Four American Composers: Peter Greenaway on John Cage, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and Robert Ashley (1983)

Why would a not­ed British film­mak­er want to take as a sub­ject four Amer­i­can com­posers? Per­haps the ques­tion answers itself, in part, when I tell you the iden­ti­ty of the film­mak­er, Peter Green­away, and the com­posers, Philip Glass, Mered­ith Monk, John Cage, and Robert Ash­ley. No won­der this selec­tion of musi­cal per­son­al­i­ties appealed to the direc­tor of The Draughts­man­’s Con­tract;The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; and Pros­per­o’s Books, whom crit­ics have labeled, at var­i­ous times, a clas­si­cist, an exper­i­menter, a for­mal­ist, and a weirdo. Alas, Green­away’s fans may not know much about Glass, Monk, Cage, and Ash­ley, just as those com­posers’ adher­ents may nev­er have encoun­tered a movie of Green­away’s. To bridge the gap, we give you the doc­u­men­tary series Four Amer­i­can Com­posers, free to watch online. At the top of this post, you’ll find the first episode, on Cage. The sec­ond, below, cov­ers Glass. The third and fourth take on Monk and Ash­ley, respec­tive­ly.

Green­away die-hards such as myself may, watch­ing these doc­u­men­taries the film­mak­er cre­at­ed in 1983, think back to his ear­ly career. At that time, he made pic­tures like The Falls, which rigid­ly fol­lowed the doc­u­men­tary form while com­plete­ly aban­don­ing its aspi­ra­tions to cap­ture the lit­er­al truth. Thor­ough­ly non­fic­tion­al, or at least seem­ing that way, the doc­u­men­taries that make up Four Amer­i­can Com­posers nonethe­less exude the Green­away sen­si­bil­i­ty. “Because he made most­ly mock-doc­u­men­taries in the sev­en­ties,” writes Amy Lawrence in The Films of Peter Green­away, “the ‘real’ doc­u­men­taries are near­ly indis­tin­guish­able from the fakes. Real peo­ple (espe­cial­ly John Cage) tend to become Green­away char­ac­ters.” The project thus slides neat­ly in with his oth­er, more “straight­for­ward” films, all of which take place in a delib­er­ate­ly struc­tured labyrinth of joke and allu­sion peo­pled by archi­tects, inven­tors, aris­to­crats, and artists — obses­sives, all.

You can find two oth­er films by Green­away — Dar­win and Rembrandt’s J’accuse — in our col­lec­tion of 525 Free Movies Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dar­win: A 1993 Film by Peter Green­away

Peter Green­away Looks at the Day Cin­e­ma Died — and What Comes Next

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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