With five discs selling for around £30 the packaging is forgivably basic, but in other ways this is a lavish set, providing many film music fans with all the Philip Glass they may ever need in one convenient package. Though the CDs come in black card sleeves - there is a postage stamp size reproduction of the original album cover on the front of each sleeve and track title and performer details on the reverse - there is a good booklet. This is illustrated with full page b/w stills, detailed credits and track listings, a catalogue of all Glass' albums on Nonsuch, an introduction by the composer and an essay by Royal Brown; well-known for his very recently concluded column on film music in Fanfare.
Inevitably disc one is Glass' greatest film music hit. There have been more versions of music from the 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi than I can keep track of, but happily this is the expanded version originally issued in 1998 as Nonsuch 79506. The title means "Life Out of Balance" and the film consists of time lapse images from around the planet set to a continuously evolving minimalist score by Glass. The film is generally considered either mesmerising or tedious and I admit to falling into the latter category. The music though has grown on me over the years, and I am now convinced it is Glass' score which made the film the (arthouse) hit it was. The music stands up exceptionally well when removed from the images, in a way which the images do not divorced from the score. This is minimalism at its most melodic and dramatic, with a sense of urgency driving much of the propulsive writing and an almost Gothic portentousness to the memorable opening and closing themes - the title of the film slowly repeated over bass organ notes building to a sense of almost resigned musical intensity. Long reviled by many film music aficionados, this disc at least belongs in every collection.
Disc two is the thematic follow-up to the above film, Powaqqatsi (1988). The sound is quite different, with the music being performed not by the Philip Glass Ensemble but by a wide variety of musicians from around the world, augmented by The Hispanic Young People's Chorus. Where the former album offers 8 lengthy tracks, the sequel album features 18 selections. Musically this is a tour through (third) world music, with visits to a "Mosque and Temple", followed by a "Train to Sãn Paulo" leading to an exploration of "New Cities in Ancient Lands", including China, Africa and India. Also running like a thread through the first half of the album is "Anthem", parts 103 totalling around 18 minutes. Anyone familiar with Glass' music will have an idea of what to expect; slow building, repetitive though melodic lines ebbing and falling to an almost Vangelis-like rousing melody. Though there are some variations on material from the first score this is far more than a rehash of Koyaanisqatsi, anyone with a taste for world music should enjoy this fusion with Glass' familiar style.
Disc three is more controversial. When it was announced in 1999 Philip Glass was writing a new score for the 1931 Universal Studio's film of Dracula, a film which contains virtually no music apart from the titles, it was widely assumed this was a copyright saving exercise. Copyright expiring after 70 years. It appeared Universal were even trying to do so on the cheap, rather than employing a full orchestra, settling for just a string quartet. Live presentations of the film, with the Kronos Quartet performing behind the screen but lit in such a way they could be seen as silhouettes, were not well received. I did not see any of these performances, and can not say I approve of tampering with any film in this way without the maker's consent, but beyond that I can not imagine the music on this disc in anyway working with the film. There are 26 tracks and if as the booklet says, this music plays continuously through the film, it must drive the audience to distraction. It is repetitive yet lacking in strong thematic material, and being scored for string quartet alone lacks the diversity of sound to hold the interest. In any case, the string quartet form is entirely alien to the film music world of early 1930's Hollywood, and so sounds utterly incongruous.
Disc four is a similar sort of exercise, though one which is rather more lavish. Here Glass took the classic 1946 French fantasy film La Belle et la Bête and played the film silently, while a new opera was enacted on the stage in-front of the feature. It is a novel idea, but what seems to have occurred to no one is what an insult this was to everyone concerned in the making of this great film. Not just the director, Jean Cocteau, but the fine cast headed by Jean Marais, and most of all the composer of the superb original score, Georges Auric. For all these reasons it is easy to deplore the entire project on principle. However, listening to the music reveals a modern fantasy opera glittering with invention and magical colour. These are the highlights, and even so there are some dull patches, but over all this is a most appealing work. Its just a shame it wasn't entirely original and involved treating a landmark cinema fantasy with such contempt.
The final disc is a well-chosen compilation of music from eight films, including three previously un-released cues. Opening with three dramatic, percussive selections from Anima Mundi, next up are three pieces from Kundun, including the very impressive then minute set-piece, "Escape to India". Performed by the Gyuto Monks and other uncredited musicians this may well encourage some to by the parent album. Four tracks from Mishima are performed with refined understatement by the Chronos Quartet, the final "Mishima/Closing" being particularly moving. The English Chamber Orchestra provide tracks 11-13, music from most recent adaptation of Conrad's The Secret Agent. There is something of the emotionally charged full orchestral minimalism which make the ebb and flow of John Williams' A.I. so attractive earlier this year about these pieces, and they come recommended. The Thin Blue Line is represented by it's bell-like "End Title", again an emotionally resonant selection, shockingly punctuated by matter-of-fact gun shots towards the end. Previously un-released in a seven minute piece from the Peter Greenaway film The Man in the Bath. Performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble, this is the bad dream version of Koyaanisqatsi. It is as symmetrical and unengaging as anything ever associated with the films of Peter Greenaway. From the film Evidence comes the previously un-released "Facades", soprano sax playing a haunted slow motion melody over distant rhythmic keyboards. Previously un-issued or not, the melody is awfully familiar. The closing, again previously un-released, number is the near eight minute "Diaspora" from Atom Egoyan's film of the same name. The Philip Glass Ensemble and vocalist take the set out on a confrontational showpiece.
Very good value and filled with mainly excellent music, this is both a fine way of sampling a wide range of Philip Glass' music for relatively little outlay, and an adventure for the film music fan who already has everything else more conventional. Explore and enjoy.
Gary S. Dalkin
Disc One: Koyaanisqatsi
Disc Two: Powaqqatsi
Disc Three: Dracula
Disc Four: Selections from La Belle et La Bête
Disc Five: Music From The Films