GLASS: A PORTRAIT OF PHILIP IN TWELVE PARTS
Although rich in family scrapbooks and anecdotes, Scott Hicks‘ documentary on composer Philip Glass is a portrait of the artist in the present tense. During the year of filming, Glass was working on two major works, “Symphony #8” and the opera “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Both pieces come off as huge achievements that should win over even those who have discounted his earlier work as limited, simplistic, and repetitive. The film opens with a tour of his office given by Holly, his fourth and current wife, and ends with the opening night of “Barbarians.” In between we see a man so absorbed in his work that he cares little about what anybody thinks about it. Nevertheless, Glass comes across as an intelligent and articulate man who gives straightforward and thoughtful answers to any question posed to him. Hicks films him as he practices yoga exercises, makes pizzas in his luxurious home on the coast of Nova Scotia, and collaborates withWoody Allen on the soundtrack for “Cassandra’s Dream.” The 12 sections, more cohesive than the sometimes random vignettes comprising the similarly titled “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” combine for a multidimensional portrait of a composer who refuses to be defined in simple terms.
THE SILENCE BEFORE BACH
A dog watches its blind master tune a piano. It’s only 10 minutes into “The Silence Before Bach” and already I am bored as that dog. Spanish director Pere Portabella‘s variations on humanity’s encounters with the music of Bach include a harmonica rendition on a German highway, a subway car full of cellists sawing away on the underground and uniformed schoolboys struggling through St. Matthew Passion, the sheet music of which, we are told, was used in 1829 by Felix Mendelssohn‘s butcher to wrap meat. In that 19th-century marketplace scene, as poorly costumed, written, acted, photographed and directed as the rest of the film, we are told that Mendelssohn would rather suffer hell than have a Wednesday without breaded brains. The inclusion of such information suggests that Portabella is going for the irreverence of Ken Russell‘s BBC documentaries on composers, but he lacks the bratty playfulness of Russell’s potshots. Instead, we have a camera in constant motion that takes us nowhere. From its pretentious beginning to its belated yet merciful end, Portabella spreads his hatred for Bach by clamping us into a cinematic Iron Maiden while he fills the silence with desecrations of the composer’s work.
NOTE BY NOTE: THE MAKING OF STEINWAY L1037
Although most of today’s pianos are mass-produced, the Steinway still bears the imprint of the human hand in every stage of its construction. Ben Niles’ documentary is a tribute to the craftsmen who build the Steinway L1037. The informative and entertaining process of the instrument’s construction is periodically interrupted with scenes of musicians testing the finished instruments to find the one best suited to their personal needs. The line of artistry going from the woodcutter to concert musician is a testament to the importance of each individual’s contribution to the end result. Niles captures the sensibilities of the different personalities involved, from the austere demands of concert pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who knows precisely what he needs from a piano to effectively perform a particular piece of music, to the notcher who can feel with his hands when a measurement is off by 100th of an inch. The Steinway traditions, which have not changed in the last 100 years, are handed down generation to generation, person to person, maintaining a level of handcrafted quality that has all but disappeared in modern workmanship. “Note by Note” is a reminder of the deep working class roots of high culture.