Carefully, Glass goes Hollywood

Special to The Times

There is no middle ground with Philip Glass. His musical trademarks -- the cyclical phrases, the rapid arpeggios, the sparse melodies -- are hypnotic and haunting to some, irritating and monotonous to others.

In the movie world, however, the issue is a little more complex. Because music is just one of several disciplines featured simultaneously and our attention is rarely on the score itself, Glass’ music for films has tended to be less controversial. His music for “Koyaanisqatsi” (1983) is a classic among modern documentary films, and his Tibetan-influenced score for Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” (1997) was Oscar-nominated.

But Glass is not a film composer per se, someone who, like Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams, is best known for his movie music. Glass, like John Corigliano and Tan Dun, is a New York-based concert hall composer who also has an active career in films.


“I came to film writing fairly late, in my 40s,” Glass said recently, visiting Los Angeles to promote his latest film, “The Hours.” “But I started writing for the theater when I was in my 20s. I’m on my 20th opera now. I’ve done a dozen ballets. So working in theater, in dance, in opera -- all these categories are the same, in that they depend on the interaction of four elements: text, image, movement and music. I see film as a species of theater.”

Glass, 65, is so busy with other projects that he can afford to be choosy about his collaborators. For documentary filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, he has done five films in the last 25 years, starting with “Koyaanisqatsi” and including, most recently, this year’s “Naqoyqatsi”. He has scored documentaries for Errol Morris (including 1988’s “The Thin Blue Line”). For director Paul Schrader, he did “Mishima” in 1985. And he wrote the music for “Kundun” because of his friendship with screenwriter Melissa Mathison -- and his passion for the project impressed Scorsese.

Glass finds L.A.’s atmosphere inviting, particularly among composers. “This is a much more collegial community than the music communities in New York, Paris and London,” he says. “The new-music world in New York is divided into camps. You have to wave a white flag if you want to go across and talk to somebody. I don’t have that feeling when I’m here. These people will talk to each other, and I like that.”

Paramount, distributor of “The Hours,” is pressing hard for Hollywood to pay attention. The film, which stars Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore, has major awards potential and appears a likely contender in several Oscar and Golden Globe categories, including best original score.

Glass’ music for “The Hours” -- vastly different, stylistically speaking, from the average Hollywood film score -- plays a key role in bridging three interwoven tales from different decades, and its presence is felt throughout the film, which is adapted from the award-winning novel by Michael Cunningham. Written not for a standard orchestra, but for piano and a large string section, it serves as the connective tissue among the seemingly disparate story lines, yet rarely comments on the action in any overtly emotional manner.

According to “Hours” director Stephen Daldry, finding the right music wasn’t easy. “We had always wanted some sort of modal, minimalist music,” he says by phone from London, confirming that Oscar winner Stephen Warbeck (“Shakespeare in Love”) and composer Michael Nyman (“The Piano”) had taken stabs at it without success. “We explored lots of different styles, different sorts of composers, but we kept on coming back to Philip Glass.”


Glass’ existing music accounted for much of the temporary score, and “every time we didn’t put Philip on, the film itself seemed to reject the music,” Daldry says. “What wasn’t working was any music that seemed to predetermine an emotional response to the scenes.”

So producer Scott Rudin asked Glass to look at the film and write new music for it. “I looked at it and said, ‘This is really good. I want to do this,’ ” the composer says with a laugh. “It was a very easy sell.”

What appealed to him was “the idea that a book can have a tremendous impact on people’s lives. It’s about how art changes the world.”

The film’s unusual structure, thematically linking a despondent Virginia Woolf in mid-1920s England to a confused housewife in post-World War II Los Angeles to a depressed editor in the modern-day New York literary establishment whose best friend is dying of AIDS, also suggested to him that music would have “a special role to play.”

“I thought it would be a mistake to have different music for each period,” Glass explained. “My idea was that the music would serve as a bridge to bring the three pieces together.”

Daldry felt that Glass’ music struck all the right notes.

“We worked very hard to make sure that the scenes themselves were not sentimental, that there would always be a complicated emotional reaction to the film,” Daldry said. “With a traditional film score, you would restrict the potential for a broad emotional response.


“Rather than just supporting, or accentuating, the emotional rhythms that are already there, Philip creates another thematic layer, so that the music provides at certain moments a subtextual stream of consciousness that actually deepens the movie, where other music would trivialize it. It allows a dialectic between the music and the image that allows both to live and breathe.”

Not a Hollywood name

Glass’ relationship with Hollywood has been, at best, hit and miss. A glance at his filmography shows a smattering of name directors (Scorsese, Schrader, Peter Greenaway, Christopher Hampton), the documentarians (Morris, Reggio) and a variety of other arty types. He’s not a Hollywood favorite.

For “The Truman Show,” director Peter Weir licensed several existing Glass compositions, and although Glass wrote some new music for the film, the bulk of the picture was scored by another composer.

“Someone who’s going to do a chase movie or a hostage movie doesn’t automatically think of me,” Glass says. “I don’t get a lot of calls for films like that. In fact, I don’t get any,” he adds with another laugh.

“I pick films that interest me, filmmakers that interest me, and films that have quality to them,” although he points out that such decisions don’t always guarantee works of art. “I’ve been fooled a couple of times by what happened,” he says, a reference to seemingly odd choices like the score he composed for the 1992 thriller “Candyman.”

Reggio has worked with Glass on film projects for 25 years; “Naqoyqatsi” concludes a trilogy that examined the impact of technology on civilization. In a rare partnership between director and composer, their films featured no narration, only imagery and music. “Naqoyqatsi” also featured cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma.


Reggio, by phone from his home in Santa Fe, N.M., says he thinks that the “minimalist” label that has dogged Glass for years is a misnomer. He calls it “metamorphic music, music that freed the viewer to go to his or her own place. I found it extraordinarily powerful, the equivalent of having a spiritual or religious experience.”

So when planning “Koyaanisqatsi,” Reggio decided, “What better music to have than something that had ambiguity built into its form, and the freedom to allow the listener to [decide] themselves what this meant.”

Glass likes collaborating with other artists and, in most cases, has not felt restricted by the precise musical needs of film or battered by the usual Hollywood ego trips. In Tokyo while Schrader was filming “Mishima,” Glass asked the director where the music should go. “He took the script, threw it across the table, and said, ‘You tell me where it goes.’ That was really nice.”

And on “Kundun,” when Glass told Scorsese that “the music has to be a doorway between our culture and the culture that’s disappeared, and I think I know how to do this,” Scorsese simply said, “OK.”

Glass acknowledges that his style won’t be right for every film, although he points out that “within that style there’s a fairly big range, the difference between the music in ‘Mishima’ and ‘Powaqqatsi’ [1988] or ‘Kundun’ and ‘The Secret Agent’ [1996]. The thing about having a personal approach to music is, it’s usually associated with someone who has developed a musical personality and has something to say. That’s not a bad thing.”

Glass quietly concedes that he wouldn’t mind winning an Academy Award. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, considering the Oscar has gone to two “classical” composers in the last three years (Corigliano for “The Red Violin,” Tan Dun for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and that the roster of past winners has included such 20th century musical luminaries as Aaron Copland (“The Heiress”), Malcolm Arnold (“The Bridge on the River Kwai”) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”).


“I was so happy to go to [the Oscars for] ‘Kundun,’ ” he says. “It was the year of ‘Titanic.’ I went there knowing that I couldn’t win. Then [the next year] I went to the Golden Globes, and we won for ‘The Truman Show.’ And I said to the woman who eventually became my wife, ‘You know, winning is fun. I like winning.’ ”