Wednesday, April 08, 2009

PBS shows American Masters documentary on composer Philip Glass


On April 8, 2009, many PBS stations aired the “American Masters” film, “Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts”, directed by Scott Hicks, link here. The last part was titled “Opening Night,” referring to the opera (below). The Maryland Public Television synopsis is here. Kino has theatrical distribution rights for the film.

Glass is well known for his style, of repeated chords or figures making a kind of ground bass with a hypnotic effect. The figures may be in triple or quadruple time, and tend to be in moderate tempo. His filmography on imdb lists 85 movies as of now, among the most famous of which are “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance” and “Powwaqatsi: Life in Transformation”. Some people call his style “minimalist.”

His comments indicate that he sees music theory as, by itself, self-serving; he is more interested in how music is experienced. He is asked what the difference is between a symphony and an opera and he says, not that much. He says that working for film is hard. Music has the advantage of allowing the artist to “say” what he wants in a socially acceptable manner without censorship, but that brings up the old controversy over program music v. absolute music.

The film covers several episodes, including a ride at Coney Island (they show the “Cyclone”, but I recall the Seaside Courts for paddleball), a premier of his opera “Waiting for the Barbarians” in Germany (with some small ballet-like and then vocal excerpts shown – somewhat reminding me of Paul Adams -- bright red is often used as a background color), and a performance in Australia with an Aborigine instrument, the didgeridoo. When played on the piano, sometimes his style reminds one curiously of some of the music in Chopin’s nocturnes (previous posting). The opera is based on J.M. Coetzee's novel with libretto by Christopher Hampton, and is both abstract and political, involving the relation of people to the state, and to the limits of their means – an important problem today. The last line of the opera is "I am a man caught in an ugly dream."

The film shows excerpts of his married family life, in New York and Baltimore (where he was born in 1937), where his studio is quite cluttered and where his wife (he has had four) has to learn to leave it alone during housekeeping. The second part of his film shows him in meditation.

He is interested in all faiths, and the documentary shows a fascinating model of a Hindu mansion. But, as his current wife says, “music is his underlying passion for everything he does.” There is a curious scene where he and his spouse share their computer passwords. Glass himself also says (about the novelist of the opera, I think) that "writing can become the meaning of one's life" and that it is not necessarily an "escape to become sane."

The film shows him working with Chuck Close, Ravi Shankar (Indian sitar performer and composer) and Woody Allen.

Picture: see previous post.

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