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One of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Philip Glass teams up with director Godfrey Reggio for the fourth time for the new movie Visitors, now playing in L.A.
Their first collaboration, the landmark Koyaanisqatsi, became a favorite of the midnight stoner set when it came out in 1983, but has lived on to become a landmark in abstract filmmaking with its high-speed visions of city life and the chaos of a mechanized world.
Sequels Powaqqatis and Naqoyqatsi employed similar visual techniques, but the pair’s latest collaboration, Visitors stands apart. Shot in black and white, it consists mainly of close-ups of people looking directly into the camera. Glass’ score reflects his recent foray into symphonic composition, calm and quiet, in stark contrast to the frenetic synthesizer of Koyaanisqatsi.
Recently, he sat down to talk with The Hollywood Reporter about the right — and wrong — way to compose for film, and the music demands of The Hours after the feature had already fired two composers.
You haven’t worked with Godfrey since Naqoyqatsi in 2002 — was there was a bit of a stutter start?
Within a week I had it. I had a few tryouts and almost the third time, I hit my stride. Those first experiments, they weren’t bad music; they just didn’t work. As soon as I got the beginning, I knew I had it.
How often do you have that level of certainty about a piece?
I was working with a producer in Hollywood on this film — it was called The Hours. I knew they had fired two composers. I did the whole first reel. I sat with the producers — and all my guys were in the other room — and they looked at the first reel, and Scott Rudin turned to the other guys and said, “Well at least there’s music that makes me want to see the movie.” I said, “Just a minute, I’ll be right back.” Went outside and said, “We got the job.”
Your earlier work is primarily composed for synthesizer, but in recent years, you’ve turned to symphonic compositions, as with Visitors.
I did Symphony No. 10 last year. It’s interesting: While others are going to synthesizers, I’m going to the orchestra, and I’m finding that people love the orchestra. In my 70 years, we’ve never been able to replace the orchestra. We’ve never been able to really replace the piano. This film, it needed the suppleness and the depth and nuance of an orchestra. I’m not going to get that in a synthesizer.
They say movie scores should complement the action but never overwhelm it. But when we think of people like Ennio Morricone or yourself, the opposite is true.
That’s not my idea at all. I’m going to talk about traditional narrative movies: Most of these movies take place at different times in different places. What the music should do and can do is to articulate the structure of the film. We’re not talking about window dressing; music is an actual and structural part of the experience. This is not generally understood in the film world, but it’s understood in the world we live in.
Are you a fan of movie music?
There are very gifted people working in Hollywood — there’s no question about it — whether they’re designers, actors, writing. And if the so-called producers get out of the way, we can make really good movies.
Who are some directors you think really understand music’s role?
Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen — really experienced filmmakers, they know how to do that. They know how to take advantage of what the music can do. If they don’t know how to use that it’s like throwing pearls before the swine.
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