There's poetic justice in the fact that Philip Glass composed the original score to Martin Scorsese's "Kundun" -- after all, one of the film's central themes is reincarnation, and Glass has been reincarnating the same numbingly familiar arpeggios for his entire career. But neither the music of "Kundun" nor Glass' career should be so quickly dismissed. On "Kundun," Tibetan instruments deepen and enrich the composer's minimalist style, resulting in not just the latest twist on world music, but in what is perhaps Scorsese's most strangely satisfying soundtrack since Peter Gabriel scored his "Last Temptation of Christ."
It may take time for ears to absorb it, but on paper, this project makes perfect sense. It was after a visit to India in 1966, where he came across a refugee community of 100,000 Tibetans, that Glass, who has just turned 60, marked the beginning of his mature style. "This was my first contact with that culture and that music," Glass said in a recent interview. "It was a real shock to me. This led to a series of experiments, because I could enhance my own background and formation. Doors that hadn't been opened suddenly opened." Glass became a Buddhist and remained in contact with the Tibetan exiles, as well as the Dalai Lama. He converted his compositional style as well, adopting Eastern music's dynamic between rhythm and melody, rejecting the Western emphasis on harmony and melody. The result has been the composer's propulsive, brittle and instantly recognizable soundscapes -- a world swirling with bits of sonic information that seems ever more contemporary despite its remote genesis.
It's a bit surprising that Glass, who has built so many musical bridges, has waited 30 years to return to the sounds of the Himalayas. On "Kundun," there's a typical Glass ensemble including cello, horns, harp, winds, keyboards and percussion, each quite capable of muscular tone, but beefed up with sonorous Tibetan horns and giant cymbals (played by Dhondup Namgyal Khorko). The lineup also features the chanting of Gyuto Monks, although their work is incorporated from previous recordings produced by Mickey Hart. The shrieks and bellows of the instruments often sound ominous, even frightening. But, Glass cautions, this impression could be due to "misunderstandings of Western ears."
Still, such ancient sounds fold naturally into Glass' mechanisms, especially in "Kundun's" darker passages. In "Distraught," Glass sculpts a haunting, glacial progression, introduced by cellos and deep synth settings, around a chant fragment. In "Thirteenth Dalai Lama," bass trombones mimic the huge Tibetan horns before trading lines with French horns. In both cases, Glass' portrait of the Dalai Lama reveals a complex personality locked in an earthly battle with fate. In the innocent and touching "Potala," there is no actual melodic line, but an evocative harmonic structure revealed in a series of mirror-image figures for flutes. This, of course, has long been Glass' secret power: For all his push-button symmetry, he can soak his compositions with as much emotional content as a Chopin waltz.
What Glass says of Tibetan music also rings true for this soundtrack -- that passion surges underneath its icy surface: "You don't find a lot of double fugues in Tibetan music, or complicated serial structures. It doesn't work that way. It's an outer expression of inner emotion." With "Kundun," the minimalist composer is reincarnated into a Himalayan Romantic.