For this year’s Icon Issue, it quickly became clear that we couldn’t possibly cover every single piece of work Philip Glass has made. But in talking to his friends, collaborators and people influenced by him, we realized that there was a common thread: his soundtrack work is often a perfect gateway into his music. Here are nine Glass scores for nine very different films.
Actor Bela Lugosi’s rendition of Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s classic 1931 film may have indelibly changed the way all vampire counts would speak for all time—even the ones on cereal boxes and Sesame Street—but Philip Glass paid no attention to horror tropes when he was tasked with writing a new score for the film. As he saw it, “The score needed to evoke the feeling of the world of the 19th century—for that reason I decided a string quartet would be the most evocative and effective. I wanted to stay away from the obvious effects associated with horror films. With [Kronos Quartet] we were able to add depth to the emotional layers of the film.” He does manage to give the score an appropriately 19th century feel—but underneath there’s that very modern, uncanny and dread-inducing Glassian sense of repetition that will make your hair stand up on end and your blood go cold. Though, depending on whom you ask, maybe not as effect-ively as Music in Twelve Parts. AB
Stream: Philip Glass, Dracula score
I first heard “Vessels,” a vocal piece from Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi, at a fashion show. I did not know what it was. I also had never been to a fashion show before. The show was on the west side of Manhattan, a few stories up, with a good view of the Hudson River and across to New Jersey. Patrik Ervell, the designer, makes clothes that, while not ethereal, are lithe and new. Watching models strut to such hearty and beautiful singing generated within me unexpected (though not unwelcomed) awe. I later saw Koyaanisqatsi and was surprised to see the film itself is also about awe, though not necessarily beauty. Without any dialogue, it moves from the creation of Earth to the development of industry to all of the rotten things that follow. If there is terror in the music to match the images, it’s sublime, not a representation of death, but of a near-death experience. With Glass’ score, Reggio goes from being a doomsayer to a caretaker, a crucial tweak towards the light. It makes models look good, too. MS
Glass’ score for Paul Schrader’s mosaic biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters examines the life of a major public personality, Japanese author Yukio Mishima. The score, written for string orchestra and percussion and recorded by the Kronos Quartet, mingles husky cellos with brittle, marching snares and tornado violin swirls. On “Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” fast, repeated phrases are overlaid with one-strum bright notes. The score’s first half culminates in “Kyoko’s House” a five-minute surf rock lullaby propelled by climbing strings and butterfly kiss violin plucks. It may allude to the anxiety of post-war Japanese youth, but it evokes the restless energy of people everywhere. “Kyoko’s House” is often used as a background theme in This American Life, the weekly radio program whose silver fox producer/host, Ira Glass, is Philip Glass’ first cousin once removed. NZ
The Thin Blue Line, 1988
Operas are essentially narrative plays set to great soundtracks, but Philip Glass killed that precedent, writing music that was often beautiful, but consistently bucked expectations. The Thin Blue Line is a documentary about a controversial Texas murder trial that proceeds like a scarier version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. On its soundtrack, you get a strong sense of story and narrative through his foreboding, flourishing strings. One track is called “The Electric Chair;” another is “Hell on Earth.” It’s hard to listen to, but it feels connected to the ancient Greek choruses of Sophocles or Bizet’s Carmen, yet completely relevant to our own contemporary fears and personal melodramas. AF