Phillip Glass

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Whenever I’ve made films, I’ve especially looked forward to working with my composers Judy Hyman and Jeff Claus of the Horse Flies. I’m always astonished by the moods and textures they create, shaping the film’s story, enlarging its characters, and enhancing its sense of place.

I also enjoy other film scores, none more than those composed by Philip Glass. Glass’ music eluded me the first times I heard it, as a kid just out of college. It seemed like there was nothing there. But now I’ve listened to his "Symphony 9" and "Music With Changing Parts" and his soundtracks for "The Illusionist," "The Hours," and "Koyaanisqatsi" dozens of times. And I always appreciate the rich detail and scope of his music, evoking unexpected feelings beyond the visual images and often taking me into moments of quiet contemplation.

Next Thursday, January 15h, Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center will host Philip Glass for a screening of two short films he scored – followed by an on-stage dialogue.

The repetitive structures in Philip Glass’ score for Erroll Morris’ ground-breaking documentary, "The Thin Blue Line," helped the filmmaker stage and re-tell the story of a Texas murder case where the wrong man went to jail. Each of the story’s fragments were re-constructed and repeated, much like the music.

For Morris’ "The Fog of War," Glass’ music accompanied the story of former U.S. military strategist Robert McNamara, who recounts his role in firebombing sixty-seven Japanese cities in World War II, as the prelude for his failed "go-for-broke" strategy in Vietnam. The recurring musical structures reinforce and even expand one of the key themes of the film; that is: How could McNamara have persisted in repeating the same tragic errors of judgment?

The film and score combine to create an intimate human portrait, stripping away McNamara’s God-like power and prestige – and inviting the viewer to consider the essential ironies and disquieting subtexts of a man plagued by his still unresolved experience as an architect of two of the century’s most devastating wars.

Alternately graceful and fierce, Glass’ music explores the ambiguities in McNamara’s character. It expands our perception and reminds me of photographer Richard Avedon’s startling 1964 portrait of Dwight Eisenhower where Avedon reveals a previously unimagined dimension.  The former general and president appears baffled and listless, even defeated. As Washington Post critic Henry Allen commented, "… Avedon makes the confident look doubtful, the dour delighted, the guilty innocent, the heroic silly, and the charming peckish. And he persuades us that that in doing so, he has shown us The Truth."

So, too, with Philip Glass, creating in his scores what biographer Tim Page pinpoints as an "aural tapestry," "immersing a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops."

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