Philip Glass in London
January was one hell of a month for live gigs in London, with Spring Heel Jack on tour more than living up to expectations, Han Bennink & Steve Beresford magnificent while launching a new club space on a boat moored on the Thames, Joe McPhee (in London for the first time in 20 years) starting his tour with Paul Hession, and also Wolfgang Muthspiel, Marc Johnson & Brian Blade calling in for a one-off date at the Vortex on a whistle stop tour of Europe. Not to mention Arthur Lee playing Forever Changes live with full orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, but that is another story...
However, one event dwarfed all of these, when for five nights Philip Glass and his ensemble took over the Barbican to bring us Philip on Film , a celebration of Glass's soundtrack work. In addition to two talks from Glass, we were given the movies Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Beauty & the Beast, and Dracula , plus a full programme of shorts, all with live soundtrack provided by the ensemble. Over the years, we have seen some wonderful examples of this combination of film and live music - Bill Frisell's soundtracks for Buster Keaton shorts, and Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore's soundtrack for Naked Lunch are particularly memorable - but this season topped them all in its range, emotion and vitality.
The opening night featured short films by five directors, and was an excellent hors d'oeuvre for the rest of the week. The directors were chosen by Glass; he had an original list of ten, but the first five he approached all agreed to work with him. For me, the outstanding short film was Passage by the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. Her work has striking images, resonant with cultural and religious overtones. Here, these included a funeral procession of black clad figures along a beach, and a group of women again black clad digging with their bare hands in coarse rocky desert soil. Glass's music, as throughout the season, complemented and intensified the images, becoming an essential part of the narrative. Typically, Glass's music is very rhythmic, not just through its use of percussion but also through the repetitive structures upon which it is founded. It also includes many elements of world musics that are integrated into it.
Two of the short films were by Godfrey Reggio - Evidence and Anima Mundi. Evidence features music that was written for but not used in Koyaanisqatsi , and strikingly shows the effect of TV on young children. Reggio does not tell a story, but presents us with poignant and powerful images that are open to many interpretations.
Glass first had the idea that he and his ensemble could play soundtracks live when he saw the pioneering live orchestral performance of the soundtrack with Abel Gance's classic silent Napoleon at Radio City in New York City in 1981. In fact, the Napoleon accompaniment was the orchestra playing a selection of fairly conventional soundtrack pieces. Glass had something far more potent at his disposal. The music that he wrote for Koyaanisqatsi went way beyond any conventional notions of "soundtrack". Directed by Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi was itself revolutionary, in the tradition of 60s experimental film. It had no narrative structure, although its juxtaposing of images of the natural world and "civilization" expressed its meaning loud and clear.