Kundun: Music from the Original Soundtrack
Director Martin Scorsese was expanding the boundaries of movie soundtracks even before he used the immediacy of rock oldies to heighten the headlong action of Mean Streets in 1973. Composer Philip Glass was not afraid to shower listeners with music of pop-concert brashness even before his Einstein on the Beach score broke through to a mass audience in 1976. When Scorsese decided to film a biography of the Dalai Lama, Glass, who practices Tibetan Buddhism, seemed a natural to do the soundtrack, and their collaboration generated much anticipation. Gorgeous and hypnotic, the Kundun soundtrack fully validates the meeting of two masters. The soundtrack interweaves chanting from the celebrated Gyuto monks and the monks of the Drugpa Order, Tibetan horns and cymbals played by Dhondup Namgyal Khorko, and Glass’ twelve-member, low-note-heavy ensemble, which includes bassoon, bass clarinet, and bass trombone. Yet the sound blends and compositions never resort to that easy out taken by current world music—runaway eclecticism. The eighteen tracks are very much Philip Glass works, with a shifting but consistent coloration.
There are many reasons for why Glass has become the most famous and successful American classical composer alive. These include his insistently memorable note triads, and his minimalist arrangements with changes that feel at once high-tech and organic. Or perhaps he has been accepted in the process of the avant-garde going mainstream. Never discount his influence on experimental rock performers, from David Bowie and Brian Eno on down. But his status as a rounded, people’s composer has never been quite secure. Recently, sprawling opera scores such as Akhnaten have threatened to push Glass into the dreaded class of familiar names that go unheard. On Kundun, he opens up his work without sacrificing much of its rigor—an impressive and captivating change that should encourage those who are mildly interested in his sounds to become more interested. Most of the numbers are less than three minutes long, many under two. Yet there is no sense of composition fragments, mere snips of connective material, in even the briefest passages, such as “Potala.” Here, a flute figure slides into a duet with a trumpet that takes over the original phrase at the end. “Potala” is a complete process, like a tiny bud opening or the cycle of a minute engine.
The bookend numbers, “Escape to India” at the end and particularly “Sand Mandala” at the start, belong in the permanent Glass repertoire. “Escape to India” uses the endless, basso-chant tones of monks with lamenting horns playing long, sustained notes that are rare in Glass’ work and as openly dramatic as he gets. When his characteristic repetitions arrive in the violins, in rumbling percussion, and in breathlike chorus parts, they might easily be the pulse of life. “Sand Mandala” begins with the same bowels-of-the-earth chants but uses piping piccolos and oboes to follow every colored sand grain into its pattern. The sound-track ofKundun is more than an hour of music that passes peacefully in the background. It bears close, even meditative listening. A sound mandala, perhaps.
Milo Miles comments on world music for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and is music features editor at Sound-Stone Entertainment’s soundstone.com web site.
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