and Gibson played on piccolo and soprano sax, and the cascading bell-like sounds which emerged from the composer's keyboard.

Reggio's 28-minute Anima Mundi (1992) closed the show. Commissioned by the Italian jewelry firm Bulgari for the World Wildlife Fund For Nature, it uses both stock and original footage to celebrate the visual magnificence of the world's animals. Though relatively short the film is epic in scope and Glass' music for it is appropriately grand yet subtle. The score played here was a sort of reduction of the original one for medium size acoustic orchestra, which Nonesuch released on a 1993 CD. I've listened to it many times, and have seen the film on TV and video, but the visceral power of the sound heard live, and in real time, was shocking. And it was shocking because we now live in a world where all experience is very quickly becoming more and more mediated, deflected, fake. Shorts gave the lie to that. Here was a real and very live communal experience, and the audience, realizing that they'd  been given a gift, went justifiably wild.

Michael McDonagh