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They shoot, he scores: Philip Glass at MASS MoCA.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Silver Screen Serenade

By Josh Potter

Philip Glass: Philip on Film

MASS MoCA, Jan. 16


From 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 images.

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.

Ramblin’ and Stompin’

Red Clay Ramblers

Troy 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 as “perfection.”

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 “Lovesick Blues.”

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.

—Glenn Weiser

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