Having been an admirer of Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, about the relationship of three women at three different times to Mrs. Dalloway, I approached the movie with some trepidation, but was impressed by the performances of the three women (played in chronological order by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep), while being disappointed in the performances by Ed Harris and Jeff Daniels of the 1990s men (the portrays of husbands in the 1920s and 1950s by and by Stephen Dillane and John C. Reilly were IMO fine).
While watching the movie in its theatrical release, I thought that Philip Glass’s musical soundtrack was overly intrusive. Repetitive, of course, but it did not differentiate between the three time periods. Nor did it particularly fit with what was on the screen. And for someone like me, very familiar with (and very moved by) Glass’s opera “Satyagraha” (which is also set in three different times, though focusing in men in those times), much was audibly recycled. OK choral music from the opera was scored for piano and orchestra. Bach recycled material, Handel recycled material, Rota and Orff notoriously have done it in movie scores.
I didn’t appreciate some of the music during the movie, particularly the middle of “For Your Benefit,” which seems particularly derivative Glass music in his tense mode, and the doodling of “An Unwelcome Friend.” In contrast, cut off from the movie, I find “Something She Had to Do” wistfully beautiful. The piano solo in “I’m Going to Make a Cake” is quite beautiful and gets mysterious as the piano gives up any semblance of carrying a melody and swirls.
“The Kiss” has an eight-note melody repeated over and over with a slowly moving anchor in the bass (strings in the soundtrack; piano in this recording) that is quite lovely. “Dead Things” has an interesting succession of falling (that belonged to strings) and rising (that was always the piano’s).
“Why Does Someone Have to Die?” repeats a four-note rising figure (not enough notes for the number of syllables of the title question). It sounds more heroic than mournful (rebelling against death, as Elias Canetti advocated). The first half of “Escape” is quite coolly lovely and after a brief alarm settles back to stately movie music elegy. “Choosing Life” is not audibly optimistic. It is also stately though moving slowly (very slowly) upward in register (better with the strings doing it) then reaching a sort of stasis with treble piano figuration (doodling would be the hostile characterization of this) and ceases rather than ends
“Tearing Herself Away” is filler music borrowed, I’m fairly certain, from Glass’s “Mishima” soundtrack. It develops some arpeggio-like chords (I forget what chords that are rolled by the hand rather than struck simultaneously are called. John?)
The longest track is the final one. I wouldn’t say it develops in a melodic sense, put it gains in volume and speed and then slows down (reduces orchestral forces in the soundtrack recording), and then resurges with two four-note figures differing in the top note (that is repeating the same first three chords) and varying some in tempo before subsiding into arpeggios played rapidly. (I’d say that this track also ceases rather than ends.)
The whole score sounds like late-1990s Philip Glass without any really abrasive sections (as there are, for instance, in his music for “Koyanasquatsi” and “Glassworks”) and with nothing as outstandingly gossamerly beautiful as “Facades” from “Glassworks” or the tenor solos from “Satyagraha.” There are cascades in slow motion and cascades in faster motion, lots of arpeggios, and often very repetitious bass lines (taken over for solo piano from the orchestral part of the soundtrack which was written for piano with orchestra and string quartet). I consider the generally soothing sound good background music for writing or for postcoital drifting.
The soundtrack was nominated for a 2002 Oscar and the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack Album.
I feel that the music is simple enough without being simplified and denuded of orchestral color (bleached?). Michael Riesman, Mr. Glass’ longtime musical director, producer, and (I think) featured pianist of “The Hours” soundtrack understands Glass’s intentions and varies tempi not at all (not audibly at least). Riesman’s recording is not a suite from the movie, but solo piano rendition for the same tracks as the soundtrack recording.
Riesman is a skilled pianist, particularly a masterful Glass performer, and there are no serious questions of authenticity, given the composer’s involvement with the rescoring and the long association of Glass and Riesman, but the question “Why?” still arises? What is gained by a solo piano transcription of a piano and orchestra fantasia? I prefer the string palette that the soundtrack includes, so this recording turns out to be another take on the score of a well-received movie soundtrack that adds no music and can be said to subtract some (though not any cuts).
In contrast the recent recordings of the scores for “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Elmer Bernstein) and “Doctor Zhivago” (Maurice Jarré) add music written but not used in the movies. Those for “Mockingbird” and “Romeo and Juliet” (Nino Rota) and the music for MGM epics written by Miklos Rosza add to the size of the orchestra
The soundtrack disc seems a good introduction to Glass at his least threatening, though both within the movies and as soundtrack albums to listen to I prefer “Mishima” and “Kundun” and the Hopi choruses from “Koyanasqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi” (and among the operas, without question, “Satyagraha”; I’ve slammed his most recent and totally unoriginal opera, The Voyage; I also especially like the Naxos disc with Glass’s violin concerto played by Adele Anthony (much better than the premiere recording of it played by Gidon Kremer)). A movie just opening most places (and in award contention at least for Judi Dench’s performance) that has a soundtrack by Glass is “Notes on a Scandal.” His soundtrack for “The Truman Show” won some awards, but I don’t remember what it sounds like.
(The 80-year-old composer, whose skillas a pianist are less than those required by his music was in town [San Francisco] performing some of his shorter chamber works last weekend.)
©2007, 2018, Stephen O. Muray