Longtime Simpsons-watchers surely remember Homer’s weakly feigned enthusiasm for an evening with Philip Glass: “Just an evening?” Yet for some enthusiasts of the composer’s repetitive, mesmerizing music, just an evening really wouldn’t satisfy. Running over five hours, Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach arguably requires more than an evening by itself. If you don’t feel up to so extensive a listening experience, rest assured that you’ve most likely heard, and may well have enjoyed, his compositions before. A prolific craftsman of film scores, Glass has made music to accompany, among many other pictures, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War; Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi; and the horror favorite Candyman as well as its sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh. You can learn more about what exactly goes on in Glass’ music and how he thinks about it in Philip Glass, which comes directed by Peter Greenaway as one of four 1983 portraits of American composers.
If you watch Greenaway’s films, you might find yourself surprised at the relative straightforwardness of this project: no elaborate set design, no fixation on lists and systems, few grimly dry wisecracks, and nobody more eccentric than Glass himself. Between extended segments of Glass and his ensemble in concert, we see interviews with Glass and his players. (A simple setup, yes, but not without its points of strangeness: each interviewee appears with a different, always nearly silent interviewer, sometimes separated by a highly conspicuous camera reflection.) We learn about how transcribing Ravi Shankar’s music gave Glass the idea of “working in a rhythmic structure, not a harmonic or narrative one,” how hiring the sound man from the Fillmore East granted his music a new technological dimension, and the kind of heckling he endures even after becoming famous. (“We get screamers,” he admits, quoting their shouts of “This isn’t music!” and “Why are you doing this to me?”) To the best of my knowledge, Glass has never scored any of Greenaway’s features. But watching this documentary and noticing their shared fascination with form and repetition, their lack of enthusiasm for narrative, their freedom from “clearly populist intentions,” and their tendency to attract predictable disapproval, I wonder why not.