The Hours (music from the motion picture)

Jan 22, 2003 at 12:00 am

Philip Glass
The Hours (music from the motion picture)

Arvo Pärt
Orient & Occident
ECM New Series

New Music, it seems, faces one of the same problems that other explorative genres do — how to expand the audience without putting a serious crimp in a musician’s ability to take chances. Recent releases by composers Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt illustrate the yin-yang vectors of success — the way they can either shape opportunities or intrude on the shape of a work.

Glass’ career, almost from the beginning, has included film score commissions and collaborations with the likes of Twyla Tharp, Allen Ginsberg, Ravi Shankar, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie and Brian Eno. His 1976 minimalist opera, Einstein on the Beach (conceived with experimental theater guru Robert Wilson), was powerfully emotional and opened up a scintillating world of performance possibilities. But since that breakthrough, Glass has waxed ever more repetitive — dare we say boring? — as his commercial opportunities have flourished.

The Hours (his score for Stephen Daldry’s film of the same name starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman) opens with a mournful melodic stretch that promises, for a change, a Glass more than half-full. But it
doesn’t take long for the composer to get stuck in a number of his familiar ruts. A piano noodles endlessly over quavering strings. It’s dramatic enough — portentous actually — but as for taking chances, Hollywood film composer Bernard Herrmann managed a lot more of them in his scores for Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Psycho and Taxi Driver. And Herrmann didn’t come equipped with a “New Music” tag.

On the other side of the Atlantic, far from the popular music industry, toils Pärt, the Estonian composer whose early releases for ECM — of such works as “Fratres” and “Tabula Rasa” (1977) — made him an instant favorite with classical music fans. But instead of stagnating in the face of success, Pärt draws upon his Russian Orthodox faith, his immersion in medieval musical texts and his aesthetic preference for silence and simplicity to write some of the most consistently inspiring music of our time.

The past year saw the U.S. release of German director Tom Tykwer’s film Heaven (starring Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi). This profoundly interior tale, full of silence, love and suffering, is underscored by two of Pärt’s recent compositions — the impossibly delicate “Für Alina” and “Spiegel im Spiegel” — heightening the almost unearthly beauty of the narrative. Though the composer didn’t write these intimate suites for the film, they suit its mood perfectly.

As Pärt continues to release new work, he demonstrates an ability to renew himself both formally and emotionally. Two of the three selections on ECM’s Orient & Occident (performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Choir under the direction of Tönu Kaljuste) are stately settings of Christian psalms within an unadorned contemporary soundscape. Slowly drifting clouds and tonal expanses elevate the words of “Wallfahrtslied/Pilgrim’s Song” (1984) — “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills …” — taken from Psalm 121. Then a version of Pärt’s “Como cierva sedienta” (1998) for women’s choir and soprano is both starker and more transcendental in its rendering of Psalm 42-43 — with the refrain “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” Throughout this extended piece, soprano Helena Olsson’s exquisite, youthful voice is backed by a group of supremely focused sisters and searching orchestrations.

Sandwiched between the psalms is the title piece for string orchestra, “Orient & Occident” (2000), which though the shortest of the works on the disc is easily the most surprising. In a kind of musical showdown, Pärt plays Western harmonies against their melismatic counterparts from the Middle East. Alternating one chord after another, like contending blocks of cultural noise, this elemental tone poem is an aural exercise in Taoism: Opposites contrast then blend in dynamic unity, suggesting spiritual, even political, resolutions that our antagonistic cultures seem incapable of.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].