Mishima (Philip Glass)

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Japanese writer Yukio Mishima lived a complex and controversial life, nearly winning a Nobel Prize for his fiction but also being deeply committed to Japan’s pre-war philosophy and government–so much so that, after a failed attempt at a military coup, he committed ritual suicide. The complex tale inspired an equally complex 1985 film from Paul Schrader, writer of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, whose Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters mixed archival footage, reenactments, and adaptations from Mishima’s fiction. Schrader is on record as considering the effort his finest as a filmmaker, and Mishima was a major critical success despite its minimal budget and occasional oddities.

Mishima would boast a score from the legendary classical composer Philip Glass. At the time, Glass had only one major film score to his credit: Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 opus Koyaanisqatsi. Glass’s minimalist, textural, but still tonal score had proven very popular, leading director Schrader to seek him out for his project. Intrigued, Glass accepted the commission despite the production’s low budget on the condition that he be allowed to rework his contribution into a symphony. Collaborating with the Kronos Quartet for some of the score’s more intimate moments, Glass eventually came to regard Mishima as one of his favorite compositions, and a “turning point” in his musical development.

Glass is a composer with a definite style, and his score for Mishima bears all his trademarks like repeating cellular rhythms and string figures and augmentation by some non-traditional orchestral elements. Indeed, the cyclical figures used by glass from the very first track are so strongly identifiable with Glass that fans can probably point to them in other compositions from Koyaanisqatsi to The Hours. The key differentiator between Mishima and Glass’s other scores is its relative brightness and accessibility. From the opening notes of “Mishima/Opening” there is a brightness about the music, enhanced by prominently mixed synthesizer accents alongside the organic elements and bold hits on triangle, timpani, and chimes. This brightness pervades most of the music and keeps Mishima from becoming too dour, a fate that too often befalls the work of Glass and the Quartet.

Instrumental choices help to add additional lively color to complement Glass’s indominable style. “Osamu’s Theme/Kyoko’s House,” for instance, uses an electric guitar offset against the solo strings of the Kronos Quartet in a bizarre, but creative, melding of Glass’s cellular minimalism and 1960s pop music. The prominent synthesizers mentioned above play a part as well, as does a surprisingly active percussion section, which is mixed in a much bolder way than the usually brass or string- centric Glass compositions. When all the elements come together, as in “November 25: The Last Day” the effect is astonishing.

Mishima is in many ways a shorter, kinder, and gentler Koyaanisqatsi: it is full of Philip Glass’s trademark ideas, but by presenting them in a bold, attractive, and efficient package, first-time listeners are less likely to be alienated. Glass’s shorter, concert version of his music is the only one available on album, running a lean and mean LP-optimized 45 minutes compared to Koyaanisqatsi‘s 70+. The relative brevity of the tracks on album also favors the Glass novice; with only one track (“Runaway Horses”) nearing the composer’s usual epic cue length, each bite-sized morsel is over before it has a chance to wear out its welcome. As such, Mishima is heartily recommended not only as a score in its own right but as an easily accessible point of entry into Philip Glass’s lengthy and often difficult oeuvre.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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