On the Big Screen with Philip Glass

United StatesUnited States Glass: La Belle et la BêtePhilip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman (conductor), with the 1946 film by Jean Cocteau, presented by San Francisco Performances, Lam Research Theater at YBCA, San Francisco. 23.5.2013

Glass: Koyaanisqaatsi

Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman (conductor), with the 1983 film by Godfrey Reggio, presented by San Francisco Performances, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 26.5.2013 (HS)

Writing for movies and the theater, Philip Glass seems like a different composer than he was when writing abstract music for the concert hall. His early minimalist pieces, such as Music in 12 Parts and Strung Out, led to a prolific outpouring in his own unique repetitive style. Over the years, that sense of slowly evolving from one repeated arpeggio to slightly different ones grew into a more lyrical vocabulary, which seems to have found its most expansive form in his film writing.

His scores for Kundun (1997), The Hours (2002) and Notes on a Scandal (2006) were nominated for Academy Awards. The Hours won a Golden Globe. Those repetitive minimalist tropes were barely present in that one, replaced by an unexpectedly Romantic palette.

To celebrate the composer’s 75th year, San Francisco Performances mounted two of his most famous film projects, remarkably different from each other. On Thursday, four vocal soloists and the nine-piece Philip Glass Ensemble played the composer’s 1994 score to Jean Cocteau’s remarkable 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, a magical symbolist take on the “Beauty and the Beast” story, synched live with the film. On Sunday, in the more spacious Davies Hall, the ensemble expanded with extra keyboards (including Glass himself) and brought to vivid life the original music for the impressionistic, non-narrative cult film Koyaanisqaatsi.

In Cocteau’s film, Glass used the rhythm and cadences of the French dialog as the basis for a fully realized opera score, creating a unique fusion of film and opera. Instead of acting the roles on stage, the singers stand with the ensemble and perform in front of microphones, all in full view of the audience, as the black-and-white film projects silently onto the back wall. No attempt is made to sync the words exactly, as might be done for dubbing or for an animated film. But the timing is close enough that the thrust comes through clearly.

The lush, fascinating score makes it easy to follow the narrative just by listening. Glass’s vocal writing has a shapeliness and allure missing in many mid-to-late twentieth-century operas, but the real treasures are the set pieces for the instrumental ensemble alone, which produced jolts of electrifying emotions. The musical motives for Beast (played in the film by Jean Marais and sung by baritone Gregory Purnhagen) artfully underlined the unexpected humanity and vulnerability that emerges in this magical creature when his life is touched by Belle (played by Josette Day and sung by mellifluous mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn). Her music has a simpler quality that develops more richness as she discovers her more womanly side. (This is not a Disney take on the story.)

There’s a wonderful sequence wherein Belle’s father (played by Raoul Marco with great pathos, and sung evocatively by bass-baritone Peter Stewart) loses his way through the forest at night and encounters the surreal castle inhabited by Beast. Glass’s music brilliantly combines the father’s hesitance with the eerie surroundings, alternating between supernatural color and rhythmic drive. It’s literally heart-pounding. The music for comic scenes between Belle and her two sisters (who are reminiscent of the stepsisters in La Cenerentola) has a freshness and offbeat vitality that’s just perfect. Soprano Marie Mascari managed to give them each a unique personality and musical style.

The total effect was thrilling, capped by angelic music for Cocteau’s sublime finish. Beast sheds his steaming fur to take on the image of the handsome lad who had been wooing Belle at the beginning of the film, and the two fly off into the heavens. As noted, it’s not Disney.

In Koyaanasqatsi, filmed from 1975 to 1982, director Godfrey Reggio used aerial and stop-action techniques to produce eye-popping images contrasting the slow evolution of nature with the speeded-up, mechanized world of the late twentieth century. Glass’s repetitive style, at its height in the early 1980s when this was done, fits this idea perfectly. Slow, lyrical musical material accompanies the scenes of nature, filmed mostly in the American Southwest. The music gathers steam along with the images of the urban world, mostly New York and Los Angeles, making plain Reggio’s intent to demonstrate the meaning of the Hopi-language title, generally translated as “life out of balance,” or more literally, “chaotic life.”

The genesis of the film was a sequence, near the middle, of the destruction of the Pruitt–Igoe complex in St. Louis, Missouri, a woeful failure of public housing. Glass’s music combines a sense of sadness and dread until it explodes along with the implosion of the buildings.

The other set piece, and the one most people remember best, is a 21-minute montage called “The Grid,” the stop-action sequences relentlessly speeding up (as does the music), ever so gradually building in intensity until it reaches a shattering, exhausted climax. After a brief section that meditates on the similarities between the street grids of cities and the layouts of circuit boards, the opening images and music return, but slower, more lyrical and richer in texture this time. Instead of a solo bass voice intoning the title, it’s a chorus, and it eventually develops into a chorale intoning Hopi prophecies, underlined with undulating music. One prophecy—translated as “A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans”—accompanies a long, extraordinarily detailed shot of an unmanned Alpha-Centaur rocket exploding shortly after launch in 1962. The long arc of a flaming bit of the vehicle’s engine is an unforgettable image.

Glass and his ensemble have performed this music live to the film around the world, giving the piece a new life. Their familiarity with the score made it fuse mesmerizingly with the images, and whether or not you agree with its message, it makes a powerful statement about how we live our lives.

The power of Koyaanisqatsi—both the film and the music—makes us think. From our perspective in the second decade of the 21st century, we can see how our relationship with technology and urban landscapes has evolved. In some ways it’s more pervasive than ever, but we have also learned to create more open space within cities, and some of us have found islands of peace within the hurly-burly of everyday life. In my own city of San Francisco, the Embarcadero Freeway (a key antagonist in “The Grid” sequence) no longer snakes along the bayshore, the city having opened its arms to an open waterfront. Maybe we have learned a little from Glass’s audacious statement.

Harvey Steiman