Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts

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Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts

(dir. Scott Hicks | Australia/USA | 2007)

Review by Hugh Lilly

Philip Glass is arguably one of the most influential and important classical musicians of his generation. He is certainly one of the most prolific, having composed eight symphonies, eight concertos, twenty operas and numerous works for the theatre, as well as many film scores, string quartets, single-instrument works and other pieces in a career now spanning five decades. His music is often labelled ‘minimalist,’ but he prefers to describe it as music in concentric circles, “music with repetitive structures.” His position in popular culture is such that he’s been lampooned on South Park and mashed-up with the Beastie Boys. There is a vast array of literature about Glass and minimalism, and there have been several films made about the composer. He has collaborated with artists, actors, painters, directors and musicians as varied as David Byrne, Woody Allen, Arthur Russell, Paul Simon, Jasper Johns, Lou Reed and Aphex Twin. Glass is to contemporary classical music what Noam Chomsky is to liberal intellectualism.

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Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1937, Glass grew up surrounded by music: his father Benjamin owned a record store, and would bring home unsold records to give to his son. Consequently, Glass discovered composers like Bartók, Schoenberg and Shostakovich and developed a love of classical music. Shortly after turning 15, Glass went to the Julliard School of Music in New York City, where he attended classes alongside future fellow ‘minimalist’ composer Steve Reich. In 1964, after receiving a Master’s degree from Julliard, Glass went to Paris and studied under the esteemed composer, conductor and music professor Nadia Boulanger, who also taught Aaron Copland and Quincy Jones. Boulanger’s strict teaching left an impression on Glass that has resonated to this day. While in Paris, Glass attended concerts by Pierre Boulez and the experimental musician John Cage, whom he would later collaborate with. He revelled in the films of the nouvelle vague, including pictures by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and attended experimental theatre pieces, even scoring a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Play,” in 1965.

In the mid-sixties, Glass worked on a film score with sitar master Ravi Shankar, and travelled to India where he came into contact with Buddhism and other kinds of eastern spiritualism. This pre-Sergeant Pepper’s exposure to eastern culture and musical forms influenced his sense of time, and upon returning to New York he began experimenting with different time structures and signatures. By way of demonstrating this, Glass says that eastern music works with different parameters, with a different harmonic. “Indian music,” for example, “balances rhythm and melody, whereas western music attempts a balance between harmony and melody,” he says. By the early ’70s, Glass had become a fixture of the New York experimental art landscape that had grown out of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene in the ’60s, working alongside such luminaries as John Cage, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno and David Bowie. At the same time he discovered eastern spirituality-“body/mind consciousness” as he calls it-and became friends with Allan Ginsberg, and a supporter of the Dalai Lama. From 1971-74, Glass composed the seminal four-hour piece “Music in Twelve Parts,” from which Australian Scott Hicks’ new documentary takes its name.

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Created to mark the composer’s 70th birthday, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts is a celebration of the life and work of this extraordinary musician that examines every facet of his working life, and tries to figure out what makes him tick. Hicks followed Glass across three continents for more than a year in 2005, and spent over 12 months in post-production in Australia editing down more than 120 hours of footage to a 120-minute feature. While this is not the first film about Philip Glass, it’s certainly the most accessible-this stems probably from Hicks’ firm belief that he didn’t want to make the definitive ‘academic’ film about Glass; that he wasn’t making a reverential career retrospective. “Cinema is not about facts,” states Hicks, “it’s about emotion.” While it’s certainly nowhere near as clinical and aloof as Éric Darmon’s fiercely Gallic narration and academic tone in Looking Glass (2005), or as structurally dissonant as Peter Greenaway’s Four American Composers: Philip Glass (1982), Portrait is nonetheless traditional, adhering to established documentary structures and conventions. Interestingly, despite Hicks’ statements about reverence and emotion, the film is massively adulatory – the New York Times said it comes dangerously close to hagiography – and there is only one point in the film-near the end-where true, unabashed emotion seeps through the fame.

Portrait packs a lot into its 120 minutes, travelling from Glass’ holiday home in Nova Scotia, to New York, where he visits the artist Chuck Close, and checks on the progress of three films scores he’s working on at the time-one of which is Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream. Next he travels to Australia, where he performs a solo piano recital and débuts a new work with a didgeridoo virtuoso. The film ends in Germany, where he’s staging the first performance of a new play with the Berlin Philharmonic called “Waiting for the Barbarians,” based on J. M. Coetzee’s novel. The novel, Glass states, didn’t seem like it was relevant when he first read it, but “it became relevant; it’s about an empire starting a prëemptive war, detaining prisoners offshore without regard for international law.” The intricate set design, by Glass’ long-time collaborator and friend Robert Wilson, moves with the music as if the stage itself were an instrument-a metaphor, perhaps, for the way Glass’ collaborators work with him, around him, through him as he moves through life.

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Portrait shows how Glass juggles so many commitments, and how the different disciplines influence one another-working with writers, filmmakers, artists, choreographers and other composers keeps him on his toes. “Music always has something to say in all these forms,” he says. “Going from one to the other is never boring.” Much of the first part of the film concentrates on Glass’ formative years in New York, and the struggle he endured to have his style recognised. He didn’t make a living from his compositions until he was 41, instead having to do regular jobs. He was a plumber, and he and Steve Reich were in a moving company together. A single-page comic framed on the wall in Looking Glass studios depicts “The Day Jobs of Philip Glass”: “Glass drove a cab in New York City, even after his production ‘Einstein on the Beach’ sold out the Metropolitan Opera House.” He found it basically impossible to have his work accepted in the stifling, conservative world of the music hall, so instead performed in lofts, galleries, parks and other public spaces. His “rigorous music” stood up to bad press, and his concerts were well attended. It probably helped, though, that nearly everyone at the performances-except Glass-was high as a kite.

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Glass goes to great lengths to explain that his pleasure in music is derived from performance and composition, not teaching and academic music theory. “I’m not interested in theories of music, that’d be about thinking-I wanted to listen.” For Glass, in the same way that “drawing is about seeing, dancing about moving, poetry about speaking,” writing music is about listening. “It’s already there,” he says, “it just needs to be written down.” A big part of his work, increasingly since the late-’70s, has been his collaborations with filmmakers. His work with Godfrey Reggio began with Koyaanisqatsi in 1977, and his compositions have been paired with countless images on cinema screens over the years. Documentarian (and Julliard cellist) Errol Morris, interviewed for Portrait, says that Philip “does existential dread better than anybody,” and Reggio credits Glass with creating “a musical language that is the acoustic door to the unknown.” Among his notable film works are scores for Paul Schrader’s Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters, Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal, and his beautifully-accented, award-winning score for Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. “Music has a powerful ability to tell us what we’re seeing,” says Glass; this is no more true than in the Qatsi trilogy, a series of films that examines the world we live in through mediated images paired with Glass’ cyclical score-without dialogue or commentary of any kind, it lets the film speak for itself.

The film is lively and animated where it needs to be-conversations with the brilliant contemporary composer Nico Muhly, and artist Chuck Close-and similarly intimate and emotionally powerful, such as when Glass discusses his spirituality and late ex-wife Candi who died of cancer at age 39, and when his current wife, Holly, talks about problems caused by the age difference between her and her husband. Although some of the quotidian scenes in “Part Nine: The Spirit Within” could have been shorter, the intimate “home movie” quality of the film means that it never drags or seems overlong. A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts is an in-depth, vibrant study of one of our most important living composers; an engaging mosaic of an incredibly interesting life well-lived.

Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts screens Tuesday April 21st at 1.45pm and Monday April 27th at 11.15am

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