Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet

Royal Festival Hall, London - 24 October 1999


"I have nothing but disdain for Mr Deegan and his pompous presentation"

On 23 October 1999 at London's prestigious Royal Festival Hall, Philip Glass' new score for Tod Browning's 1931 film Dracula received its world premiere. Unfortunately, I was playing a gig myself that night and had to settle for the second ever performance the following day. Dracula is undoubtedly a classic film, never mind a classic horror film. It made Bela Lugosi a star and is still revered by film fans the world over. When it was announced that Philip Glass had written a score for the film (the original version had used excerpts from uncredited classical composers) I thought it was a terrific idea and immediately purchased tickets to this night.

The RFH was packed to the limit with Glass fans. An absolutely huge screen had been erected on the stage of the hall. The Kronos string quartet, conductor Michael Riesman and Philip Glass were positioned behind the screen in a circle, but were lit moodily and thus clearly visible through it. Once the film began to unreel, I expected the lights on the musicians behind to dim and for the projected image to be clear and unaffected by their presence. Unfortunately, it rapidly became apparent that the production designer had other ideas. Namely that the lights on the musicians wouldn't fade out completely, leaving the strange (and distracting) effect of having Glass, the Kronos Quartet and Riesman 'superimposed' onto the image of the film. I then thought that a clever 'multimedia' angle was being implemented; that after a few minutes the musical personnel would indeed 'fade from the screen' but that they would be carefully lit at opportune moments, 'appearing on screen' almost like apparitions - adding an additional ghostly dimension to the event. But, much to my horror, this was not what was planned. Instead, the six of them were clearly visible for three quarters of the running time.

Now, whilst I readily understood that probably 99% of the audience were there for Philip Glass and no other reason, and that they had come to 'see him' perform his latest work, I thought the way the musicians were presented was dreadful. By having them clearly visible through the screen image not only did it make 'getting into the film' incredibly difficult but, more importantly, it showed absolutely no respect for the work of director Tod Browning or the actors performances. John Michael Deegan was responsible for the scenery and lighting design and must take all the blame for such an ill-judged presentation. So narcissistic was Deegan's belief in his what he was doing, that he also decided that this black and white classic needed some crass colours thrown in to 'spruce it up' a bit. So we had to suffer the further indignity of Browning's monochrome compositions being tinted with green lights during the sea crossing to England, and red when a deranged Renfield speaks of mysterious red mists. Still, I suppose it could have been worse, he could have been seeing pink elephants.

The mix on the night made the live music slightly too loud for the film soundtrack, occasionally making the dialogue difficult to understand, but what of the music itself? Anyone familiar with Glass' work won't find Dracula a significant change of direction. Cues from his earlier career threaten to crop up sometimes and the trademark touches are present throughout. But it was refreshing to hear compositions for such few instruments in contrast to some of Glass' more epic works for full orchestras and choirs. The pieces written purely for the string quartet were especially moving. When used in conjunction with some of the more emotional scenes in the film it lifted the actors performances onto a higher level, at the same time helping quell the melodrama. The quickly plucked strings of Renfield's theme, evoking images of his insect diet, while a little obvious was entirely appropriate, and one couldn't easily suppress a smile or two. The highlight for me was the piece that accompanies the scene where Dracula tries to control Professor Van Helsing who valiantly struggles against the will of the vampire. Truly dramatic and exciting. The only real complaint about the music itself was that there was simply too much of it. There are several scenes where the dialogue is enough, both the score and film itself would have benefitted from fewer compositions.

Dracula has just been reissued on video in a restored print with the new Glass score. I'd very much like to see how it works on video, as I'm sure it should be better than it was on this night. So, a thumbs up for Glass once again, but I have nothing but disdain for Mr Deegan and his pompous presentation.

Rob Dyer


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