Scoring The Hours: Philip Glass’s Minimalist Soundtrack

Although Kevin Puts is the first composer to create an opera based on The Hours, he is not the first opera composer to offer a musical interpretation of Michael Cunningham’s work. In 2002, Philip Glass, an American composer whose operas Akhnaten and Satyagraha have appeared at the Met, composed the soundtrack for Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours. Glass won a BAFTA Award for Best Original Music for his score and was nominated for both an Academy Award for Best Original Score and a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album. One of Glass’s assistants in the composition of The Hours was composer Nico Muhly, whose operas Two Boys and Marnie have also recently been performed at the Met.

Glass is known as one of the foremost composers working in the 20th-century style of minimalism*. Minimalist music, also featured in Kevin Puts’s opera, as well as in Nico Muhly’s work, is characterized by repetition of short patterns consisting predominantly of diatonic arpeggios and/or scales. Harmonic shifts are often achieved by changing only one note at a time, resulting in a smooth musical surface. Because minimalist music is not concerned with foregrounding a memorable melody or creating harmonic or motivic development, it is often described as non-linear, circular, or static.

At a first glance, it might appear counterintuitive to use minimalist music—the ultimate non-narrative style—to accompany a film. Yet on closer examination, Glass’s score turns out to be a refined narrative tool. The lives of the three protagonists unfold in three distinct timelines: Virginia Woolf’s 1923 and 1941, Laura Brown’s 1949, and Clarissa Vaughan’s turn-of-the-20th-century New York. The three plot lines, though unique, are nonetheless connected by Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, and the common themes of solitude, depression, and lack of fulfillment. Glass’s music offers another unifying force in this tripartite narrative, as the recognizable minimalist motifs wend their way through and across the three story lines.

While the score is fully orchestrated, the piano is the most hauntingly present of all the instruments—this is because, as Glass explains, the piano is “a personal instrument, which can cross periods easily.” The piano is also an instrument that was historically associated with women and with potentially claustrophobic domestic settings, as it was one of the few instruments, alongside the harp, that 18th- and 19th-century genteel ladies were allowed to learn. The piano, then, becomes like an omniscient narrator, delving into the private thoughts of the three heroes while effortlessly crossing their temporal divides; director Daldry even describes Glass music as “another character.”


*Glass himself does not use this term to describe his music, but it is the accepted musical vocabulary to reference his techniques and the work of similar composers such as Steve Reich.