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Two Composers: Philip Glass

In Tallahassee and Gainesville, the work of two composers, each a pioneer in his own way, takes center stage.

By PHILIP BOOTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002

AT THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA: "Philip on Film" presents a varied sampling of Philip Glass' soundtrack collaborations, tracing the composer's quest to capture the interactions of two disparate performance modes.

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Ernst von Dohnanyi
In Tallahassee and Gainesville, the work of two composers, each a pioneer in his own way, takes center stage.
Last year, Philip Glass released a five-CD boxed set of his work on movie scores, including his acclaimed collaborations with director Godfrey Reggio on his haunting Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and Powaqqatsi (1988).

Next came the road show, also called Philip on Film: a tour in which Glass, on piano, and his ensemble accompanied screenings of films he scored.

Then came Sept. 11.

Who could watch Reggio's images of life out of balance -- buildings imploding, teeming crowds, grief-stricken faces -- accompanied by Glass' repetitive, rippling rhythms, and not think of the evil that had visited America?

"The earlier works, which seemed not to be seen so politically relevant, suddenly became very up-to-date pieces," Glass, 65, says by telephone from New York. "One of the achievements of Godfrey's filmmaking was that he either had a vision that was ahead of his time, or he simply created something that was timeless.

"That confused my own reflection on it all. In October, people were seriously affected by it (Koyaanisqatsi), although it was nearly 20 years old. My idea of the retrospective kind of got bent out of shape. It got to be about something different."

Perceptions may have been altered, but Glass' basic goal was not. He wants to explore how music, which changes with every live interpretation, can alter the meaning of a film, which is frozen in time.

"The thing that I really came away with after these last months of doing it was really pondering what the significance of live music and film was, and why it has such a strong impact on an audience," Glass says. "It's basically combining real-time performance with something which is not a performance art. Film is mechanically reproduced. A film was done sometimes 40 years ago, so we can't talk about interpretation."

The tour, which comes to the University of Florida in Gainesville this week, also includes Glass' haunting compositions created for Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula and Jean Cocteau's 1946 La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast), as well as an evening of new short films made with Reggio, Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), Peter Greenaway (81/2 Women), Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat and Israeli multimedia artist Michal Rovner. (The boxed set adds such contemporary films as 1997's Kundun, 1996's The Secret Agent, 1988's The Thin Blue Line and 1986's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.)

The diversity of the program proved a challenge in live performance.

"Another thing that happened in the course of these performances, which I hadn't expected, was that performing five nights in a row, with a different work each night, becomes very challenging for the ensemble," Glass explains.

"We go in to the theater about an hour before the theater is open, and they call it a soundcheck, but we call it a rehearsal. We rehearse for an hour to get into the sound world of the music for that evening. La Belle et la Bete, an opera, is different from Koyaanisqatsi, and these are quite different from Dracula."

Any of those works, of course, is a far cry from Strung Out, a solo for amplified violin, the composition Glass played for his 1968 debut concert. Traditionalists were startled by his repetitive lines and evolving rhythms that created a hypnotic, trancelike effect.

Much of his early work was heavily influenced by ethnic sounds from around the globe, including the African and Indian rhythms he encountered during an extended hitchhiking trip. He has attributed his artistic breakthrough to working with sitarist Ravi Shankar on the transcription of Indian classical music.

Glass later graduated to larger compositions, including 1974's Music in Twelve Parts, which ran for hours. His music sometimes evoked extreme responses, including loud bravos and boos, and he was soon tagged as a purveyor of minimalism.

Glass' commercial breakthrough came with Einstein on the Beach, a 1976 "portrait opera" created with scenarist Robert Wilson.

During the '80s and '90s, Glass has participated in a variety of projects, including his own The Photographer, which featured a track with lyrics by David Byrne; Carmina Burana, done with former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek; and Songs of Lyric Days, with lyrics by Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega and Laurie Anderson. Glass has also worked with Twyla Tharp, Lucinda Childs and other major figures from the dance world.

Hollywood has beckoned more and more often. Glass won a Golden Globe for 1998's The Truman Show, an Oscar nomination for Kundun and a Cannes jury prize for Mishima. His music has also been heard in 1997's Bent, 1995's Evidence, 1992's Candyman and its sequel, and 1987's Hamburger Hill.

"I come to film from a very different angle, really from the background of theater and dance and opera, where the performer, the live interpreter, is really the center of the event," Glass says. "Somehow this modern-day 20th century film art never became a part of the world of performance art because of its peculiar mechanistic identity.

"I've written 14 or 15 film scores, while some composers my age have done as many as 100. My friends in Hollywood consider me an interesting and likable amateur."


Philip Glass Ensemble presents Philip on Film at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Tuesday through Saturday, $15 each night, $65 for five-night Glass Pass; for more information, call the Phillips Center Box Office, toll-free 1-800-905-2787; tickets also available through Ticketmaster.

Tuesday: Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance

Wednesday: Shorts

Thursday: Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation

Friday: Dracula

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