Home > Reviews > NOTES ON A SCANDAL – Philip Glass


December 29, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

If you’d have told me five years ago that Philip Glass, by the end of 2006, would regularly be scoring fairly mainstream Hollywood studio pictures – pictures starring people like Nicole Kidman, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Edward Norton, Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench – I would have scarcely believed it. If you had told me that each of these scores would receive generally positive critical acclaim from the film music community, and that he would pick up a myriad of Oscar, Golden Globe and other nominations for them, I would also have been skeptical. But yet, here we are, and this is exactly what has happened. The darling of the classical set, one of the pioneers of minimalism, one of the most respected composers of the 20th century has, finally, fully and wholeheartedly embraced film music.

Notes on a Scandal, his latest, is directed by Richard Eyre and is a story of sex, manipulation and blackmail. Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is a teacher at a suburban secondary school in London. A closet lesbian, she lives her life in quiet, lonely solitude, making few friends. However, when the school hired Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) to be the new art teacher, Barbara’s finds herself attracted to the striking newcomer, and decides to court the younger woman’s friendship. They pair develop a comfortable companionability – Sheba even invites Barbara to her home to meet her husband, Richard (Bill Nighy), her children. Everything changes, however, when Barbara sees something she was not intended to witness: one night, after a performance of a Christmas play, Barbara catches Sheba in the throes of passion with Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson), a 15-year old student who has been aggressively pursuing her affections. Almost immediately, the dynamic in their relationship begins to change, as Barbara used her potentially damning knowledge of Sheba’s indiscretions for her own personal gain.

Notes on a Scandal has been the recipient of a great deal of critical acclaim, with lead actors Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett receiving Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for their work. Screenwriter Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Zoe Heller’s novel has likewise been singled out as being worthy of praise, while Philip Glass’s score has been honored by numerous film critics societies, and earned the 70-year old composer his third Academy Award nod.

The one thing you can always say about Philip Glass is that he sounds like Philip Glass. The undulating, repetitive motifs are there, as are the metronomic tempos and familiar orchestrations for strings and woodwinds. Throughout the score there are strong echoes of previous Glass works, from Kundun to Candyman to The Hours to Koyaanisqatsi, to The Illusionist. Glass is a very singular composer with highly recognizable, highly personal style which has permeated every piece of music he has ever written.

However, more than almost any other Glass score I can remember, Notes on a Scandal has a definite themes-and-variations aspect, which makes for a wonderfully refreshing change. Also, Notes on a Scandal contains a great deal more emotional resonance than other Glass scores, elevating it ahead of many the scores which I have, in the past, dismissed as being clinically cold and emotionally sterile. The difference here, though, is that the emotional in play for most of the time is dread. Glass scores Barbara’s nefarious machinations with endlessly singular phrases and increasingly dark turns which seem to underpin and drive forward the wicked manipulation in which Barbara engages.

With the exception of the light cello and woodwind theme in the opening “First Day at School”, the bouncily prickly “Invitation”, and the quite magical sounding “The Harts”, Notes on a Scandal is a dark, menacing score. From the fifth cue, “Discovery”, onwards, almost until the album’s close, Glass thickly piles on the layers of portent and dread, sometimes to quite overwhelming proportions. The energetic “Confession” and the frantic “Someone In Your Garden” are almost like action cues, with cellos swirling beneath a bed of stark, almost Bernard Herrmann-like violin phrasing and wild, pounding pianos. Wistful oboes in “The Promise” hint at the lonely existence Barbara endures. The string undercurrent in “Good Girl” illustrates the twisted, tortured mentality of a woman whose grip on reality is beginning to unravel. The conclusive “I Knew Her” has an appropriate sense of finality and closure, and recapitulates a variation on the main theme.

The dramatic quartet, from “Someone Has Died” through to “Barbara’s House”, are probably the highlights of the album, in which Glass engages in some sensational, powerful orchestral quite unlike anything we usually hear him write. From the almost Horner-like crashing pianos and thunderous percussion hammering, and the relentlessly swirling string writing interjected with harsh, dramatic brass chords, you know in listening to this that something dreadful is happening. It’s superb, evocative stuff, and some of the best film music Glass has ever written.

I have mentioned before the ‘experiment’ Glass conducted on himself by agreeing to score mainstream Hollywood studio movies simply to see whether he could do it or not. The fact that Glass took the trouble to discover for himself just how difficult a job being a mainstream film composer can be while the contemporary classical music world continue to sneer at film music as being a lesser art form is admirable, and I personally have lauded this approach. However, it seems now that Glass has got comfortable in his new skin as a ‘film composer’, and that the experiment is over: Glass has made the crossover from one medium to the other, and is inarguably successful in both of them. He is not now a classical composer slumming it with the hacks. He is one of us, and it suits him. Notes on a Scandal is a quite excellent work, and the acclaim it has received is more than merited.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • First Day of School (2:42)
  • The History (2:53)
  • Invitation (1:29)
  • The Harts (2:16)
  • Discovery (3:01)
  • Confession (1:45)
  • Stalking (1:53)
  • Courage (2:17)
  • Sheba & Steven (1:23)
  • The Promise (2:54)
  • Good Girl (3:00)
  • Sheba’s Longing (2:32)
  • Someone in Your Garden (1:51)
  • A Life Lived Together (3:02)
  • Someone Has Died (2:01)
  • Betrayal (3:43)
  • It’s Your Choice (2:39)
  • Barbara’s House (3:45)
  • Going Home (2:11)
  • I Knew Her (3:22)

Running Time: 50 minutes 39 seconds

Rounder 11661-9074-2 (2006)

Music composed by Philip Glass. Conducted by Michael Reisman. Recorded and mixed by Chris Dibble. Album produced by Philip Glass.

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