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World Tibet Network News

Saturday, January 17, 1998

3. Glass work shatter proof

MOVIE MUSIC / The prolific prince of minimalism's exotic, evocative
score for Kundun, the new Martin Scorsese film, melds chanting monks
with Western sounds.

Globe and Mail
Saturday, January 17, 1998
By Patrick Dillon

New York -- 'COME on down!" Philip Glass beckons from the foot of a
staircase in the brick-lined basement studio of his New York City town
house. Lights are glaring and a camera is trained on the ebullient
composer, who is being scrutinized by a Bravo! television crew. As I
settle down to begin my own interview, cameras still rolling, Glass
leaps up midsentence to answer the telephone.

Juggling television and newspaper interviews and his own mad-paced
schedule barely challenges Glass: The prolific prince of minimalism
knows how to maximize his time. Perhaps the most popular classical music
composer of his generation, Glass is famous for his spare, simple and
repetitive musical patterns. Last month the 60-year-old composer was the
subject of a two-evening retrospective at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln
Center. It showcased a wide range of his work in opera, dance, film, and
theatre as well as his "pure" music. "Something resembling an icon is
now in place," pronounced New York
Times music critic Bernard Holland, "and its air of permanence is

Between concerts, the composer attended a media-saturated Times Square
screening of the new Martin Scorsese film Kundun , for which Glass wrote
the exotic and evocative score. It was a surrealistic affair, with
Harrison Ford, Val Kilmer and Tony Bennett arriving in limos to the
screams and cheers of a police-barricaded crowd. Inside, dozens of
saffron-robed Buddhist monks washed down buttered popcorn with giant
Cokes. The unlikely audience was delighted with the film, a biography of
the 14th Dalai Lama, from Tibetan toddler in 1937 to 24-year-old exile
in 1959.

Kundun , which opened across Canada yesterday, is enhanced enormously by
the score, which magically melds Tibetan horns, cymbals and chanting
monks with the more typically Western sounds of his three-decade-old
Philip Glass Ensemble. There's even a strangely effective dash of
Mahler. The Nonesuch soundtrack was selling well even before the film's
official opening, and the critical reception has been just as
enthusiastic: Glass's music took the prize for best film score from the
Los Angeles Film Critics' Association. It's up for a similar award at
tomorrow's Golden Globes and is a strong contender for an Academy Award.

Sitting in the loungelike space that occupies one side of the studio,
the vigorous, fiftyish-looking sexagenarian is genial and relaxed,
though the familiar sad-sack face topped by a mop of dark curls seems
transfigured by the sheer energy he emanates, like a plugged-in
appliance with an invisible cord. There's a grand piano across the room,
and lots of audio and recording equipment, but mostly the space seems to
be a gallery, a one-woman show devoted to the pop-inflected art of
Glass's late wife, Candy Jernigan. (He has two grown children by the
first of his three wives, theatre director JoAnne Akalaitis.)

Glass seems happy with Kundun , although he's reluctant to toot his own
horn. "Everyone has a slightly different take on the film," he observes,
"but the Tibetan community on the whole is very pleased by it."

Not so pleased is China, which has been giving Disney, the parent of
Touchstone Films, which released Kundun , a hard time over its
unflattering portrait of the Chinese takeover of Tibet. At stake is the
future of theme-park ventures in China, a potential gold mine for
Disney. "There's some ambivalence about the movie at Disney," Glass
notes. "But the fact is, the Chinese behaved rather badly. Even if you
grant them their historical claims, it doesn't justify their behavior.
I've heard that Disney's hired Henry Kissinger to try to negotiate a

Glass met Martin Scorsese several years ago when veteran director
Michael Powell (The Red Shoes ) was hoping to direct a film of Glass's
opera The Fall of the House of Usher ; Powell's wife was film editor
Thelma Schoonmaker, a long-time colleague of Scorsese's (she edited
Kundun ). When Powell's death derailed that project, the two men kept in
touch. Scorsese was waiting for something appropriate, and when Kundun
appeared, it helped that Glass is a Buddhist.

"I've been a Buddhist for 30 years. People think I'm a vegetarian
because I'm a Buddhist, but that dates back to before then, to various
yoga teachers I had. Ask a Tibetan Buddhist if he wants a vegetarian
meal and he'll say, 'Are you out of your mind? I want a steak.' "

Another misconception of Buddhism, Glass asserts, is that it's a cozy,
placid religion compared with Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. "But in
reality they offer much more comforting visions. Buddhism is tougher --
you've got to keep on working until you get it right. It's a process of
evolution. It creates an ethical structure; it's about how we integrate
our activities into the world around us."

One activity is the annual benefit Glass helps produce for Tibet House
in New York, an organization devoted to the preservation of Tibetan
culture. (This year, Patti Smith and Natalie Merchant will also
Even without the Buddhist connection, Glass was a likely candidate for
the Kundun score. He has been composing for films since 1977. Among his
best-known scores are those for Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and
Powaggatsi , Errol Morris's murder-and-Death Row semi-documentary The
Thin Blue Line and Paul Schrader's Mishima ; he also supplied the music
for the recently released Bent .

He even finessed working with the long-deceased Jean Cocteau, the
soundtracks to whose classics Orphee, La Belle et la bęte , and Les
Enfants terribles he scrapped in favour of his own aural enhancements.

An odd byway of Glass's film career is Bernard Rose's arty gorefest
Candyman . "I'd seen another film of Rose's, Paperhouse , which I
admired very much. I signed on on the basis of that and the script,
which was interesting and unusual. What I didn't know was that Rose
didn't have the final cut, so what came out was very different. I was
naive then -- I thought it was directors who made movies, not

The movie was a commercial success and contracts bound his music to a
sequel, but his displeasure with the experience meant that the Candyman
score -- which is among his best -- has never been released on CD.
(Rose's next soundtrack composer of choice was Beethoven, in the
potboiler biography Immortal Beloved .)

Intimate collaborations such as that with Scorsese from the major part
of Glass's output. Outside of film, his artistic partners have included
the playwright David Henry Hwang (The Voyage ), the novelist Doris
Lessing (The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 ), and rock
musicians David Bowie and Brian Eno (the Low and Heroes symphonies,
based on two classic Bowie/Eno albums).

He's not at all cowed by the strong visions of others. "Paul Schrader
called me, Marty Scorsese called me, but I called up Doris Lessing. Most
of the time I'm the one who does the calling."

Only one person has ever turned him down: Stephen Sondheim, who hasn't
entrusted another composer with his lyrics since Richard Rodgers in
1965. "Sondheim made some kind remarks about my music, and I thought
he'd be approachable. And he was -- he just didn't want to do that."

An inveterate collaborator, Glass is content just to compose. "I don't
do anything else -- I have no other talents at all. The reason I work
with so many kinds of artists is that I can't do it myself -- I can't
dance, I can't draw, I can't paint. I'm really a one-trick pony: I write
music. But I've played that trick any number of ways."

There have always been those who would grant him even less than that.
The mistaken notion still circulates that Glass is a shrewd amateur, an
autodidact whose skill amounts to little more than trickery. "My
credentials are impeccable," he asserts with mock defensiveness. He was
born in Baltimore and studied at the Peabody Conservatory there (at age
8), the University of Chicago, the Juilliard School (two degrees) and
the doyenne of French musical pedagogy, Nadia Boulanger, whose studio
was de rigueur for aspiring American composers until her death in 1979.
He was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French
government in 1995.

Glass and designer-director Robert Wilson stormed the Metropolitan Opera
with Einstein on the Beach in 1976. Einstein , with its nonlinear plot,
its potent visual scheme, and -- above all, for many -- its simple,
repetitive musical patterns, became a benchmark in modern musical
theatre and helped Glass achieve mainstream recognition.

Another big collaboration with Wilson is planned for later this year. It
will be a theatre piece with no performers on stage, only Wilson's
images. Also scheduled for 1998 is the release of several new Nonesuch
CDs, as well as a massive, 10-CD Glass compendium, including works
rerecorded especially for the set. Meanwhile, Glass continues to oversee
Point Music, a label he founded for cutting-edge, hard-to-categorize
music in 1992 in a joint venture with Philips Classics.

The Chicago-born Glass does much of his composing in a cottage
overlooking the ocean in Cape Breton, where he spends two months every

His minimalism (a term he eschews) was a reaction to the academic
formalism and serialism that were so beloved in American music circles
in the 1950s and 1960s. His repetitive, trancelike melodic lines
(dubbed "catatonic homophony" by inveterate wag Nicolas Slonimsky in
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians ) invited strong reactions.
In a celebrated putdown of Glass's opera Akhnaten , New York Times
critic Donal Henahan quipped that it "stands to music as the sentence
'See Spot run' stands to literature."

"My generation was involved with reforming the language of modern
music," Glass says, "but we couldn't have done that if we didn't
understand it totally. We were much less threatening when we were seen
as primitive, uneducated louts, banging away at amplified instruments --
that was a comforting notion, and we would have been much easier to
dismiss had that been true. But I've had an opera commissioned by the
Met and performed and revived there; I've had symphonies performed by
the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland, the Vienna Philharmonic.
Forget about it -- you can't get rid of me!"

Suddenly, another surge from that hidden wire seems to propel him to his
feet. "We've done what we need to do," he announces, and he's bounding
up the stairs and out of sight, like the White Rabbit late for a very
important date, as the front door clicks open.

Selected discography

Here is a representative selection from each of Glass's major areas of
composition. Opera : Einstein on the Beach (Sony M4K 38875), 1976,
helped Glass's minimalist style win mainstream recognition. Satyagraha
(1980), like Kundun , eloquently conveys Glass's interest in Eastern
religion. Based on the Bhagavad-Gita and the life of Gandhi, it is
surely the only major opera ever written to be sung in Sanskrit (Sony
M3K 39672). Film : Glass's score for Paul Schrader's Mishima (Nonesuch
79113), about the eponymous, suicidal Japanese novelist, has a high
reputation among film buffs. If you're a David Bowie fan, hear what
Glass does to a classic Bowie album in his "Low" Symphony (Point Music
438150). Dance : DancePieces (Sony 39539) includes music made familiar
by choreographers Jerome Robbins (Glass Pieces ) and Twyla Tharp (In the
Upper Room ).

Articles in this Issue:
  1. ''Kundun'' might be Scorsese's masterpiece
  2. Scorsese scores knockout with velvet glove
  3. Glass work shatter proof

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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