Monday, November 21, 2011

Philip Glass

Philip Glass remains the foremost exponent of that rather amorphous category of modern classical music known as minimalism. However, Glass’s fundamental style does differ from other minimalist composers like John Adams and Steve Reich: instead of wanton experimentalism, he prefers to work with seemingly repeating, yet slowly developing, patterns, building up from a single compositional idea with processes like note additions and evolving time signatures. This makes for an understated but mesmerising approach that has resulted in acclaimed and award-winning works like ‘Einstein on the Beach’, ‘Akhnaten’ and the widely celebrated ‘Koyaanisqatsi’, not to mention innumerable soundtracks for films as diverse as ‘Kundun’, ‘The Hours’ and ‘The Illusionist’.

The 2007 compilation ‘Best of Philip Glass’ is a handy double-disc collection that acts as a more or less comprehensive introduction to Glass’s music, although the selections here seem to be randomly arranged, with no regard for chronological or thematic order. However, it’s still worthwhile to go through what’s available here, if only to give the greenhorn an initial sense of what comprises basic Philip Glass.

The tracks on ‘Best of Philip Glass’ can roughly be divided into two separate portions that make up the two main facets of Glass’ music. The instrumental segment takes in works like the cinematic, epic-sized ‘Facades’, the icy, elegant ‘Floe’, the sombre, piano-led ‘Dance 9’ and the deliberately arty, complexly syncopated ‘Rubric’. Mention should also be made of the optimistic, driving ‘A Gentleman’s Honour’, from the ‘Satyagraha’ opera, based on the early life of Mahatma Gandhi and his experiences in South Africa.

On the flip side, the vocal numbers are the more interesting tunes, with choices like the pulsating new wave-influenced ‘Lightning’ (with veteran session vocalist Janice Pendarvis), the pastoral, Douglas Perry-sung ‘Evening Song’, the dramatic ‘Hymn to the Sun’ with famed English countertenor Paul Esswood, and the Egyptian-flavoured ‘Funeral of Amenhotep’ from the ‘Akhnaten’ opera.

In short, ‘Best of Philip Glass’ is a solid, if rather incomplete primer to Philip Glass: for a better overall picture of his music, one is advised to get one of his full-length recordings, which are all still in print. The sort of classical minimalism that constitutes Glass’ stock in trade is certainly not something that can be consumed in bite-sized portions like what has been collected here, despite the best intentions of this primer’s compilers. An inspired, if not exhaustive, retrospective of Glass’s more well-known works, and a terrific inducement to seek out the rest of his extensive, impressive repertoire.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Craig Armstrong

Scotsman Craig Armstrong is one of those criminally underappreciated film composers, despite his obvious talents and hip credentials. Maybe it's because of his idiosyncratically different approach that sets him apart from the rest. Unlike more celebrated contemporaries like James Newton Howard and Howard Shore who would sometimes have a tendency to go over the top with their symphonic-string flourishes and horn-chart bombast, Armstrong is content to brood around with his Pro Tools software, icy electronics, trip-hop beats and measured (to a fault) use of chamber strings, meticulously constructing his beautifully bleak soundscapes. Armstrong's two solo works carry over the peculiarities of his filmic work, with 'The Space Between Us' and "As If to Nothing' both comprising soundtracks to the vagaries of the postmodern world, solemn, pensive but ultimately hopeful musical microcosms that perfectly encapsulates the hopes and fears of today's global citizen. Check out the lush, sweeping 'This Love' from 1998, a sensual new-millennium torch song that features the distinctive unearthly soprano of Cocteau Twins' Elzabeth Fraser.