Philip Glass: The Hours

With his staggeringly prolific output of soundtracks, operas, theatre works, string quartets, symphonies, and concerti, Philip Glass has become the classical musical analogue to littérateur Joyce Carol Oates. For over three decades, Glass's music has divided audiences, performers, and critics alike and provoked equally passionate responses of celebration and condemnation. The landmark 1976 'opera' Einstein on the Beach, for example, outraged classical purists with its interminably cyclical instrumental passages. While this exhausting relentlessness has diminished over the years, traces of his repetitive style subtly remain, a case in point the elegant score for Stephen Daldry's The Hours.

Not surprisingly given his stature, every review of The Hours mentions Glass's score, whether it be to deem it portentous, beautiful, annoying, or intrusive. Consider some of the comments made to date. Slate writer David Edelstein considers the score “exasperating” and “homogenizing,” littered as it is with “incessant sawing strings” and “progressions that would bore a reasonably intuitive Music 101 student after about six bars.” Village Voice critic Dennis Lim bemoans the “stampeding arpeggios” which fill the open spaces of David Hare's nuanced script. By contrast, The New York Times' Stephen Holden contends that Glass's “surging” and “ethereal” score “serves as ideal connective tissue for a film that breaks down temporal barriers.” In support of the score, Mark Caro and Kenneth Turan argue that Glass's repetitive style analogously enhances the cyclical rhythms of the film characters' lives. Turan further contends that the music deepens the film's grandeur and melancholy. Richard Schickel offers in Time Magazine a most damning assessment by calling the score “tuneless, oppressive, droning, painfully self-important.” Such a litany of responses bears witness to the wide-ranging responses Glass's music can still provoke after so many decades. Yet does it not seem that certain assessments are a trifle hyperbolic? Based upon this written evidence, one can't help but imagine certain writers salivating at the prospect of vilifying Glass's music.

How does one account for such vituperation? Glass's popularity, success, and stature no doubt irk some. Others argue that Glass is to blame for the precipitous drop in classical compositional standards, a claim difficult to dispute when one compares his work to the compositional heights scaled by Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. Other critics, having derided formerly the atonal serialism of Schoenberg and his brethen, also regard the reversion to a comparatively elementary minimalistic musical vocabulary as an equally unfortunate development. Some cite Steve Reich as a model example of a composer who, unlike Glass, has not compromised the integrity of his oeuvre by trafficking in the relative mainstream realm of soundtrack composition. Glass's defenders state that his involvement in film composing carries on an honourable tradition established by esteemed predecessors like Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Sergei Prokofiev. Aside from these considerations, there is also the issue of how well the music stands up on its own divorced from any association with the film. Soundtracks occupy a strange interzone where they exist as artifacts unto themselves but also as appendages of their film hosts. Presumably, a score should be strong enough to succeed minus any 'background' context, for otherwise why—beyond offering the viewer some memento by which to fetishistically possess the film experience in some physicalized form—would the soundtrack be released at all? Ultimately, the music must stand or fall on its own merits, no matter how effectively its mood complements the film.

Let's first consider the music in relation to its host. The plot of The Hours, based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, presents three separate yet connected stories involving three women: Virginia Woolf, primarily depicted during the gestation period of Mrs. Dalloway; Laura Brown, a 1950's housewife who is reading Woolf's book; and Clarissa Vaughan, a contemporary New York book editor ministering to Richard, her AIDS-stricken friend and past lover. Each character perseveres by pushing forward in spite of being entrapped by the constraining, even suffocating, aspects of her life circumstances. Most of the depictions present events that occur in their lives on a single day, just as Mrs. Dalloway encompasses its protagonist's activities within one day. The repeating motifs of the score thus reinforce the cyclical nature of the characters' lives, the very title of the work attesting to this fundamental quality of repetition. While the delicate weave of the film's fabric at times seems to be too greatly destabilized by the familiarly repetitive strains of Glass's score, perhaps this aspect should more rightly be seen to complement the film as it aurally depicts intertwined qualities of development and circularity, movement and arrestment. Cunningham admits as much in his liner notes by stating, “We are creatures who repeat ourselves, we humans, and if we refuse to embrace repetition—if we balk at art that seeks to praise its textures and rhythms, its endless subtle variations—we ignore much of what we mean by life itself.”

The relatively sparse instrumentation includes Michael Riesman's piano, the Lyric Quartet, and a predominantly string-laden orchestra; consequently the score resembles at times a conventional piano concerto. The score sounds 'modern' because of the contemporary nature of Glass's style, yet also 'classical' due to its reliance upon acoustic instrumentation and a conventional orchestra. This aural quality thus complements the film in its evocation of the 1920's era of Woolf's Richmond as well as the modern milieu of contemporary New York. Glass's score is melancholy and romantic, deliberately pitched to intensify the emotional charge of the film. The music itself is largely free of bombast although signature Glass traits like insistent arpeggios and sinuous, serpentine patterns are present, albeit to a restrained degree. String groupings of violins and cellos swell throughout and voice aching, mournful melodies, the piano occasionally joined by a celeste or glockenspiel. In keeping with the tempi of the film's plot lines, the strings at times urgently surge forward and at other times attenuate and pause, and in doing so convey a mood of quietude and rest. Interestingly, stealing a page from Michael Nyman's book by pilfering his own back catalogue for thematic material, Glass draws upon Satyagraha, Glassworks, and Metamorphosis for sections of the score.

Devotees of Glass's more experimental past will be disappointed by the work's apparent concessions to conventionality. Admittedly, many of Glass's later pieces lack the groundbreaking qualities of his earlier period, his banal reworkings of Bowie 's Low and Heroes especially egregious examples of this diminishment in quality. Judging the score in the broader context of Glass's oeuvre leaves one dissatisfied with the unadventurous turn his work has taken. However, if it is assessed in relation to the film it purports to complement, one will conclude that it succeeds, not only as a laudable aural analogue to its film host, but as a satisfyingly elegiac work in its own right. In the case of The Hours, Glass's score matches the book and the film in imprinting indelibly upon one's memory its aura of melancholy and poignancy.

February 2003