Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Glass unites sound and film

When it comes to the art of film scoring, composer Philip Glass says his small output - 18 full-length features and about half a dozen shorts - hardly confirms him as a “serious film composer.” His Hollywood buddies have typically done four times that amount.

In terms of impact, however, few film composers have made so powerful an impression so quickly. Glass's second full-length film, the 1983 Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance, is arguably one of the most important art films of the last quarter of the 20th century.

Part of what makes Glass's work in this medium so remarkable is that these collaborations become not so much film scores as multimedia events that unite film and music, sight and sound.

Traditionally, film composers work in the background, enhancing scenes dramatically but being careful to keep the music subservient to the drama. With his finest work, Glass weds image and sound. Sonic and visual events are inseparable. The music informs the drama; the drama informs the music.

Ann Arbor's University Musical Society will present “Philip on Film,” a four-day festival of Glass's film music, beginning Wednesday in the Michigan Theater. Featured that night will be Glass' 1999 score for the original 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi. An evening of film shorts will be presented on Thursday. Friday and Saturday feature screening of Koyaanisqatsi. All scores will be performed live by the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The 64-year-old composer, considered one of the founders of the musical movement known as minimalism (a term he insists “misleads more than it guides”), spoke by phone recently from his home in New York City.

“I am trying to discover what some of the alternate modalities of film could be. Traditionally films are not an interpretive art form in that they are not done in real time. They represent what was done 20, 30, 40 years ago. There is no new interpretation, for example, of Lawrence of Arabia,” he said.

“But it is possible by bringing real time performance into film that the activity of interpretation can be set into motion again. Of course, in a sense the music will always come out the same, the words have to hit the lips at the same time. But there is still the possibility of reinterpretation, of creation in the moment. There is the freedom of interpretation as one finds in opera.

“There are two categories of film scoring: One is work in the normal exhibition style, that is, film created for the movie theater, like [the police murder documentary] Thin Blue Line. Then there is music to be performed live with movies. This is a separate category. It has a different strategy as to how the music is being presented and written.”

The films being presented this week in Ann Arbor are all being shown with live music.

For Dracula, Glass wrote two versions of his score; one for string quartet, one for his ensemble. They are, he said, two different interpretations of the same piece.

Both highlight the film's archaic qualities.

“The film was based on the play, which was performed in England perhaps 180 to 200 times over an 18-month period before it was filmed. So the film is almost a film of the play. It even has the same actors.

“So what you see on film is a play performance in the style of acting in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I began to look at it that way and it seemed that instead of pretending to have the qualities of a modern fantasy that I should take it for what it was. So I wrote chamber music with the kind of sounds one might have found in theaters of the time.

“I wanted to turn the film into a melodrama, a work of continuous music with words spoken over it. I wanted every nuance of the work to become emotionally charged so I pushed the tonal quality to write music that would fit with the acting, costumes, and characters.

“In Dracula there are not a lot of words. This became an ideal opportunity to combine music and words. When there is dialogue the music is in the background. When there are no words it can come into the foreground. The music is constantly dropping in and out of sight.

“This was the most interesting thing to do. To make a modern-sounding score would have been an uninteresting thing to do,” he said.

The shorts presented on Thursday evening cover a wide range.

Two collaborations, Anima Mundi and Evidence, are with Koyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio. The first is a wildlife documentary; the second is a disturbing film about the effects of television on children.

Iranian director Shirin Neshat's film Passage looks at Islamic culture. Cairo-born Atom Egoyan's Diaspora deals with the issues surrounding the Armenian genocide of 1915.

The non-dialogue and plot-free Koyaanisqatsi, which uses visual vignettes to suggest how technology has been pitted against nature, was the first of a number of collaborations between Glass and Reggio. A deeply disturbing film in even the most stable of times, Glass wasn't ready to predict its post-Sept. 11 impact.

“We are very interested in what the reaction will be. I anticipate that it is going to be very powerful now. I am very curious to see it with an audience. I am interested in what we are going to think about it now, about how it plays to a room of people when we are all there together and sharing an experience.”

University Musical Society will present “Philip on Film” Wednesday through Saturday in Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater, 603 East Liberty St. “Dracula” will be screened Wednesday, film shorts are featured on Thursday, “Koyaanisqatsi” will be shown Friday and Saturday. All shows are at 8 p.m. Glass will speak at 4 p.m. Thursday in the Michigan Theater.

All scores will be performed live by the Philip Glass Ensemble. Film tickets range from $20 to $34; the Thursday afternoon talk is free. Information: 800-221-1229.

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