I’m skeptical of this genre of adding new scores to old movies. And Philip Glass has been an egregious offender with his Cocteau Trilogy. But Glass’s Dracula is not only a demonstration of how music can illuminate and enhance a movie’s drama, but the score is one of the best things Glass has ever done.
Compared to current horror, Browning’s 1931 movie is genteel. The horror is all in the atmosphere: there’s no gore, and no fangs, and hardly any raised voices. Whenever something gory is about to happen the screen discretely fades to black. It’s the kind of horror I can deal with.
The movie has a grave, stately pace that’s mesmerizing. Which is appropriate, because mesmerism is the main theme: much of the movie consists of extended scenes of people staring and being stared at—like a Bergman movie. Glass’s music frames and emphasizes this stateliness, and animates it with an urgent intensity.
On the other hand, the movie is also crammed to bursting with things that are ridiculous—the impossible bats flopping unsteadily about on visible stings, the over-the-top melodramatic acting, plus the sets, the dialogue, the story, etc. It was here that Glass’s music triumphed, by bridging these lapses. Even if the audience cracked up, the tension didn’t break.
The production last Thursday was perfect: The Kronos Quartet, plus Michael Riesman and Glass on keyboards performed on stage behind a translucent scrim on which the movie was projected. Occasionally a music stand, or head bent in concentration, or a rust-red instrument flashed out in the Transylvanian landscape. That was all we saw.
What we heard was raw and raspy and expressionistic. The string quartet, for Glass, is not a cerebral or decorative exercise, but a vehicle for intense dramatic action (e.g. String Quartet #2, “Company”). But it didn’t overwhelm the movie. Glass knew how to let it speak. But it was Glass’s frame that made it shine.
The event was a production of L.A. Opera, which has in its history presented exactly one of Glass’s operas (he’s written a dozen). I hope Plácido or somebody in charge was at the Ace Thursday, Friday or Saturday to note the sold-out house, and the enthusiastic, mostly under-40 audience—exactly the audience that opera companies and symphonies pine for. With Glass we have a living composer who’s genuinely popular. We should get the chance to see his work.