shoot, he scores: Philip Glass at MASS MoCA.
Glass: Philip on Film
MoCA, Jan. 16
his start as a seminal mini malist, through the penning of
operas, musical adaptations of Beckett and Kafka, the scoring
of films, collaboration with artists as diverse as Sol LeWitt,
David Bowie, Aphex Twin and Woody Allen, and, most recently,
his placement of a song on Grand Theft Auto IV, “ubiquitous
cultural icon” is a title as apt for Philip Glass as the indisputable
“major American composer.” It is for this fact (enforced by
the subsidiary acknowledgement that his cultural presence
owes to his great intellectual depth) that an event like Philip
on Film, during which the figure in question demonstrated
his celebrity talent (that is, playing the piano) for only
a fraction of the show, could fill MASS MoCA’s main concert
hall with eager devotees.
The show opened with a montage of films for which Glass has
penned the score, and the bulk of the evening featured a conversation
between Glass and Boston Phoenix film critic Gerald
Peary regarding the composer’s approach to scoring films.
Because Glass is, perhaps, best-known for his work on Godfrey
Reggio’s Qatsi documentary trilogy, the first
clip the pair discussed was Reggio’s ’95 short Evidence,
in which Glass’ score of strings and woodwinds lends a
foreboding presence to images of dire, dumbstruck children.
Unlike many Glass-scored films that resolve in the same haunting
gravitas through which they move, Evidence ends with
the slightly humorous concession that the kids were transfixed
by a TV screen.
Glass later acknowledged the mordant subject matter to which
his work often responds (especially in regard to Errol Morris’
The Thin Blue Line and Steven Daldry’s The Hours)
by confessing that he’s “presided over more death” on film
than he ever cares to in life. The manner of this presidency,
though, is what makes Glass’ work so recognizable. “The function
of music [in a film],” he said, “is not decorative but to
articulate structure.” He used The Hours as an example.
While one might expect three separate themes to correspond
to each of the films separate sections, it’s the fact that
Glass’ score is consistent through these sections that makes
the overarching narrative “readable.”
This does not, however, require that the score be consonant
with the film’s images. Glass used The Thin Blue Line as
an example of how a score can effectively create distance
between the viewer and the image, thereby manipulating the
viewer’s expectations, and thus enforcing the impact of the
The best story of the night was, no doubt, Glass’ account
of scoring the opening sequence for Powaqqatsi, the
second film in Reggio’s trilogy. Before Glass had even joined
Reggio at the Serra Pelada cooperative gold mine in Brazil
(itself a rare move in collaboration between director and
composer), Glass had used old black-and-white films of the
site, where thousands of workers haul bags of mud in hope
of discovering an elusive nugget, to compose a preliminary
track of repetitive Brazilian drum figures. Onsite, Glass
played the piece for the cinematographer as he shot the scene
and then for the workers themselves, who he described as possessing
as childlike zeal for their task. Back in New York, Glass
overdubbed a Portuguese children’s choir to complete what
had become an uncommonly synergistic piece of film.
After a final discussion of Glass’ score for the 1931 version
of Dracula, the evening’s greatest treat came in a
brief solo piano performance. He began with Études 2 and 10,
from a series he’d written in the mid-’90s. Full of cascading
arpeggios with simple melodic motifs in the high and low registers,
the pieces were perfectly emblematic of the post-minimalistic
sound that is nearly synonymous with Glass’ name. This atmospheric
quality is precisely what has made Glass’ work so useful to
film. Drama unfolds gradually from inside a sort of static
pall, set through hypnotic repetition. It’s a quality that
Peary noted often becomes more memorable than the images of
the films that Glass has scored. Indeed, when Glass performed
a theme from The Hours it was at least as recognizable
as the image of Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf casting herself
in the river, for which she won an Academy Award.
Red Clay Ramblers
Savings Bank Music Hall, Jan. 9
Imagine the musical equivalent of the setting of Charles Dickens’
1841 novel, The Old Curiosity Shop—an emporium full
of dusty antiques and bric-a-brac—and you’ll have an idea
of the wide-ranging acoustic show that the marvelous Red Clay
Ramblers put on at the 1,200-seat Troy Music Hall. The North
Carolina-based group may have started out 36 years ago as
an old-time string band, but that description doesn’t convey
the phenomenal range of music that the versatile band performed
on their dozen-plus instruments. Celtic tunes on pennywhistles.
Fiddle hoedowns. Cowboy songs crooned to softly strummed guitars.
Long-forgotten Tin Pan Alley numbers with brass accompaniment.
Hilarious parodies. And all delivered with the surpassing
playing that Frank Rich of The New York Times hailed
These days, the Ramblers’ core members are Jack Herrick on
bass, trumpet, guitar, bouzouki and whistles; Clay Buckner
on lead vocals, fiddle, mandolin and harmonica; Chris Frank
on accordion, guitar, tuba, ukulele, and trombone; and Bland
Simpson on piano. An unidentified drummer and another multi-instrumentalist
also were onstage, but introductions of all kinds—musicians,
song titles, and even one by the house for the opening act,
Albany’s own Ramblin’ Jug Stompers—often were neglected.
The Ramblers invoked their old-time origins with a peppy opening
medley of breakdowns led by Buckner’s smooth fiddling that
included “Fisher’s Hornpipe” and “Big John McNeill” (I only
know this because I recognized the tunes). From there they
broke out a trumpet and trombone for a Dixieland-flavored
version of “Wahoo,” a 1930s Western tune by Tin Pan Alley
songsmith Cliff Friend, who also wrote the Hank Williams hit
In a surprising changeup, a hoedown became a slowdown as the
band rendered the old-time tune “Cotton-Eyed Joe” at a dreamy
adagio tempo. Another highlight was Spike Jones’ uproariously
funny “Pal-Yat-Chee,” a sendup of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892
opera Pagliacci. For “Dry Bones,” the band put down
their instruments and sang a beautiful a cappella call-and-response
arrangement of the gospel classic.
Ramblin Jug Stompers’ opening set found them in fine form
as they rolled through their easygoing 1920s and ’30s jug-band
tunes. Steven Clyde sang with panache, Wild Bill’s bethimbled
fingers tripped the light fantastic on his old washboard,
and my venerable old banjo teacher Bowtie wowed the crowd
with his mastery of both the three-finger and clawhammer styles.
But they all paled next to the estimable Mike Eck as he emitted
a series of loud Bronx cheers during his bravura jug solo
when the Stompers joined the Ramblers at the show’s end.
Sadly, only about 300 people turned out for the performance.
Acoustic fans should not miss the Red Clay Ramblers next time.