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The Transcendent Sounds of 'Kundun'

Commentary: Philip Glass' score isn't concerned with beginnings and endings, much like Martin Scorsese's film about the Dalai Lama.


The first image of "Kundun," Martin Scorsese's film about the early life of Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, is a striking close-up of a beautiful mandala painted in sand. And the first sounds, also close-up, thanks to the loud, aggressive multichannel sonics that the cineplexes employ, are equally striking. We hear the exceptional crash of Tibetan cymbals and the oceanic rumble of Gyuto monks (each singing three pitches at once), along with the primordial, summoning roar of those magnificent Tibetan horns that are taller than a man.

There is also something else, less conspicuous. A clear, high pitch of synthetic electronic timbre. Philip Glass put it there.

From that pitch, Glass soon develops a repeated swaying figure over the Tibetan ostinato and then adds layers of woodwind arpeggios. It is music that is meant to accomplish many obvious cinematic functions: set a mood, provide an atmosphere, tell us where in the world we are.

But it sounds neither like typical movie music, nor is it actual Tibetan music, however much Tibetan elements color and shape the score. It sounds, unmistakably, like Glass. And it offers something more impressive than an aural setup for location or tone.

Glass does not employ the structural logic typical of Western music. His music is not psychological, not narrative, not about conflict and resolution. It operates, instead, on the level of repetition, cycle, continuous development. It is expansive, ongoing. It doesn't cadence, because, not going anywhere, it doesn't need to. It is more like the mandala itself, patterned and cyclical, infinite. We feel, as we listen to it, that it could simply go on and on, the way the universe does.

Scorsese flaunts Glass' score in "Kundun," to some extent actually building the film around it. And in doing so he brings to mind the most musical of all filmmakers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who choreographed camera movement to music and who, in 1951, made the most glorious of all filmed opera, "The Tales of Hoffmann."

In his commentary for the laserdisc version of "Hoffmann," Scorsese speaks of watching the film on television nightly for a week when he was a kid. And now, apparently following the example of Powell and Pressburger, he has attempted to compose "Kundun" practically as if it were an opera.

It can hardly be a coincidence that he has chosen an opera composer with whom to work, and one who is not known for using music in his operas to tell a story. An advantage of opera is that it can go beyond narrative. Music stops time and takes us inside a situation or a character. In Glass' Indian opera, "Satyagrapha," about Gandhi and nonviolent political resistance, the music remains on its own rhapsodic plane, a symbol of a higher, liberating force Gandhi taps into.

Hollywood, however, typically works otherwise. Witless plot seems to drive everything, with music expected to underscore the narrative even further. So no matter how much symphonic film music is nowadays marketed as classical music, the composer's place remains subservient to the film. And servants are rarely asked to stand out.

Take, for instance, the score that John Williams wrote to the season's other Tibet film. The first musical gesture in "Seven Years in Tibet" is one of symphonic music's common conventions--a harp glissando announcing that something is about to happen. Williams follows that with a big and slightly poignant tune (to tell us that this is a heart-rending story) and a quick climax with brass and cymbals (to tell us that it will be spectacular).

Yo-Yo Ma then plays the big tune on his cello with some bits of Bachian writing. He is hardly needed, but knowing the superstar is playing is one way to brag about the budget. Later, we get background Tibetan bells and those Gyuto monks used here as if they they were the best sound effects money can buy.

Ultimately, it's not a question of whether the music is good or bad. It is simply whether this is the music the film deserves. Thus we hear just what we are accustomed to hearing when Brad Pitt is on the screen.

The shallow function of such narrative music can, however, lead to misunderstandings when applied to higher ideals. In his score to Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," Williams supplies ersatz Copland Americana to emphasize the eloquence of John Quincy Adams, while he lets tribal music stand for the nobility of the African captives.

But it only seems to contribute to the curious queasiness "Amistad" causes in some viewers, the feeling that a film intended to combat racism somehow ends up as part of the problem rather than the solution. When the music manipulates with patent contrivances, we start to question, rightly or wrongly, the sincerity of the film.

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