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Sunday, May 15, 2005


Composing with an eye on the big picture

Special to The Japan Times

The Aichi Expo, with its theme on "Nature's Wisdom" and its pavilions packed with technological wonders, obviously sees no irony in its situation. This contradiction may be highlighted, however, when composer Philip Glass brings his ensemble to perform the music of "Koyaanisqatsi." Directed by Godfrey Reggio, and set to the pulsing, pensive sounds of Glass, the film silently and eloquently documents the rape of the earth by human "progress."

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Philip Glass performs his opera version of Jean Cocteau's "La Belle etla Bete"

Glass and his ensemble will accompany the films with live versions of his scores to all three films in the "Qatsi" trilogy -- "Koyaanisqatsi," "Powaqqatsi" and "Naqoyqatsi." Originally conceived as visual symphonies, merging the nonverbal power of film and music, they remain singular works even today. They also established Glass -- a creator of minimalist music who rose to fame in the 1970s along with his contemporary Steve Reich -- as a serious composer for movies. Since then he's worked on all sorts of projects, from the Clint Eastwood's Vietnam-war movie "Hamburger Hill" to the reflective Vietnam-era documentary "The Fog of War," with films such as "The Hours" and "Kundun" in between.

Also known for his innovative operas ("Einstein on the Beach"), Glass composed an opera set to the film "La Belle et la be^te," Jean Cocteau's surrealistic 1947 movie of the fable, which Glass' ensemble will perform in Tokyo following his performances in Aichi, with a live score for 1937's "Dracula" as well. Speaking by phone from Milan, Glass discussed the "Qatsi" series and his problems with film music.

I've always felt that "Koyaanisqatsi" was a landmark film, and I've always been surprised at how few people have explored the terrain it opened up.

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Philip Glass

Godfrey [Reggio] is a great innovator; He opened doors for other people to follow, but they didn't. That's also happened to me personally, with pieces like "La Belle et la be^te," which also combines image and music in a new way, by using a kind of dubbing, doublage, technique, where you can create an opera with a film -- but no one ever did it again. Including me (laughs).

In the case of Godfrey, the influence of that work was so broad, it began to show up in other mediums, television, videos, commercials. It became a language that was widely appropriated. But Godfrey has virtually created this language; it took us 25 years to complete it, and it's only three films. He's spent his lifetime on it. There is a new film we're talking about, it may happen.

"Naqoyqatsi" just opened here last year, so it was a long time coming.

The further we get away from the events of 9/11, the more viewable the film is. When we first showed it in November of 2001, people were really upset by the film, because it was too much about the life they were living; it looks very different today.

The "Qatsi" films, "Naqoyqatsi" in particular, leave a lot of room for the viewer to form his or her own interpretations -- they're very open-ended.

Well, we have to acknowledge that Godfrey's ideas have evolved, they're not the same anymore. His views on the co-habitation of humans beings and technology are much darker now. Technology has become a culture of its own, so independent of the creators of it, that the actual interfacing of humans and technology is unknown to us, and uncontrolled.

Most people still have the idea that technology is king of neutral, and what you do with it is what counts. But Godfrey's idea is that it's not at all neutral, that it has a fate of its own, and where its going, its dragging us along with it. But we may not know where its going.

With "Naqoy," it was built in layers; I was only looking at structure that was continually being overlaid with content; I didn't see the final images until after the score had been written. I saw the images as assemblages, I could tell what the tempo was, what the content was. I knew where the music had to go. In another sense, that's how the other films were done too -- there was no real editing until after the music was written.

After such a total collaboration, is it frustrating then to work on a "normal" film?

Well, it's very different. But what you're working with then is an industry where the decisions tend to flow from the top down, than rather in a collaborative way, where they'd be more lateral, contributing to each other. But that's the way the industry works; the economic structure of the film business has determined the artistic arrangements. Unfortunately, for the filmmakers, it's deprived them of the power of a real collaboration. I'll give you an example: film-testing, where they preview a film to a test audience, is often done without the score! They use a temp track, with other music selected by the editors. So people are making their assessments without the score, and it's a great disservice to the filmmaker. This just happened to me a few weeks ago.

What was your experience like working with Martin Scorsese on "Kundun?"

We worked on the score together right from the beginning. I was writing music to the scenario, I wasn't even looking at the pictures. It was like writing opera, a libretto. I was sending him the film on location, and Thelma Schoonmacher [Scorsese's editor] was editing to the actual music! So "Kundun" is very horizontally integrated (laughs).

You can tell; the last 20 minutes are totally driven by the music.

Literally, what happened was when we got to that part of the film, I had fallen behind, and when he got to the [the Dalai Lama's] escape into India, he called me and said, "Look, I can't edit this. You have to come and do the music." So I went back to New York and I sketched out the 22 minutes, and on the basis of that he edited the film. Having done the first 70 minutes that way, he was unwilling to complete it any other way.

Effective film scoring seems to be knowing when to reinforce a moment or when to step away a bit.

No, I look at it a bit differently. My feeling is that the real function of the music is to articulate the structure of the film. And not the moment-to-moment emotional point-of-view -- the "EPV," they call it (laughs) -- which is what most film music remains tied to. There's no thematic development or character alignment or structural articulation at all. They just don't think in that way. But that's the only way I think about it, and that comes from a lifetime of work in opera and ballet. I basically took that technique and applied it to film, and not everybody likes it.

But your approach requires a longer attention span, rather than moment-to-moment fixes.

What I'm proposing . . . is you actually have to do something! (laughs) It's not like the composer is setting up the duck-pins and the director is rolling down the bowling ball. That's what they call collaboration.

Is it liberating, then, to work with these old films like "Dracula" and "La Belle et le be^te," where you don't have to deal with a director?

Well, I pretend that the director was alive and I was having a conversation, and we agreed what to do. Todd Browning [director of "Dracula"] was very easy to work with; he's been dead for years, and he was very communicative; I could tell from the film what he was doing (laughs).

What made you want to re-score "Dracula?"

Well, Universal Pictures called me up. They had it in their archive and wanted to do something special for its re-release, so they hired me. It never had a film score, originally, so I felt that I was completing it.

You originally composed it for the Kronos Quartet. How did you expand the score for your full ensemble?

It wasn't that different. The biggest difference was substituting the bass clarinet for the cello, which created a different feeling for some scenes. But it worked quite well, especially the scenes with Renfield.

I see that you worked on "Going Upriver: The John Kerry Story." What was your involvement with that?

It was being thrown together at the last minute; I suggested music, I didn't have much to do with it. I mean, I would have if I could. That whole campaign was a big mess.

Well, I just saw "The Fog of War" last year, and I was wondering if you're getting increasingly into political film now, or . . .

Well, that's what "Koyanisqatsi" always was, and many of the operas, like "Nixon in China," that's never been far away. With "Fog of War" and "Going Upriver," then you come into real, street-fighting kind of politics. But the idea that social issues would be part of my work was fundamental.

At the Aichi Expo Dome: May 22 -- "Koyaanisqatsi"; May 23 -- "Powaqqatsi"; May 24 -- "Naqoyqatsi." Doors open at 6:30 p.m., screenings start from 7 p.m. Free for Expo ticket holders. Reservations accepted at www.expo2005.or.jp "La Belle et la be^te": May 26, 7 p.m., "Dracula," May 27, 7 p.m., at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya. Tickets 8 yen,000-12,000 yen. For more information, call Conversation at (03) 5280-9996

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