The Transcendent Sounds of ‘Kundun’


The first image of “Kundun,” Martin Scorsese’s film about the early life of Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, is a striking close-up of a beautiful mandala painted in sand. And the first sounds, also close-up, thanks to the loud, aggressive multichannel sonics that the cineplexes employ, are equally striking. We hear the exceptional crash of Tibetan cymbals and the oceanic rumble of Gyuto monks (each singing three pitches at once), along with the primordial, summoning roar of those magnificent Tibetan horns that are taller than a man.

There is also something else, less conspicuous. A clear, high pitch of synthetic electronic timbre. Philip Glass put it there.

From that pitch, Glass soon develops a repeated swaying figure over the Tibetan ostinato and then adds layers of woodwind arpeggios. It is music that is meant to accomplish many obvious cinematic functions: set a mood, provide an atmosphere, tell us where in the world we are.


But it sounds neither like typical movie music, nor is it actual Tibetan music, however much Tibetan elements color and shape the score. It sounds, unmistakably, like Glass. And it offers something more impressive than an aural setup for location or tone.

Glass does not employ the structural logic typical of Western music. His music is not psychological, not narrative, not about conflict and resolution. It operates, instead, on the level of repetition, cycle, continuous development. It is expansive, ongoing. It doesn’t cadence, because, not going anywhere, it doesn’t need to. It is more like the mandala itself, patterned and cyclical, infinite. We feel, as we listen to it, that it could simply go on and on, the way the universe does.

Scorsese flaunts Glass’ score in “Kundun,” to some extent actually building the film around it. And in doing so he brings to mind the most musical of all filmmakers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who choreographed camera movement to music and who, in 1951, made the most glorious of all filmed opera, “The Tales of Hoffmann.”

In his commentary for the laserdisc version of “Hoffmann,” Scorsese speaks of watching the film on television nightly for a week when he was a kid. And now, apparently following the example of Powell and Pressburger, he has attempted to compose “Kundun” practically as if it were an opera.

It can hardly be a coincidence that he has chosen an opera composer with whom to work, and one who is not known for using music in his operas to tell a story. An advantage of opera is that it can go beyond narrative. Music stops time and takes us inside a situation or a character. In Glass’ Indian opera, “Satyagrapha,” about Gandhi and nonviolent political resistance, the music remains on its own rhapsodic plane, a symbol of a higher, liberating force Gandhi taps into.

Hollywood, however, typically works otherwise. Witless plot seems to drive everything, with music expected to underscore the narrative even further. So no matter how much symphonic film music is nowadays marketed as classical music, the composer’s place remains subservient to the film. And servants are rarely asked to stand out.


Take, for instance, the score that John Williams wrote to the season’s other Tibet film. The first musical gesture in “Seven Years in Tibet” is one of symphonic music’s common conventions--a harp glissando announcing that something is about to happen. Williams follows that with a big and slightly poignant tune (to tell us that this is a heart-rending story) and a quick climax with brass and cymbals (to tell us that it will be spectacular).

Yo-Yo Ma then plays the big tune on his cello with some bits of Bachian writing. He is hardly needed, but knowing the superstar is playing is one way to brag about the budget. Later, we get background Tibetan bells and those Gyuto monks used here as if they they were the best sound effects money can buy.

Ultimately, it’s not a question of whether the music is good or bad. It is simply whether this is the music the film deserves. Thus we hear just what we are accustomed to hearing when Brad Pitt is on the screen.

The shallow function of such narrative music can, however, lead to misunderstandings when applied to higher ideals. In his score to Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” Williams supplies ersatz Copland Americana to emphasize the eloquence of John Quincy Adams, while he lets tribal music stand for the nobility of the African captives.

But it only seems to contribute to the curious queasiness “Amistad” causes in some viewers, the feeling that a film intended to combat racism somehow ends up as part of the problem rather than the solution. When the music manipulates with patent contrivances, we start to question, rightly or wrongly, the sincerity of the film.

In his recent opera based on the Amistad story, Anthony Davis wrote a very different kind of music for Africans and Americans. His poles were Miles Davis and Arnold Schoenberg, with neither musical style used to engender knee-jerk racial or nationalist sentiments, but more abstractly, as musical techniques.


Davis here is the model for musical freedom, for fluidity; Schoenberg offers methods of structure and control. By joining these two extremes into a new kind of language, Davis was able to work on a mythic level, to musically transcend the politics of the Amistad. His music digs deeper into the human spirit, identifying with the African hero, Cinque, or with Adams not for their language or roots but for their tapping into something universal in the human spirit.

There was critical carping about Davis’ opera lacking the compelling narrative of the film. And similar complaints about lack of narrative have been common about “Kundun.” But in both works, the music is there to take the place of narrative.

The abrupt ending of “Kundun,” which has bothered some filmgoers, is a perfect instance of film adopting Glass’ operatic technique. The Dalai Lama arrives at the Indian border, an exile from the Chinese takeover of Tibet, and the movie is over, without resolution.

But Glass’ music rarely concerns itself with beginnings or endings. It operates more in the manner of Nature than our egos. And that, of course, is the message of the Dalai Lama, as it has been the message of all spiritual leaders throughout history: The individual must learn to transcend selfish personal concerns to become in tune with the larger world of nature and mankind.

A mandala is one symbol of that process, and Scorsese has bravely committed Disney dollars to not only visually showing a mandala but to helping his viewer experience the mandala, through music.