Philip Glass brings surging, spare musical prose to film

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Philip Glass brings surging, spare musical prose to film

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Philip Glass. Knock knock.
For listeners, the music of Philip Glass usually elicits one of two opinions. The first, expressed in the above joke, is that his music, often employing repetition, is like listening to a scratched record skipping endlessly through the same passage. The second is that Glass’ compositions are wholly innovative, a sound spare yet powerful.
Glass was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1937. His father owned a radio repair shop, and it was there that he was exposed to the music of composers like Shostakovich and Bartok, then still largely considered avant-garde.
After studying violin and flute, Glass attended the University of Chicago, then went to New York and the Julliard School of Music to pursue his dream of being a composer. His studies took him to Paris, to work for two years with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. It was there that he was hired to transcribe the music of the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, with whom Glass would later collaborate.
He has since composed several operas and numerous film scores and chamber works; his collaborators have included choreographers, artists and playwrights.
Glass and his ensemble will be in town next week, performing the Glass-penned soundtracks to two non-narrative films directed by Godfrey Reggio. “Koyaanisqatsi” (1983), meaning “life out of balance” in the Hopi Indian language, takes the viewer on a visual journey from nature to culture, starting in pastoral wheatfields and ending in urban sprawl. “Powaqqatsi” (1988), “life in transformation” in Hopi, looks at human culture in developing countries. Both use techniques such as time-lapse and hyperspeed photography to demonstrate the rapid transformations of the technological age alongside the human face of development.
Reggio has said that his films are not meant to elicit an opinion from the viewer, merely to offer an experience. Glass’ pulsating scores seem perfectly matched to this project. Their minimalist reiterations offer neither the sinister nor the sublime; gaining and then losing momentum, they roll forward, like the passage of time as depicted in the films.
The joke above, then, becomes a way of saying that perhaps Glass has found the means to express a sense of presence in his music, a constancy. Who’s “there?” Next week, Glass’ scores and Reggio’s films, with their musical and visual urgency, will be.

by Jason Zahorchak

The Philip Glass Ensemble, featuring Philip Glass, will perform on Oct. 14-15 at the LG Arts Center, located in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul. Performances begin at 8 p.m.; “Koyaanisqatsi” will be screened on the first night and “Powaqqatsi” on the second. Tickets range from 30,000 won ($25) to 70,000 won. For more information, visit or call 02-2005-0114.
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