Soundtrack Methods and Motives
"Silent Snow, Secret Snow" was a celebrated short story (1934) by Conrad Aiken whose poetic prose describes the last stages of a 12-year-old boy's descent into madness and withdrawal from the world – stoic at school, silent before the family physician, distracted and defiant even in front of his increasingly alarmed parents. Young Paul can only explain that he is thinking about the snow. "There outside were the bare streets", Aiken confides, "and here inside was the snow... a secret screen between himself and the world". Twice, the indie director Gene Kearney sought to bring this story to the screen: once in a shaky black-and white version from 1964 meant for the college art-film circuit and then, definitively, in 1971 meant for national broadcast during Rod Serling's Night Gallery TV series. It is in this latter incarnation that we notice how the short music score by Swiss-American composer Paul Glass so deeply burrows inside the boy's head relying on an apprehensive A-minor waltz, every bit as haunted and fixated as the snowbound boy in the story.
Paul Glass's score shares the soundtrack with the charismatic narration of Orson Welles which urges the boy at one point, on behalf of the snow, to "go upstairs to your room now. I will be waiting for you. I will tell you something new, something cold, something of cease and peace and the long bright curve of space! I will surround your bed, pile a deep drift against the door so that none will ever be able to enter". Here, in eleven short music cues for a handful of strings and two flutes, Paul Glass spins his waltz amongst cue titles like "Delectable Secret", "His Very Secrecy" and, finally, "Snowed in". It is a score of variations and digressions from that obsessive waltz – some curiously joyful like a child playing in the snow; some contemplative; some distressed and searching with swirling figures in the strings. It is this music, together with the musical prose, that is drawing us into the world of this troubled boy. And whether you interpret this story as a metaphor for a magic world of the senses that exists just under the surface of ordinary life, or as a stark clinical description of childhood autism, it is at least a memorable showcase for film music.
"Even now", Welles intones, "it must be snowing hard; the white ragged lines drifting and sifting, whispering and hushing, seething and getting deeper and deeper; silenter and silenter..." And here violins play a double-time counterpoint in keeping with the blizzard inside the boy's room, inside his head; a kind of baroque allegro behind the solo flute theme, and all within that ongoing waltz.
This is quite sophisticated scoring for a mere TV episode. It certainly draws attention to the composer himself whose name, let's face it, is most often confused with the better-known Minimalist composer Philip Glass, late of several successful experimental operas (Einstein on the Beach; Satyagraha), and a growing list of film scores. One could say that the main difference between the soundtrack scoring of these two composers (who are not related, as far as I can tell) is that the rolling repetitive figures that make up a Philip Glass Minimalist score when applied to a film subject most often hang back behind any action on screen, merely observing, and providing a kind of flowing pulse – whereas any Paul Glass score seems to start from a definite point of view and then takes great pains and specific means to declare it; if not always interactive with the material on screen, always interpretive. For the Paul Glass score to a film called Interregnum, a documentary about Germany between the world wars, he evocatively uses a low-register clarinet behind the concentration camp scenes. But then he steps off into interpretive territory, bringing in a 1920s-styled cabaret dance band to lay against dissonant musical representations of Germany's growing fascism. This trivial dance music acts as overt commentary on the nation's increasing distraction with trivial tween-war entertainments and decadence which eventually allowed the Nazis to insinuate themselves into power. A seductive tenor sax doubling flute insinuates itself, too, behind the dance band and, thus, is Paul G's score having its own personal say.
With similar interpretive intentions is his 1964 score to the American film, Lady in a Cage, where director Walter Grauman locks star Olivia de Havilland in a stalled cage-like elevator for the duration of the film, taunted and threatened by a trio of home-invaders who are apparently less interested in robbery than in just tormenting and threatening the lady of the house, once they see how luxurious that house is and how, having the upper hand, they can indulge in all of the household trappings – a spacious bedroom, a warm bath. For this tense and sexually charged standoff, Paul Glass composed a 12-tone Serial score using a small ensemble of players: volatile music full of sudden dissonant interjections, surprising percussive blasts, broken rhythms; "restless music", as one critic put it, "with more than a touch of hysteria". This is the composer entering into the scene and situation; not exactly an interpretation but an interaction with the characters, identifying as much with the deviant trio as with the innocent victim. In fact, its atonal pointillistic style is much in keeping with Paul Glass's personal composing voice in concert works like his cello concerto (1961) or the eight "sinfonias" he composed between 1959 and 2019. Only as the camera cuts to a few shots of de Havilland's more-than-comfortable household, and the neighborhood that surrounds, does Glass introduce a faintly tonal lyrical line evocative of "life before the fall" adding an additional interpretation – i.e., that the real conflict between these characters, the real home invasion, is the space between the privileged matron locked in her luxurious cage, and these envious, resentful intruders. So, this is participatory and interpretive film scoring in the way it chaperones the story and explores the whole situation on screen.
On the other side, we can certainly call Philip Glass's Minimalist score to the Godfrey Reggio film essay Koyaanisqatsi (1983) "participatory", too, as it not only accompanies but shapes its film. On screen for ninety minutes is a continuous series of documentary shots – landscapes, cityscapes, construction sites, often filmed in slow-motion or time-lapse – soon narrowing the focus down to feature virginal nature scenes juxtaposed with scenes of how Mankind is gradually devouring and denuding the whole natural world in favor of the crass machine-made city life. The film's title is a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance" and it is not long before the relentless forward roll of Philip Glass's repetitive, ostinato-driven music begins to sound like a steam-rolling, life-destroying machine itself, and as the astonishing visuals parade past on screen, some have called the scoring "mesmerizing" while others consider it a tonal test of patience. And it's true that the very redundancy and insistence of this kind of music can exhaust the alert listener waiting for variety and modulations of any kind. But wasn't this the appropriate voice for the type of films that Reggio was making? Indeed, when strings enter the Glass orchestra at one point, suggesting a sense of warmth, it seems somehow ill-advised, intrusive, because it's an anachronism in such an apocalyptic scenario. The Glass Minimalist agenda seems right for Koyaanisqatsi and it was even more participatory in Reggio's sequel film, Powaqqatsi (1988) because there it proved to be even more interactive, incorporating ethnic themes and rhythms since the subject this time was international: "out of balance" Third World locations utilizing African, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern music forms.
But what can Minimalist music do for a narrative story on screen – no more abstract essaying about the environment or the clash of cultures, but flesh and blood stories that require a direct musical storyteller? Is there a change in Philip Glass's Minimalist style when he approaches fiction films or does he feel no need to adapt? A narrative film like 1985's Mishima about Japan's controversial writer/actor/militarist Yukio Mishima is perhaps not the best example to answer those questions, though it is an interesting showcase, scored for string quartet and sounding a bit like Bach. This is a score that spins around a minor-key core, Glass alternating between a kind of fast Bach toccata (which feels like a dance, though an obsessive one referencing the tightly-wound Mishima character) and an elegiac Bach aria, perhaps commemorating Mishima's bold but tragic ritual suicide. It is not only the repetitiveness but the stoic mood of the score that one remembers most once the film is over.
Nothing is directly commented-on but the unblinking Minimalist gaze (detractors call it a 'stare') is commentary. It's certainly not a narrative score but it has semi-narrative similarities with Glass's string music for the 1997 film Bent. This was the equally disturbing story about a brash ambitious German trying to work his way up through the layers of Hitler's hierarchy but who, because he is gay, is eventually betrayed and sent to Dachau. Under the usual rotor-effect in the foundation scoring, the deepest strings suggest a more direct sense of drama than the stylized cinema of Mishima could have used. While evoking minor-key Bach throughout, there are chorale-like sections where all the strings form block chords and proceed through a series of formal modulations; there is a dramatic passage for pizzicato strings suggesting the main character's ambitiousness and enterprise although even this active piece keeps falling back to the same chord as though stuck in a groove: the main character may be manipulative but, like a Minimalist score, he's confined to the same circular treadmill – and in this Nazi era, being "bent" rather than straight, he's punished for it. There are other gestures in the score that seem to want to personalize and particularize the relationship between music and the characters on screen – certain sliding slurring phrases, for instance, suggesting the sinister national climate and the main character's vulnerability. The point here is that Philip Glass's musical language seems to be evolving to accommodate a story on screen, not quite to the point of narrative music such as Paul Glass would be eager to do, but something more than ambient Minimalism.
Philip Glass's most famous film score to date may be for Martin Scorsese's Kundun (1997) and it is notable that this tends to be a more linear and even semi-melodic score than usual for a Minimalist. Maybe it was the watchful eye of Scorsese that encouraged him to a more expressive tone of voice or maybe it was the fact that Philip Glass himself was already well-steeped in the Eastern Buddhist mindset and culture which was the setting for the film and that made him more conversant with this story of the early life of the Dali Lama. Indeed, Glass's score contains and compares East/West elements in its key centers and harmonies, in the instrumentation (using both long Tibetan horns and regular trombones, for instance), and in the philosophy (Eastern ambient drones coupling with Western linear thinking). Added to the mix are voices of the Gyuto Monks and Monks of the Drukpa Order. This is Philip Glass determined to (or being told to by the influential Scorsese) interact more with the story, the setting, the cultural specifics of the film at hand. Reportedly, in the spirit of collaboration Scorsese was even willing to recut some of his film sequences to match some of Glass's provided music cues. All he asked was an equal homage in the music to the Tibetan milieu and a neo-romantic sensibility. Kundun resulted in Philip Glass's first Oscar nomination for Best Score. Even so, critics of the day observed about Glass (and I have heard the same from American symphony players faced with a Glass concert commission to perform) that the "composer's repetitive idioms work best, in fact exceptionally well, when they can pursue their own autonomous course set against vivid or contemplative visual images that do not require linear logic. But the essentially static nature of (his) music... can hinder the pacing of more conventional narrative strictures" (Mervyn Cooke, Cambridge UPress, 2000). Cooke then goes on to prefer the "more flexible Minimalist film works of Thomas Newman" (The Horse Whisperer) and, I would add, Alexandre Desplat (Birth).
With Notes on a Scandal (2006), it sounds as though Philip Glass has indeed actually learned several lessons from Scorsese, for here we have very nearly narrative, illustrative scoring, though still rotating and Minimalist in nature. This film told the true story of an American teacher who began an affair with one teenage student and then struggled through the lust, then guilt, then public humiliation once the news was splashed throughout the media. Here, Glass's orchestration is broader, looser; more colorful – a string ensemble sparked with solos from oboe, flute, bassoon, clarinet, harp, piano, horn. There are actual melodic motifs here, too, and some chromatic phrases that take the ear far away from Bach towards almost a romantic Italian dialect. This is still minor-key obsessive Minimalist music-at-heart, emphasizing the errant teacher's sin rather than any sentimental acceptance of a teacher-adolescent love fest. But there is a conventional melodramatic opening to the score – a single dark line in the basses till the rest of the string orchestra fills in and those solo woodwinds each have a thematic say. Still, a rolling Minimalist meter lies behind it all, but there are more thematic details which become the subject here. Solo horn rises from the mix to warn this teacher of the peril she is about to face once society finds out what homework she has been assigning to this one boy. So, here is the music score participating with the plot and here is Philip Glass developing a more interactive, descriptive movie score self. One sequence stuns us with unexpected percussive aggression while another darkens in the basses until it almost sounds like an execution scene; then the meter becomes a heartbeat pounding and the strings crescendo into a kind of ecstatic swoon. Again, this is far more expressive music than this particular Glass is usually known for and the new, more humanistic, perspective is welcome.
The fairly interactive scoring in Philip Glass's Notes on a Scandal has its counterpoint in Paul Glass's rather famous 1965 score for Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing. There, the two incompatible extremes of innocent melody and diabolical pointillistic atonal scoring are key features. Like Silent Snow, Secret Snow, Bunny Lake opens with a simple childlike melody – major key, this time played on a grade-school recorder. This introduces the story of a young woman who claims (to police chief Laurence Olivier) that her infant daughter has been kidnapped. Gradually, however, it becomes doubtful that there ever was such a crime or even that there ever was a child called Bunny Lake. Paul G's likeable nursery theme is effective both in setting up the family portrait and, then through a series of impressive variations, suggesting the twists and conundrums of this psychological/mystery plot: there is a simple lilting arrangement of the tune, a more forthright version with a pizzicato counterpoint, even a richly scored grand waltz arrangement à la Tchaikovsky/Nutcracker. A cast of eccentric side-characters eventually comes to light during the missing-persons investigation. But it is becoming clearer as we go along that darker truths and motives lie at the heart of this case. And for those, Paul Glass's score bursts out into complex atonal fortissimo passages of considerable violence – tonal percussion, barking brass, dissonant strings slurring up and down the scale; woodwind combos in broken interjections as though sections of the orchestra were dueling one another. We are in uncharted fictional territory here: is this a heinous crime or a crackpot scam – or is there something darker that Paul Glass is trying to tell us? Is this not a mystery film at all but a horror film? In the end, only the music score ever goes that deep and a charming rendition of the nursery theme appears at the end to confuse us further, ending with an unsettling suspended chord. Detailed orchestration this virtuosic would seem to be more narrative, more revealing and more valuable in support of a story on screen than some generic revolving Minimal approach.
So, what about these two composers: Paul versus Philip. The former was born in L.A. in 1934, studied at USC and Princeton and under Ingolf Dahl, Withold Lutoslawski, and Goffredo Petrassi in Rome; moonlighted from a concert composing career to multi-media composing but retired from media work to become a Swiss citizen and then to write his own music; composer of more than 70 works including 2021's "Trio No. 2"; and the latter was born in Baltimore in 1937 (the great-nephew of Al Jolson!), studied with Nadia Boulanger and with Ravi Shankar having noticed the similarities between revolving Minimalism and circular Indian ragas; already the composer of 70 works before he took up classes at Juilliard; he has experienced both great success and scorn for the "sameness" of his output. So, again, what about them: Paul versus Philip? In consideration of this pair of Glasses, we can't say that any one method, any one POV, is best for films. Where Philip has clearly grown in the sense that his vocabulary has expanded with his cinematic experience, Paul remains an individualist, but increasingly capable of applying different aspects of his training. For a TV movie called Sand Castles he composed in a simulation of a Schumann impromptu. For another film about a military jet downed in a desert landscape, Sole Survivor, he scored for a brass choir that had to negotiate his severe pointillistic avant garde style, a military fanfare and, in one hallucinogenic scene, take up the strains of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame". For a late-1970s project, To the Devil, a Daughter, there were choral passages and one intentionally off-key soprano. Overlord, from that same period, was an elegy for strings. He has even composed conventionally for a TV episode of Columbo and counts among his admirers mainstream TV and media composers like David Shire and Irwin Bazelon. And Philip? The 2000s have seen a sharp increase in his devotion to film music – and a concerted effort to broaden his style – to expand the tonal and structural resources available within his established Minimalism. His music for a film version of The Hours, from the prize-winning novel about three women living decades apart including novelist Virginia Woolf, received a BAFTA award (2002). He could have relied on period clichés for such a score but instead clung to a steady ticking meter with the intention of tying all the characters and their separate eras together. In that sense, still within Minimalism, he was interacting with the film in a new way. In 2007, director Woody Allen abandoned his usual soundtrack penchant for using old records as his scoring and hired Philip Glass to provide a more narrative orchestral score for Cassandra's Dream about two British working-class brothers; one in too deep with debts, the other too deep in love. Glass sounds like he is listening to Scorsese-advice in the more thematically-inclined score he provided. And he thought he was going to be further encouraged in this new descriptive direction of film scoring when the prize-winning Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev called him (2011) to help with his new film, Elena... but what Zvyagintsev really wanted was the right to use portions of the Glass Symphony No. 3. So, it remains to be seen how deeply or laterally Philip Glass may develop within or away from his Minimalist roots and how many more films may or may not value his revolving, repeating pinwheels.
Paul Glass, at 87, left the movies long ago but remains active in Magadino, Switzerland having composed seven major works, just since 2020. Sampling some of that latter music reveals an interesting irony: that the voice of Paul Glass over the years has softened somewhat, allowing for tonal and ambient compromise more often now than when those strict narrative lines were so important to him, while Philip can seem to be hardening in terms of more detailed and quasi-thematic writing, at least in his film work, showing signs of impatience with the limits of sheer Minimalism, the featureless backdrop of revolving arpeggios while the story on screen wants a real collaboration from its soundtrack. It's not likely that this pair of Glasses will ever be mistaken for one another, but it has been interesting to hear how, from opposite directions, they have been inching towards a center, and they seem to have the film medium to thank for that.
John Caps has written on music for High Fidelity/Musical America, National Public Radio and the New York City Opera; and on film music for Film Comment, Film International, The Cue Sheet, and the University of Illinois Press's "Music in American Life" series.
John Caps has also written several articles for mfiles on a range of film music topics, and here is a small selection: