For his film scores Philip Glass tends to tone down his natural minimalist style by using a greater variety of instrumentation and quicker harmonic and melodic development. Yet it is those very minimalist tendencies which make his music the perfect partner for character-driven stories. Those short evolving figures seem to tune the audience's brainwaves into the mental state of those characters (from the safety of their seats) and make the movies more involving. Like "The Hours", this story takes place in an unremarkable setting, yet among the complex of relationships there is something strange at work. Glass's commentary on the CD's sleevenotes tells us that the composer approached the score from the point of view of Barbara, a teacher played by Judi Dench. The Scandal of the story is that a younger teacher played by Cate Blanchett has an affair with a schoolboy. While the motivations of the younger teacher and schoolboy are quite clear in the story, it is Barbara who is easily the most complex (and disturbing) character.
"First Day of School" sets up some of the key melodic elements with dark cellos, repeated string chords and melancholy oboe joined by other woodwind as the track gains momentum. The Major/Minor uncertainty of "The History" seems to hint at a split personality, before "Invitation" introduces a harp joined by woodwind and then some cross-rhythms of string arpeggios before a horn enters. "The Harts" features a subdued harp and minimal strings before a number of contrapuntal threads wave a pattern. All these opening tracks seem to suggest the typically dysfunctional normality of average school and family life with only brief hints at an undercurrent, before "Discovery" brings back the dark cello introduction. In true Herrmannesque fashion we know from this motif that there is a secret.
From this moment on the plot develops, with "Confession" and "Stalking" being perpetuum mobile tracks in contrasting tempos. "Sheba & Steven" explores the central scandalous relationship in a manner which is not unsympathetic to the characters, given that there are more shocking revelations to come. In subsequent tracks Cor Anglais and Oboe underpin some of the character interaction, with their longing qualities brought out in "Sheba's Longing". "A Life Liver Together" seems at times to be a two-part invention for oboe and flute. The score grows in intensity when "Someone Has Died" reintroduces the dark cello motto followed by a string crescendo built largely from a two-part descending figure before ending with a pivotal music-box sound. The oboe is again present in "Betrayal" before the track becomes an onslaught of strings accompanied by a drum barrage. In "It's Your Choice" the drum hits continue to punctuate a typical Glassian descending figure seeming falling into the depths of despair.
"Barbara's House" seems initially lighter, though later low piano notes remind us that there can be no back to normal in a film like this. The core of "I Knew Her" is again presented by oboe and strings, but a new beat and transformation of the original theme seems to momentarily spell out a new beginning, until the returning drum hites remind us that Barbara hasn't changed her ways at all. This score well deserved its Oscar-nomination (and surely the composer will win the award sometime soon!) and the CD can be found at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.