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Altars in the Street; Kundun: Music from the Original Soundtrack; Peace is Every Step

Kundun: Music from the Original Soundtrack
Philip Glass
Nonesuch
Milo Miles

Director Martin Scorsese was expanding the boundaries of movie soundtracks even before he used the immediacy of rock oldies to heighten the headlong action of Mean Streets in 1973. Composer Philip Glass was not afraid to shower listeners with music of pop-concert brashness even before his Einstein on the Beach score broke through to a mass audience in 1976. When Scorsese decided to film a biography of the Dalai Lama, Glass, who practices Tibetan Buddhism, seemed a natural to do the soundtrack, and their collaboration generated much anticipation. Gorgeous and hypnotic, the Kundun soundtrack fully validates the meeting of two masters. The soundtrack interweaves chanting from the celebrated Gyuto monks and the monks of the Drugpa Order, Tibetan horns and cymbals played by Dhondup Namgyal Khorko, and Glass' twelve-member, low-note-heavy ensemble, which includes bassoon, bass clarinet, and bass trombone. Yet the sound blends and compositions never resort to that easy out taken by current world music—runaway eclecticism. The eighteen tracks are very much Philip Glass works, with a shifting but consistent coloration.

There are many reasons for why Glass has become the most famous and successful American classical composer alive. These include his insistently memorable note triads, and his minimalist arrangements with changes that feel at once high-tech and organic. Or perhaps he has been accepted in the process of the avant-garde going mainstream. Never discount his influence on experimental rock performers, from David Bowie and Brian Eno on down. But his status as a rounded, people's composer has never been quite secure. Recently, sprawling opera scores such as Akhnaten have threatened to push Glass into the dreaded class of familiar names that go unheard. On Kundun, he opens up his work without sacrificing much of its rigor—an impressive and captivating change that should encourage those who are mildly interested in his sounds to become more interested. Most of the numbers are less than three minutes long, many under two. Yet there is no sense of composition fragments, mere snips of connective material, in even the briefest passages, such as "Potala." Here, a flute figure slides into a duet with a trumpet that takes over the original phrase at the end. "Potala" is a complete process, like a tiny bud opening or the cycle of a minute engine.

The bookend numbers, "Escape to India" at the end and particularly "Sand Mandala" at the start, belong in the permanent Glass repertoire. "Escape to India" uses the endless, basso-chant tones of monks with lamenting horns playing long, sustained notes that are rare in Glass' work and as openly dramatic as he gets. When his characteristic repetitions arrive in the violins, in rumbling percussion, and in breathlike chorus parts, they might easily be the pulse of life. "Sand Mandala" begins with the same bowels-of-the-earth chants but uses piping piccolos and oboes to follow every colored sand grain into its pattern. The sound-track of Kundun is more than an hour of music that passes peacefully in the background. It bears close, even meditative listening. A sound mandala, perhaps.

Milo Miles comments on world music for National Public Radio's Fresh Air and is music features editor at Sound-Stone Entertainment's soundstone.com web site.

Peace Is Every Step
Meditation in Action: The Life and Work of Thich Nhat Hanh
Directed by Gaetano Kazuo Maida
Narrated by Ben Kingsley
Mystic Fire Video, 1997
$29.95
Michael Tobias

In the silent opening of Peace Is Every Step, a documentary about the life and work of Thich Nhat Hanh, a camera tracks the monk's steps as he solemnly touches the wall of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. The resounding intimacy of this simple introduction foreshadows the directness and beauty of the material to come.

A Vietnamese monastic, scholar, activist, poet, and the author of more than eighty books, Thich Nhat Hanh is known to millions of people for his efforts to promote peace and spiritual reconciliation. The one-hour film conveys his soft-spoken message artfully, and uses the suffering of his early life to lend dignity and power to what Thich Nhat Hanh has to say. He was nearly killed several times during the war and has experienced atrocities firsthand. In Peace Is Every Step, he recounts leaving a meditation hall in his monastery in Vietnam as bombs blew up around him; many students in his school were killed. Once, a grenade was lobbed into his room. Miraculously, a curtain deflected the grenade into an adjacent room, where it exploded, and he was unharmed. "There are many bombs in our souls," Thich Nhat Hanh concludes in the film, "that have not been defused."

In 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh came to the United States to advocate a cease-fire to the Vietnam War, and he has never been permitted to return. Martin Luther King, Jr., nominated the young monk for a Nobel Peace Prize and he became a delegate to the Paris Peace Accords in 1968. When a detractor asked him if he was a Buddhist monk from the North or the South, Thich Nhat Hanh replied, "I am from the center."

He eventually settled in south-western France and founded Plum Village, a Buddhist community for lay and monastic practioners and "home" to refugees from war-torn countries who have sought out mindfulness practice as a means of transforming their shredded lives. Plum Village is also a resource center for other Vietnamese in exile, helping them to tap their Buddhist roots.

Peace Is Every Step unpacks the inherent contradictions in the lives of Thich Nhat Hanh's disciples. As the writer Maxine Hong Kingston points out during an interview in the film, many Plum Village residents themselves killed others during the war. An American veteran, who had only ever seen the Vietnamese as "the enemy," describes how he broke down when he first looked at Thich Nhat Hahn and realized that he was not, in fact, the enemy. A handful of interviews with participants in a retreat for environmentalists and social activists testifies to the gentleness and laser-like clarity of Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching. Following one event, Peter Matthiessen, the author of Nine-headed Dragon River and an ordained Zen priest, said: ''I've always been one of the angry activists. I'll have to seriously rethink that. I always thought anger was a healthy thing. Now, I'm not so sure."

The film ends as it begins, in silence, with an evocative image of Thich Nhat Hanh walking with Vietnamese children at Plum Village. Peace Is Every Step is an homage to one of the great peace activists and Buddhists of the 20th century. It tells his story accessibly, lyrically, and simply.

Michael Tobias is an author and filmmaker.

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