Philip Glass wrote A Descent into the Maelstrom in 1985 for an Australian dance company and later recorded it with the original Philip Glass Ensemble. It was one of the last projects for that group. The work is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, who was really as influential in speculative fiction as he was in the mystery story; the tale deals with two fishermen who are dragged down by a deadly current off Norway's Lofoten Islands. The work is very much of a piece with Glass' other big mystical works of the period, most of all Koyaanisqatsi, and it seems to have lain fallow simply because it was overshadowed by these other works in the U.S. However, film director Jan Vardøen decided to film the story, with several happy results. First, the film takes place on location, as it were, in northern Norway, and better still, the director turned once again to the Glass score, commissioning a full-orchestra arrangement from composer Alexander Waaktaar. The result in purely musical terms works well: the role of Glass' original synthesizer is reduced but not eliminated, and the broadening-out of the orchestral palette matches what Glass himself has done in other works. (Indeed, this album appears on Glass' own Orange Mountain Music, so one may assume he has approved of the contents.) For those without access to the film, which really looks as though it's worth seeking out, the makers have a useful website (glassmaelstrom.com) with a trailer, stills, and the full text of Poe's story. The Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra, also local, under Tim Weiss turns out to be a fine Glass orchestra, with a smooth, somewhat mystical sheen. Sample one of the more active sections, such as "The Hurricane and Recognition of Death." Orange Mountain Music makes a rare misstep with the engineering, with a bass-heavy mix that tramples the periodic solo instrumental effects in the score, but this release is a must for Glass fans and an attraction for anyone who has enjoyed the composer's popular multimedia projects of the 1980s.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
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