In many ways "The Illusionist" is not a typical Philip Glass soundtrack. There are certain tracks which, if heard out of context, even devoted Glass fans might not recognise as their favourite composer. Yet on closer inspection, Glass's unmistakeable mark is most definitely present. The title track "The Illusionist" illustrates this point. It starts with very dramatic chords in the strings - the sound is unusual although the chord progression itself would be expected of Glass. Then an accompaniment of alternating notes begins: again this is typical of Glass but so common in film music (Glass having helped to bring the concept of minimalism to film scores) that it is not out of the ordinary, and then a thematic arpeggio figure begins which is again not immediately recogniseable as Glassian until its harmonic progression becomes apparent. The track finishes as it starts in dramatic fashion with a further unusual feature - an accelerating crescendo.
This opening track sets the scene for the whole soundtrack in many ways - bold and dramatic at times, though adding both mystery and romance. The trademark Glass features are present, though they are generally held in restraint so that there is far more variety and colour than in some of his concert pieces, and the number of obvious repetitions and variations are kept short. The result then becomes very filmatic, moving in tandem with the story, the action and the mood. Tracks “Do You Know Me?”, “The Locket”, and “The Orange Tree” introduce a number of new ideas while expanding upon the already presented thematic material with a number of variations. Again the music is largely led by the strings, while adding colour with minimal piano, percussion and wind to the mix. Combinations like these make for extremely pleasing music, leaving the bold and dramatic for key plot moments and allowing the subtlety of the Glassian variations to drive the story.
“The Sword” is another interesting piece. Despite being the shortest track on the entire soundtrack (just over 30 seconds in length), it has that inexplicable magic aura that many Glass scores possess. “The Sword” reflects an important pivotal moment in the movie, so it adds a sense of dread to the purring strings with menacing brass and other quivering wind instruments. “Meeting in the Carriage” (with the urgency of a dangerous relationship) and particularly “Life in the Mountains” (with its wide arpeggios reflecting the vista on screen) are both purely romantic, with the latter returning to the exposition of the opening track as the significance of various events in the film fall into place.
The Illusionist is a great companion piece to The Hours. Philip Glass devotees should get a copy of this soundtrack as soon as possible, and soundtrack enthusiasts in general should definitely consider this little gem. The CD can be found at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.