April 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Music composed by Philip Glass
Conducted by Michael Riesman
Performed by Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble
In collaboration with Eleftheria Arvanitaki (voice), Mark Atkins (digeridoo), Ashley MacIsaac (fiddle), Wu Man (erhu), Ravi Shankar (sitar), Foday Musa Suo, UATKI (woodwinds and percussion).
  Available on Orange Mountain Music (OMM-0021)
Running Time: 90:39 (two-disc total)
Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • Undertow
  • Philip on Film (includes Powaqqatsi)
  • Uatki: Aquas de Amazonia
  • Commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad 2001-2004 and premiered just prior to the commencement of the Athens Olympics in 2004, Orion is a crossover album of sorts, bridging the structures and harmonics of modern classical minimalist writing and the revival of ‘world music’ textures. It’s a recording of the premiere performance given by the Philip Glass Ensemble and several ‘big-name’ soloists from disparate musical traditions. Each movement refers to the national tradition of the soloist, linked by improvisatory pieces from the soloists into a pan-global symphony of commonality. Glass writes on the motivations of the project:

    “In the same way that civilizations are united by common themes, history and customes, we singularly and together are united by the commonality of the natural world – rivers, oceans… And the stars… the stars unite us, regardless of country, ethnicity, and even time. Orion, the largest constellation in the night sky, can be seen in all seasons from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. It seems that almost every civilization has taken inspiration from Orion. As the work progressed, each of the composers/performers, including myself, drew from that inspiration in creating their work.”

    As a concept work then, Orion is not unlike a film score. Motivated by imagery and ideas, the music must stand more on its own here than any film score of course, but the programmatic nature of the work, and the film career of the composer, make it an item of interest to film music aficionados. The first movement is ‘Australia’, and features didgeridoo soloist Mark Atkins – a collaborator of Glass from Naqoyqatsi and Undertow. The player’s gutteral didgeridoo dances with female vocalist, flute and piccolo arpeggios over the lengthy but hypnotic movement. ‘Interlude: Australia and China’ is a duel for didgeridoo and Wu Man’s dextrous pipa, a fast-paced prelude to the more meditative pairing of the pipa with the Ensemble in ‘China’, many of Glass’ familiar motifs lending themselves easily to the plucked instrument. (Wu Man also collaborated with Glass recently on the opera Sound of a Voice.) While the allegro of ‘China’ isn’t quite as hypnotic as ‘Australia’ (it would have been interesting to hear pipa solo part unaccompanied though), its busyness is fascinating on a more technical level, even if it doesn’t quite achieve the emotional climax it seems to be heading for at one point.

    Ashley MacIsaac (who worked with Glass on Woyzeck) lends his fiddle to the highlight movement of the performance, ‘Canada’. Overexposure to the Celtic chic of much modern film music has inured me to the charms of the instruments of the Emerald Island, but somehow the collaboration of the Ensemble with MacIsaac is fresh and exciting. A delicate fiddle solo sets up the first half of the piece in counterpoint with an ethereal vocal and a rolling keyboard melody, bursting into a minimalist Celtic jig about half way through. I can’t say I have wondered till now what kind of theme Philip Glass would have written for a film like The Shipping News would sound like, but ‘Canada’ answers that unanswered question. The second interlude, for MacIsaac and Foday Musa Suso (from Glass’s Powaqqatsi) is a lively blend of animated fiddle melody and the unusual texture of the plucked kora (a 12-string harp lute). One of the few movements that doesn’t quite pay on the promise of the collaboration is the fifteen minute ‘Zambia’, an extended journey for kora and the Ensemble.

    South American rhythms and motifs percolate ‘Brazil’, as Glass’s collaborators from Aquas de Amazonia, UAKTI, lend their home made percussion and woodwinds to colour the ensemble with a light-hearted piece. After the final interlude, for UAKTI and sitar soloists Ravi Shankar and Gaurav Mazumdar, Glass and long-time collaborator and mentor Ravi Shankar present one of the performance highlights – ‘India’. The composer’s interest in minimalism apparently came from his study of eastern scales while studying under Shankar. It shows – there’s a natural synergy between the sitar timbre and the rhythms and harmonic structures Glass writes for it.

    The last piece (for ‘Greece’ no less) could have been the kind of cheesy world-is-one ballad that one imagines Yanni or Vangelis writing for the occasion. What Glass provides is the most overtly melodic cue of the score, an elaboration on a folk song ‘Tzivaeri’ with vocals by Eleftheria Arvanitaki. The rest of the soloists join in on this piece, but the colours blend in the mix and it’s hard at times to tell what each instrument is playing. It’s more emotional than the preceding material on the two-disc album, but that’s by Philip Glass standards – there’s nothing of the bathos a lesser dramatists might have poured on here for the occasion. Once again, the fluidity of minimalist composition is established – a broad emotional response can be elicited from relatively restrained parameters.

    It’s not film music, but to fans of the composer’s work that should not matter. This journey across continents from Glass is a memorable concept album, and while it’s a little overlong (due to a couple of long pieces that aren’t as rewarding as most of the cues are), exemplary performances and a broad range of compositional ideas make it an excellent journey.

    Michael McLennan

    Rating: 4

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