Young North Carolina-born writer-director David Gordon Green is one of the bright lights of American independent filmmaking at the moment. All set in the American South, his films are unique mix of moody poetics and wistful realism. Whether it be the nostalgic bildungsroman of George Washington (2000), the youthful romance of All the Real Girls (2003), or the gothic drama of Undertow (2004), their distinction is assured by the universality of the situations his characters find themselves in, the uniqueness of the dialogue they speak, and a visual and aural finesse that recall the young Terrence Malick of Badlands (1974) and Days of Heaven (1979), of whom Gordon is apparently a fan.
Undertow(2004) is produced by Malick, and also by legendary independent film producer Edward Pressman. It is a film full of Grimm fairy tale elements: a good father (Dermot Mulroney) to two motherless boys (Jamie Bell and Devon Alan); an amoral uncle (Josh Lucas); the latter with a Cain-like envy of his brother and a determination to find a lost family treasure. Most fairy tale-like is the event that propels the film’s narrative: when Uncle Deel’s greed leads to the death of the boys’ father, the boys escape through the woods and flee across a Gothic American South. Strangers of all kinds – gentle helpers and less altruistic sorts – cross their path in one of the strongest American independent films of recent years.
Philip Glass is no stranger to American independent films, his distinctive arpeggios having underscored collaborations with Godfrey Reggio (the ‘Qatsi’ trilogy, Anima Mundi), Errol Morris (A Brief History of Time, The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), Paul Schrader (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) and Martin Scorsese (Kundun) under his belt. Of late Glass has been seen in the far less likely environs of Hollywood board rooms, scoring the Angelina Jolie-starring serial killer thriller Taking Lives and the (partially rejected and replaced with music by Geoff Zanelli) Johnny Depp-stalker mystery Secret Window. Those projects seemed altogether out-of-the-blue for Glass, who was once rumoured to have regretted his association with Bernard Rose’s Candyman because of his distaste for film’s violence. However low brow the films, both (and particularly Taking Lives) gave fans of the composer their first taste of how Philip Glass might score suspense and action sequences.
Sadly neither film met the kind of success that demands a score release, but this is rectified in part by the superb blend of suspense and dramatic scoring on the latest release from Glass’ Orange Mountain Music – The Music of Undertow. First to the dramatic scoring: highly characteristic of Glass’ distinctive romantic minimalist voice. ‘The Kiss’ is an early stand out, with delicate high violin registers harmonising against a simple chime melody. Equally hypnotic is ‘The Chase’, based around a repeated passage for flute and single-reed instrument over a low string ostinato, with interludes for horns. A noble solo horn leads ‘The Family’ into hesitant violin and flute arpeggios and low percussive rumbles, the horn motif reminiscent of Glass’ reworking of Eno and Bowie’s ‘Sons of the Silent Age’ for Heroes Symphony. The highlight of the album is a tender yet sombre composition – ‘Deel’s Song’. A bed of low brass and didgeridoo sets the scene for a heartbreaking duet between oboe and tuba. By the end of the piece, Glass has placed the simply beautiful melody in the context of his rich harmonic language, and it’s a stern heart that can resist a tear on hearing it.
The Music of Undertow is however equal parts drama and suspense thriller, and for those who favour Glass in his Herrmannesque mode, there are plenty of essays in musical tension. Woodwinds and didgeridoo weave in and out of children’s choir and subdued brass and string arpeggios in Through the Woods’. ‘Golden Coins’ hangs tenuously between innocent exploration and foreboding with many similar ideas. The highlight of the suspense material is surely ‘Chris and the Model Airplane’, which returns to some the textural and melodic ideas of ‘Choosing’ from Glass’ Kundun score, adding children’s choir and a processed electric guitar sound. Many pulsing rhythmic elements and short motifs are repeated over each other in this cue to create a mesmerising build of tension.
Last of all there is the action music, and this is the material that really stands out as novel in Glass’ canon. Truly there is not another film composer at the moment writing material like this. As with Taking Lives, these cues are mostly violent clashes of brass and percussion linked together by Glass’ characteristic string and woodwind writing – as in the traumatic ‘The Argument’ or the thrilling ‘Running Away’. A key to the unique sound of these cues is the Australian didgeridoo, previously used by Glass in Naqoyqatsi, and used here both as an element of sound design and as a lead solo instrument (‘Car Ride’). Another novel colour – entirely appropriate given the child leads and the allusions to Grimm fairy tales throughout the film – is the children’s choir.
Despite all these treasures, something about The Music of Undertow as an album doesn’t quite work. Part of the problem is the abrupt changes in tone between the action and dramatic sections. For those who find Glass’ repetitive structures yawn-inducing, this might be the very thing that keeps them awake. On the other hand, to fans of Glass’ The Hours score, the aggressive didgeridoo-driven action cues may seem like so much cacophony. More significant is the fact that after a very strong start, the album does run out of steam in its final tracks. ‘The Ending’ is a strange finale piece, pitting percussion sections against each other in an impressive opening, before strings, choir and didgeridoo play off each other as though building to a climax, that climax never arriving. (As an ending track, it is not unlike ‘The Shed that Must Not Be Named’ from James Newton Howard’s The Village.)
If the pieces don’t sum to as effective a whole as they might have, that still leaves some excellent pieces that make this CD worth purchasing for anyone who likes Glass’ style of composition. The dramatic music is superb, and would work for the same audience that favours The Hours. For those looking for new material from Glass, the action music more than offers that. This is the sixteenth release in two years from Glass’ new label – Orange Mountain Music – and a worthy addition to their impressive catalogue.
On more technical matters, the performance is notable for all the right reasons under the strong hand of Glass’ regular collaborator Michael Riesman. Riesman’s mix supports Glass’ music as pure music – details are clear, and there is warmth to combined sound of those instruments. Orange Mountain Music includes some reasonably good liner notes on Glass’ involvement in the project, but they are the kind of notes that are too short to enter in any really interesting discussion. Track titles and times only printed on the insight of the insert are a mild annoyance.