We are all agreed, are we not, that Philip Glass is the "most important living composer"? Rolling Stone magazine thinks so. Martin Scorsese reveres him. Glass has composed the music for Scorsese's new film about the Dalai Lama, and the director considers himself "fortunate, indeed blessed" to have worked with Glass on Kundun. The soundtrack for Kundun has more character than Glass's Second Symphony, also about to be released on the Nonesuch label. This sounds, in its wholesale manipulation of cliche, much more like a film soundtrack than the real one.
Glass was once a minimalist with a purposeful, rigorous aesthetic. He was spoken of with pioneers such as Steve Reich. These days - it would be friendly but untrue to say otherwise - his music is minimal only in that it contains few ideas. His Second Symphony does none of the powerfully integrative, interesting things that symphonies traditionally do and is not really a symphony at all.
For a while it sounds fine. Cellos have a go at a slow-treading, quiet, suspenseful thing. A cor anglais emits a reedy lament and the whole is repeated with variations. But the cor anglais, you reflect, could do a whole lot of things other than emit laments if only somebody asked it. Later, the melodic material peters out and you find yourself in the midst of a dramatised version of what you did when you began learning piano.
If Glass had roped in Tibetan monks to colour the symphony, maybe he could have lifted it into another musical and spiritual sphere. The deep, growling, extraordinary throat-singing of Tibetan monks runs throughout Kundun and sounds just perfect for the Surround Sound Experience. To a Tibetan this kind of singing signifies something special. But with a cheeky piccolo on top, a thuddy drum down below and a bucket of popcorn in front it means something quite different. Still, the superficial, inorganic, coloristic use of Buddhist monks in a Hollywood score is surely no obstacle to an Oscar.
In May, by the way, Glass's "three-dimensional computerised opera", Monsters of Grace, comes to the Barbican Theatre, a collaboration between Glass and the American director Robert Wilson. Technical work will be by Silicon Graphics, "the world's leader in high-performance computer technology dedicated to unleashing the power of human creativity". The audience will be allowed to take their 3-D glasses home with …