Philip Glass

Songs in the key of death

PHILIP GLASS’S DRACULA: The Music and the Film with KRONOS QUARTET, at Roy Thomson Hall (60 Simcoe), Tuesday (November 7), 8 pm. $45-$65. 872-4255. Rating: NNNNN

NEW YORK CITY — Philip Glass eases open the door of his unremarkable East Village brownstone with the cultivated calm you’d expect from a Buddhist vegetarian who summers not in the swish Hamptons but in sleepy Cape Breton.

With a dishevelled, mad-genius shock of hair and his heavily hooded eyes, he looks the part of a rumpled composer — in his case, one responsible for countless symphonies, film scores, operas and theatre pieces.

This makes him mildly intimidating despite the fact that he’s quite pleasant, and eventually even gets around to offering dainty chocolate truffles and fresh water.

Later, he’ll laugh — hard — when I confess to owning a bootleg of an as-yet-unrecorded opera. Then he asks me if the sound quality is any good, lest there not be a market for a proper studio recording.

As he leads the way downstairs to his genteel, subterranean kitchen — an oasis of calm amid the major reparations going on in his 160-year-old house, situated around the block from punk rock toilet CBGBs — I feel almost giddy.

So this quiet, gentle man is the infamous Philip Glass: father of minimalism and a man so wildly prolific that critics can reasonably hate him for churning out brilliant, groundbreaking pieces of music before lunchtime. And those are the nice critics.

Not that he gives a toss whether people think his repertoire is too expansive or his approach too clinical — he knows that his ensemble pieces like Music In Twelve Parts foretold the loops eventually employed by electronic combos and admitted fans, the Orb and Orbital.

Is there another similarly accomplished contemporary composer who would force opera-goers to wear cheesy cardboard 3D glasses in order to absorb the full effects of a multimedia work, as Glass did with soon-to-be-recorded Monsters Of Grace? 3D is KISS territory, for chrissakes.

Glass thrives on collaboration both within and outside of the classical realm. Witness his work with Ashley MacIsaac, Aphex Twin, Twyla Tharp, Alan Ginsberg, David Byrne and Robert Wilson, with whom he wrote the seminal four-hour opera Einstein On The Beach and the above-mentioned Monsters Of Grace.

“To be able to continually develop new ideas is very hard,” he explains. “Working with people you don’t know is one way of doing it. Collaborations force you to do something you hadn’t anticipated.”

Glass refuses to be caged by expectation or tradition. So when the folks at Universal decided they needed a chillingly dramatic new score to accompany the reissue of Tod Browning’s 1931 classic Dracula — starring Bela Lugosi in the role that would trail him to the grave — they didn’t call John Williams. They called Glass, who, as fans of his music will tell you, possesses that rarest of qualities: the ability to score raw human emotion. And to grab headlines.

Along with the equally groundbreaking chamber ensemble Kronos Quartet, Glass, who’s also created music for Kundun, Koyaanisqatsi and The Truman Show among other films, has written music for Dracula that seems to borrow its tempo from the vampire’s heartbeat.

Kronos’s violins create tension by slowly sawing back and forth in monotonous unity, then swiftly bunching together in a howl to create surprise while a cello screeches out a bruising moan. If ever music could be said to be haunting, this is it. It’s now impossible to imagine the film without it.

Typical of the workaholic Glass, though, the process didn’t end with the recording. He’s taking Kronos, his score and the film on the road for live shows, including Roy Thomson Hall Tuesday. The players will perform live as the film screens, just like in the old days of silent movies.

And should proof be needed that the 63-year-old composer can cut to the heart of a contemporary audience, Glass confirms with a chuckle that presentations of Dracula have been pulling in goths.

“They do turn up,” he laughs softly. “We’ll be in concert and we can look out and see them. Not so much in Europe but in North America, for sure. I can only imagine what our Halloween show will be like.

“The thing about the original film is that it looked unfinished, like there were a lot of loose ends. It was very awkward and it ends so abruptly. When you look at the original, most people don’t seem to know when the film is over. So I knew I had some work to do. For instance, I added a piece of music at the end that gave it a feeling of completion.

“The Tchaikovsky and the Wagner in the original, I’m convinced, were completely random. It could have been anything. I mean, Swan Lake for the titles? The film’s music editor, if there was one, just added it. I doubt the director said, ‘I want this music here.’ So I didn’t use the original music as a point of reference at all.

“Having said that, I see myself as an amateur film composer because I’ve done so few. Fortunately, I’ve done some very good films with very good directors, which perhaps gives the impression I’ve done more than I actually have.”

Glass’s wilfully self-deprecating remark is not as dubious as it sounds. After all, he disowned his entire catalogue after he’d been hired to transcribe the music of Ravi Shankar in Paris in the 60s, thereafter unearthing the sinewy joys of Eastern rhythms.

Then again, he claims he never gets up in the middle of the night to scribble down a melody or a musical idea. “There will always be other ideas, other melodies,” he says, picking up and putting down his glasses for the 100th time during our 40-minute chat.

He acknowledges that the Dracula project was unique for several reasons, not the least of which is that his involvement did not begin at ground zero, as is the case with brand new films he’s crafted music for. Plus, Dracula’s a bit of a classic and people are fussy about who gets to mess around with established things in the pop culture canon.

Still, Glass argues the soundtrack will enjoy an independent life after the hoopla relating to the film’s re-release and current tour dies down.

“Definitely,” Glass says, “and in fact, I plan to add it to my repertoire that I play with my ensemble. This was kind of a risky film for me to do because it’s a film that’s already well known. What do you do with a classic? You have to make it more of a classic.”

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