Philip on Film
PICA and the Northwest Film Center at the Portland Art Museum's North Wing Grand Ballroom, 1219 SW Park Ave., 242-1419 or 221-1156. Monday-Friday, Oct. 15-19. $25 (PICA or NWFC members)-$30. Monday's SHORTS program is $20 (members)-$25. A festival pass costs $90 (members)-$120.

There will be a benefit reception for PICA with Philip Glass at the Heathman Hotel following the screening of Dracula. 9:30 pm Wednesday, Oct. 17. $100. Call PICA for tickets (242-1419).




In Philip Glass' 30 years as poster boy for "minimalist" music, the composer has charted an artistic evolution that would leave even Darwin agog. The trademark synthesized arpeggios with which he polarized the music world in the 1970s have morphed and expanded into to the broad symphonic palette he now commands. Glass' growth from erstwhile enfant terrible to mature master is every bit the musical odyssey of, say, the Beatles' journey from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to The White Album--and every bit as fascinating along the way.

Starting Monday, Portland audiences will have the chance to experience Glass' creative arc firsthand during the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and the Northwest Film Center's Philip on Film festival. The five-night event, a veritable Bayreuth for Glass fans, will feature the composer and his longtime "band," the Philip Glass Ensemble, performing more than two decades' worth of film scores, live and in real time, as the moving pictures flicker on the screen of the Portland Art Museum's Grand Ballroom.

"It's a challenge getting the cues right, synching the Ensemble up with the film, but we love doing it that way," Glass told WW by phone from Austin, Texas. "We don't use a metronome or a click-track because we want the fluidity and grace of a live performance." This proves especially tricky during the screening of Jean Cocteau's 1946 La Belle et la Bête, when singers dub the characters' dialogue into music on the spot.

Other films on tap during the week include Godfrey Reggio's Powaqqatsi and Koyaanisqatsi; a new short by Peter Greenaway; and an early Halloween treat, Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula. Glass' score for the Bela Lugosi classic, commissioned for the film's commemorative DVD release, features some of his most compelling music ever. At the film's climax, as Jonathon Harker and Dr. Van Helsing track down and kill the infamous bloodsucker, the soundtrack's dizzying accelerandi and chromatic runs reach almost unbearable levels of intensity.

The Portland appearances are but a few of the New Yorker's average of 50 concerts per year. With all that touring, when does he find the time to compose? He simply makes the time, scribbling chords pre- and après-concert. "I'm working on a symphony now," he says, "here in the hotel room in Austin." The grueling touring schedule, with its requisite airplane flights and suitcases, doesn't faze the 64-year-old. In fact, he admits, it serves a vital, and perhaps unexpected, purpose. "Having such a constant contact with a live audience has actually inspired and informed the directions I've gone in music. A lot of composers make music as a sort of abstract exercise, whereas, with my performing, I have a constant dialogue with the public."

The idea of Glass as audience-pleaser may strike as unlikely those who remember his uncompromising, four-and-a-half-hour opera Einstein on the Beach, from 1976. This work, the culmination of his early style, struck many listeners and critics as an indulgent, broken-record loop and pigeonholed Glass in the public mind in ways that linger to this day. Comedy Central's South Park, for example, turned him into a cartoon character and lampooned his music's repetitive nature. And then there is the notorious knock-knock joke:


Who's there?


Who's there?


Who's there?

Philip Glass.

"I find them hilarious," says Glass of these and other pop-culture references. "I hear the jokes, and I get the jokes. In a way it's sort of flattering that someone in concert music would be well-known enough to enter the culture like this." The only thing he doesn't find funny is the word "minimalist," which he considers an inaccurate description of his style. Interestingly, with the passing of time, many of his former critics have come to regard his music--even his early works--as far from minimal. The patient listener will find in Einstein or Dances Nos. 1-5 or the ethereal 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof opulent soundscapes, full of whirling arpeggios and chanted solfège syllables, in which intervals and harmonies shift constantly, yet never in predictable patterns. The style hurtles forward with irrepressible exuberance in major keys and a certain diabolical fierceness in minor mode, settling down occasionally into more pensive moods. Glass' best work induces a kind of meditative state, equally conducive to zoning out or focusing in.

Philip on Film-goers will get to experience vintage Glass, transitional Glass, and the state of the art during a program spanning more than two decades of film music. How does the newest material (the freshly premiered SHORTS) compare with his earlier classics? Glass is psyched: "It's really energized! The first piece is like a rocket taking off. And it's not in a style you'll recognize. You'll know it's me, but it's like I took the deck of cards and shuffled them in a completely different way."


The weeklong Philip on Film features both Philip Glass' original soundtracks and the new sound explorations of classic films.

The festival opens at 8 pm Monday, Oct. 15, with SHORTS, a collection of five new short films by directors Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter), Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman's Contract, The Pillow Book), artists Michael Rovner and Shirin Neshot, and longtime Glass collaborator Godfrey Reggio.

Reggio and Glass' Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation (1988) plays 8 pm Tuesday. Part two of a planned trilogy, following the pair's Koyaanisqatsi (1983), Powaqqatsi is an unsettling tour of the impoverished Third World, where "progress" seems to have caused more harm than good. At 8 pm Wednesday is Glass' aural reexamination of Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), which is followed on Thursday at 8 pm with Jean Cocteau's surreal romance La Belle et la Bête (1946).

Finally, the film festival ends Friday with Reggio and Glass' Koyaanisqatsi. The title is the Hopi word for "life out of balance." Considering the times, the film is a needed reminder of modernity's headlong rush into the abyss.

Originally published
Wednesday, October 10, 2001

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