- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

Soundtracks have a complicated place in the music world. Movie scores are written as incidental music; they’re often most successful when they’re barely noticed, adding to the film’s unity but not overshadowing its other elements.

The genre has been steadily attracting a higher caliber of talent: John Williams (“Star Wars” and dozens of others), Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”) and Rachel Portman (Oscar winner for “Emma”) are some of the best examples.

Philip Glass is perhaps the most serious and talented composer who works regularly in the film industry. The Baltimore native is notably prolific, having written numerous operas, symphonies and concertos in addition to a long list of film scores, including those for “Kundun,” “The Truman Show” and the documentary “The Thin Blue Line.”

His latest offering is the score to “The Illusionist.” The soundtrack is in stores today, and the movie opens Friday. Written and directed by Neil Burger and based on a story by Steven Millhauser, “The Illusionist” stars Edward Norton as a conjurer in love with a woman above his class in turn-of-the-century Vienna.

Mr. Glass’ elegant score is full of mystery and romance and boasts full orchestral sound. This is in contrast to 2002’s “The Hours,” Mr. Glass’ last big film score and one of his most successful. That work was driven by piano and a small group of strings; here, the Czech Film Orchestra, conducted by Michael Riesman, perfectly renders a soaring sound, with individual instruments sometimes poking out from beneath the surface in an idiosyncratic way. Mr. Glass, who started his musical career as a flutist, makes good use of the flute here.

“The Illusionist” sounds like “The Hours” in some ways; there’s a hint of that driving piano now and then, although many times the same feeling is conveyed using percussion. This new work is more varied. The book and film “The Hours” explored thematic connections between three very different women from three time periods; a relentless repetition made sense. “The Illusionist” is entirely different, a story of a magician who becomes dangerous to the powerful. A sense of surprise is fitting.

There is much beauty here. Mr. Glass makes his theme seem foreboding at one point, free and glorious at another. He gives the listener a sense that evil may be afoot, without ever sounding like cheap horror.

Mr. Glass isn’t really slumming. He’s arguably the world’s most famous minimalist composer, and his style of music seems particularly well-suited to the soundtrack form. Its emphasis on repetition is just what a film score needs to add to its sense of unity. It worked exceedingly well in “The Hours,” and though the score of “The Illusionist” doesn’t quite soar to that film’s heights, it works very well.

The album, however, suffers from the same problem as many movie soundtracks: too many little repetitive pieces coming one after the other. Even when they’re very good, soundtracks always seem to have something of background music about them. “The Illusionist” would have been better released as a didacted suite.

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