Despite its establishment as a 20th century music, minimalism is an oft derided genre in classical circles. With its conceptual leanings, its cultural promiscuity, its “art of the repetition” and closed, poppy structures, minimalism is sometimes seen as the chavvy cousin, busking monotonally outside the citadel of serious classical music.
Some two bit cultural theorist, in a discussion of Habermas, basically disqualified minimalism as music; writing that if music did not take us into complex uncharted territory then resolve our place in that territory, it was not doing what music is supposed to do. For those of a certain cast of mind, music, like modernity, must be part of some grand historical mission towards completeness.
Philip Glass has never had much time for the bourgeois gate-keepers, nor for history for that matter. His is a thoroughly modern career, multi-media, high and low, culturally experimental – a 20th century oeuvre. The instantly recognisable rhythmic and harmonic patterns have established themselves as an idiom across art forms from opera to cinema, testament to which is tonight’s white chattering throng, which is younger, slightly more shabby and hip than you might expect at a typical UK premiere, filtering into the music hall baroque of the Hackney Empire to hear the latest.
That Glass has chosen Todd Browning’s 1931 film Dracula is perhaps odd. The same director’s 1932 film Freaks is his usual claim on cinema history. The cinematic seriousness of Nosferatu, German Expressionism’s hook-faced poster-boy, is the most obvious vampire touchstone. But as creaky scene after creaky scene unfolds, the staged hyper-emotions, the bats on strings, the cardboard sets, Bella Lugosi’s superbly immobile Dracula, the realisation that this is tied up in Glass’s pop universe, his catholic tastes, and tireless work on the borders of unacceptable trash, is all but unavoidable.
The score itself, delivered by the avant-pop classical heroes Kronos Quartet, is familiar Glass. The piano is a delicate nag. The violins scissor and wallow, while the cello clambers within the narrow confines of the 4/4, almost like a hard sexless funk bassline. The trademark double-time arpeggios carry that familiar momentum, like a train window flashing by in an old movie. All those elegant iterations, extended through time, deliver their carefully modulated moments of jouissance. His grasp of pop vernacular is as tight as it ever was.
One effect this has on Browning’s film is to create something of an ironic rephrasing of Golden Age Hollywood – what amounts to a pop art moment. Glass’s music, which many have labelled as empty of history, is here engaged in active dialogue with the past – that it only goes as far back as 1930s Hollywood is wryly typical of the man. The film’s dialogue crackling underneath Glass’s score becomes like lost fragments; there is both nostalgia and hauntology at work here. The tragedy of the brave glamorous present gone to the past, Hollywood’s failure at loss, a kind of aural Warhol.
While the emotions are not new, Glass using his classical tropes as pop art makes for a compelling night. It’s not all sepia. He invests the film with his own stature as a composer of scores, his energy and care. He lifts all those stagey, hammy moments of excess emotion out of the text, and in doing so returns their melodramatic power. For brief moments Glass’s ability to tap us, his deep resonant connection to the emotional narratives of the past hundred years, resurrects the film like its undead star.
But the irony is never too far from the surface, aided by the relative glibness of Glass’s music, which can often sound tongue in cheek. We get the same impulse that drew Johnny Depp as Ed Wood in Tim Burton’s film of the same name to resurrect the career of Lugosi; a sort of affectionate curious hipster irony. It’s a tragic bravery, but with a sense of humour. It took a long time for the shabby youth in the upper circle to stop laughing at Brown’s ancient cinematic techniques. Catching the mood the largely middle-aged arts crowd in the stalls began laughing at the deliberate light moments in the film. Between laughing at things that weren’t supposed to be funny, and those that were, the night threatened to dissolve into fun, like an echo of Hackney Empire’s boisterous music hall past. Surely Glass wouldn’t have it any other way.