Philip Glass at 75: an intoxicating series, live scores to 'La Belle et la Bête' and more

Beauty and the Beast, and Philip Glass.
La Belle et la Bête image courtesy of SF Performances.

Last June, legendary composer Philip Glass treated our fair city to a one-off collaborative performance with indie-folk visionary Joanna Newsom. Just two months ago, he made a joint appearance with Beach Boys collaborator and eccentric songsmith Van Dyke Parks, in NYC. Last weekend, Glass paid SF another visit with a career retrospective festival, featuring live productions of two original, highly influential film scores. Glass is no ordinary composer, and even at the age of 75, his prolificacy and flair for innovation challenge that of any working musician.

With the official Philip Glass Ensemble in tow, the Glass at 75 festival featured live performances of two of the composer's most celebrated movie scores, played in conjunction with screenings of their respective films: Godfrey Reggio's influential audiovisual spectacular, Koyaanisqatsi (1983), and Jean Cocteau's early "Beauty and the Beast" adaptation, La Belle et la Betê. (1947/1994).

After studying music in Paris, and transcribing Ravi Shankar's compositions into Western notation to make a living, Glass would go on to assemble one of the most mind-bogglingly diverse back-catalogues of any composer in history, ranging from early explorations of classical minimalism, to collaborations with David Bowie and Allen Ginsberg, to stacks of operas, symphonies, ballets, and film scores.

Yet, in a career defined by resistance to classification, Glass' wildly revisionist soundtrack for La Belle et la Betê remains his most categorically ambiguous work, and an anomaly in the world of composition. After gaining permission from the Cocteau estate in '93, Glass superimposed an opera atop the entire length of the film, revamping the music completely, and replacing each line of spoken dialogue with operatic vocals. An international tour followed, featuring silent screenings of the film, accompanied live by the Philip Glass Ensemble on synthesizers, woodwinds, and vocals.

The ensemble's three performances of La Belle this past weekend put Glass' radical act of synchronization on full display, and the result was intoxicating. Unusually immediate and approachable for a Glass production, "La Belle" sported greater melodic range than the composer's more aggressively minimalist works (see Koyaanisqatsi), with the dynamic jolt of live vocals cutting through the music's often meandering flow. Dominated by richly atmospheric, intertwining synth arpeggios, Glass' score effortlessly mirrored the film's emotional complexity, its lushness accentuated by comparison to the antiquity of Cocteau's black-and-white production aesthetic.

With the film projected up high, the ensemble playing below, and four plainclothes opera singers situated on either side of the stage, the result was a meta-opera of sorts, rejecting the pageantry of your average stage production in favor of displaying a raw, unadorned creative process. Yet, despite the austerity of the presentation, and the impulse to passively observe the creative process in action, there was no shortage of musical sublimity to be swept up by: from the pillowy synth tones, to the added texture of flutes, clarinets, and saxes, to the synchronization of singers onstage and actors onscreen that, at times, bordered on transcendence. The final product was as novel, transportive, and involving as any stage production I've seen in recent years.

While it didn't quite live up to the standard set by La Belle, the Glass Ensemble's production of Koyaanisqatsi was incredibly stimulating, as well. The result of a collaboration with experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi term for "unbalanced life") made a huge cultural impact upon its release in '81, weaving disparate film footage and Glass' signature minimalism into a multimedia experience, whose impressionistic, plotless structure would prove highly influential in the years ahead.

As with La Belle, the Glass Ensemble performed the score live onstage, with identical instrumentation, and the film projected overhead. Most notably different was Glass' presence onstage; while absent from La Belle, he operated one of five synths during Koyaanisqatsi, primarily hitting bass tones that brought a nice, visceral thump to the proceedings.

The score, while synth-heavy like La Belle, was far more characteristic of Glass' minimalistic period, opting for mantraic vocals and emphasizing repetition, as opposed to the fiery energy of the opera format. Alternately free-flowing and mechanical, Glass' minimalist structures provided a fitting musical context for the film's central theme of nature vs. industry, emulating the roaring waves of the ocean in one section, and the unrelenting automation of a hot-dog factory in another. Apart from a few misplaced vocal phrases, the Glass ensemble performed the score flawlessly, making the ultimate experience of a film designed to be "experienced" in the first place.

While no two compositions could appropriately encapsulate Glass' wildly diverse career, his ensemble's productions of La Belle and Koyaanisqatsi were masterfully performed, giving insight into the mind of a vividly imaginative composer, with little regard for genre boundaries or classical traditionalism. He might be 75 now, but with a new opera opening in London next month, a collaboration with Joanna Newsom in the rearview mirror, and a triumphant festival of film scores under his belt, Glass shows no signs of slowing down.