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Paul Slavens on Philip Glass

by Stephen Becker 28 Oct 2009 3:26 PM

Did you attend the live performance of Philip Glass’ Dracula score on Saturday at the Winspear Opera House? KERA’s (and soon to be KXT’s) Paul Slavens did, and he sends along this review.



Paul Slavens took in a performance on Saturday at the Winspear Opera House of Philip Glass’ scoring of Dracula. He sends along the following review:

Click the audio player to listen to Paul’s review:

Text version:

Let me start out with a musicians’ joke:

Knock knock:
Who’s there?
Knock knock:
Who’s there?
Knock knock:
Who’s there?
Phillip Glass

If you are familiar with the works of Philip Glass, you will get the somewhat mean spirited humor. And like all good humor, it’s funny because there is some truth to it. Mr Glass has made a career out of music comprised in large part of arpeggios of fairly simple chords. Of course, he takes these fairly simple musical cells and weaves them into complex tapestries of sound. Then on the other hand, these sounds are almost always rigidly metrical and static. Perhaps you begin to see why his music is at once derided by some as simplistic, and at worst boring, and to others as beautiful and intricate and fascinating. If the turnout for his scoring of the film Dracula last Saturday evening at the New Winspear Opera House was any indication, there are plenty of people who love what he does. The house was quite full, and among the concertgoers were more than a few people dressed up as vampires, complete with makeup, reminiscent of a Rocky Horror crowd.

I suppose one could make the case that Philip Glass is about as close to a rock star as there is in classical, art, “serious” or whatever you want to call it music. And the format of a Philip Glass score to a Bela Legosi film added to the juxtapositions of seriousness and playfulness, darkness and levity, action and stasis, pop and art.

I was struck by the way the score was not particularly reactive to the film. Not that it didn’t change and flow with the overall action. For instance, a scene of a storm at sea was accompanied by mad waves of scales and arpeggios that swelled and whipped around like the gales. But even there, Glass is just setting the scene, creating the environment in which the specific actions happen.

Specific events were never accentuated by the music. When Dracula looks menacingly at the camera (like he did about 20 times), Glass never gives you an ominous chord or a dramatic musical gesture (bum-bum-buuum!). In fact, the music rarely, if ever, sounded ominous. It even sounded light and lovely during certain tense scenes. Often the music would pause and some dramatic action would be allowed to play out in silence. The humor in the film, both intended and unintended, was always allowed to play itself out with no sense that the score got the joke. When the humor became broad, it was always to the sound of no music and light laughter.

If these sound like criticisms, they are not. Mr Glass’ idiom is to set a tone, to create a soundscape, to focus your attention, not to grab it.

What the music doesn’t say is often what is important. It shows a great deal of trust in the power of the film. Like many art forms that depend on shock and visual novelty, this film has lost its power to truly frighten. However, it still deals with subjects, and more importantly subtexts, that are obviously very much in our psyches. Witness the slew of vampire products in today’s media world.

So once again, Mr Glass is tapped into the mainstream while still operating very much in the esoteric world of music that gets played in nice places like the Winspear.

  • Jerome Weeks

    Hey! You might have mentioned — as something of a worthy credential for writing about this — that you’ve done a little work in the “scoring old horror movie” line yourself.

    At the very least, it shows you’ve done some thinking about the whole process. At the worst, it might indicate your willingness to take some odd gigs.

  • Anonymous

    either you are suspecting me of waffling
    or you are complementing me on my evenhandedness.

    or both

    or neither.