Philip Glass: Notes On A Scandal

The soundtrack genre arrives equipped with all manner of complex baggage, something Philip Glass's ever-expanding catalogue illustrates all too clearly. One age-old question in particular rears its bothersome head: Should one judge a soundtrack's music entirely on its own terms, or factor the film into the equation too? Must one have seen Kundun and The Secret Agent in order to weigh in on Glass's scores? (Relatedly, should one listen to Dracula in conjunction with the classic 1930 film, and be familiar with Bowie's Low and Heroes before assessing Glass's homages?) Complicating things further, Glass's scores rarely take a back seat to their respective films. His score for The Hours, for example, was derided by some critics for being overly intrusive, though Glass himself would presumably argue that his scores aren't designed to be subliminal presences. In broaching Glass's soundtrack for Richard Eyre's Notes On A Scandal, concerns like these are rendered moot—this time, at least—by the quality of Glass's emotive score.

The film traces the public downfall of art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) who is arrested for establishing a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student; fellow teacher Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench) plays such a pivotal role in Hart's fall that Glass treats her as the score's nucleus (“The score essentially is about Barbara,” he has stated. “It begins with Barbara and it ends with Barbara.”). But even listeners unfamiliar with the plot likely would discern its tragic arc from Glass's score, and perhaps even surmise that someone suffers public disgrace, if not worse. The flowing undercurrent of deep strings lends the material an aura of foreboding, menace, and dread that makes it feel like the music is heading inexorably towards a tragic outcome.

Glass's music unfurls elegantly and memorably: a dream-like aura permeates “The Harts” with a swell in intensity signaling the onset of nightmarish turbulence; bright glockenspiel pings cast light upon the otherwise brooding “Stalking”; pummeling percussive patterns in “Betrayal” and “It's Your Choice” suggest the pain that comes from revelation of the most shattering kind; and “Barbara's House” is ethereal and ponderous, its off-key accents hinting at the distressed onset of vertigo. One senses a dark end is imminent when orchestral forces build in intensity during the passionate settings “Someone in your Garden” and “A Life Lived Together.” One sometimes hears echoes of previous works: Mishima-like harp patterns criss-cross with a rising French Horn figure during “Invitation” while “Sheba & Steven” revisits the string patterns of Satyagraha (“Confession” even seems to nod in Herrmann's direction with insistent strings that exude a rather Psycho-like obsessiveness).

His trademark see-sawing patterns, roller-coaster melodies, and rhythmic pulsations are present but the score is rich and varied enough that it transcends the prototypical Glass template. He even sometimes strips away those signature tendencies; largely eschewing repetitive patterns for flowing melodies, “Discovery” and “The Promise,” for example, sound only tangentially Glass-like. With twenty tracks clocking in at just over fifty minutes, some pieces are so short as to seem like vignettes, yet they never feel incomplete, perhaps because their impact is subtly cumulative. Once again, the composer evades critical capture by shuffling his stylistic deck and coming up with a compelling new hand.

May 2007