Monday, March 31, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 6 of 8): Film, Songs from Liquid Days, and Ravi Shankar

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

For those who missed it: Part 5 - Completing the Portrait Trilogy

Despite rising to fame through his operas, the general public probably knows Glass best as a film composer.  This all started in the late 1970s, when Godfrey Reggio arranged a meeting with the composer.  Reggio was working on a new film called Koyaanisqatsi, and he knew that Glass had the "quintessential sound" he was looking for:
So Philip said, the first time I met him, "I don't do film music.  Thank you, but no thank you," he was very busy.  So I didn't know what to expect.  So I just bothered the hell out of him, basically, in as appropriate of a way as I could...
So what I did was—this was way after I chose him in my head, I already had footage by this point—I brought it to the screening room, and I put up music from two people—[first from one composer] and then I put up the same [footage] with Philip Glass's "North Star."
And the difference was palpable and immediate, and I think he came there just to satisfy his friends and get me off his back, and when we finished he said, "Well, when do we start?  It looks like a great idea."
It's worth mentioning, however, that Glass had previously composed for some TV projects, most notably Sesame Street.  In 1979, Cathryn Aison had put together a storyboard involving circles for the show, and had hired Glass to compose the music.

In 1982, Koyaanisqatsi was released.  The film became a cult hit, and once again, Glass was finding a new audience for his music.  The film featured time-lapse footage of landscapes and metropolitan areas, highlighting how the presence of human beings has radically affected the ecosystem.

Glass and Reggio would go on to work on five more films together.  The first two, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, completed the "Qatsi trilogy," and the latest is a film from 2013 called Visitors.

But back in the mid-1980s, Glass was still hard at work composing for a variety of mediums other than film.  In 1984, a year after the premiere of Akhnaten, Glass was commissioned to write a piece for the Olympics that would take place in Los Angeles that year.  The Olympian represented a change in compositional style that had its roots in the album Glassworks from two years prior, essentially making pieces shorter and developing a theme at a quicker pace to make the work more accessible for a broader audience.

This compositional style was applied to Songs from Liquid Days from 1986.  The "song cycle" (as Glass likes to call it) involved collaborating with Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, and David Byrne for the lyrics, as well as performers such as the Kronos Quartet, Linda Ronstadt, Bernard Fowler, and The Roches.

Shortly after Songs from Liquid Days was released, Glass was approached by another film director, this time Errol Morris.  Morris was working on a documentary on Randall Dale Adams, a man that was falsely convicted for murdering a cop.  The music for the film has been called "one of the most influential piece of film music of the last 30 years."  Errol Morris has explained that this is because "Philip does 'existential dread' better than anybody.  It's the ideal music for creating emotion."  We can feel this "dread" with the opening scene.  Although the action doesn't come until around 4 minutes, we can easily perceive that something bad is going to happen.

In 1989, Peter Baumann, the founder of Private Music, approached Glass and Ravi Shankar about possibly collaborating on an album together.  The meeting they arranged in Los Angeles was the first time in over twenty years since they last saw each other.  Although they were both initially skeptical about working together, Baumann made the suggestion that they each write a few themes for the other person to arrange and orchestrate.  According to Shankar, "that struck us both as something we could do."

The final result was the album Passages, and it ended up peaking at #3 on Billboard's Top World Music Albums chart.  In Ravi Shankar's biography, Glass explained why the album proved to be so successful:
The reason why I think Passages works so well is that when I listen to those four pieces we did together, I don't know whose music I'm hearing.  We didn't want one of us to write a piece and the other to embellish it; we wanted to do something that more profoundly linked the process of writing and imagining.

As we have clearly seen, Philip Glass is a man with many musical hats.  However, as we attempt to cover the next 20+ years with the following installment of the Series, we'll discover that Glass had many more pieces to write, especially symphonic music.


  1. This series was well done and appreciated!

  2. Don't want this series to end. Thank you for such a good job.