Song 270: Philip Glass, “100,000 People” (2003)


Detractors of Philip Glass often complain that his music is too repetitive. I see where they’re coming from, but that’s one of the things I like most about it. (Glass does too: He reportedly calls himself a composer of “music with repetitive structures,” preferring that phrase over the term “minimalist.”) Like the music of his colleague Steve Reich, Glass’s work achieves something of a meditative state in its repetition; the patterns eventually lead to revelations and idiosyncrasies.

Glass wrote the score for Errol Morris’s film The Fog of War, a movie about one of the Vietnam War’s main architects, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. It’s both a damning (but also admiringly ambiguous) look at the horrors of war and a portrait of a man who isn’t exactly sure of—or isn’t ready to face—his role in the conflict.

The Vietnam War—especially as it is portrayed in The Fog of War—is a mess of confusing decisions, vague moral questions, and seemingly unending darkness. For those reasons alone, Philip Glass’s style is a perfect fit: his gloomily circular themes are an appropriate backdrop for a quagmire whose patterns of dishonesty and destruction defined an era.

“100,000 People” actually refers to the number of casualties in a McNamara-assisted mission in Tokyo during World War II. That part of the film provides some crucial backstory for McNamara: in his descriptions of the bombing (especially in using terms like “mechanism”), his experience as president of the Ford Motor Company starts to shed light on his purely analytical view of war. Numbers are numbers, whether they represent car sales or casualties. Glass’s cold, precise score underlines this business-oriented logic, the musical complement to McNamara’s dark math.


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