Posts Tagged “glass”

Glassworks (live in concert at Le Poisson Rouge)

Signal, featuring Michael Riesman and conducted by Brad Lubman


Soloists and Chorus of the Landestheater Linz

Bruckner Orchester Linz

Dennis Russell Davies

Orange Mountain Music

When Glassworks, Philip Glass’s first release on a major label (CBS Masterworks) came out in 1982, many of us felt it was the beginning of the end, a sellout to get his music heard by a larger audience, consisting of small snippets of his music that paled compared with the incredible music he wrote for Satyagraha, Einstein on the Beach, Music with Changing Parts, etc.

All of that is true.

However, Glassworks is still good to listen to, has some nice moments, and I’ve always wished Glass had kept the Islands movement going much longer-it ends just as it really hits its groove. And very importantly, Glassworks is still far, far better, in my opinion, than much of the music Glass has written in the past decade.

Other than being remastered for listening on a Sony Walkman, Glassworks has never really been recorded or performed in its entirety outside of that initial CBS Masterworks release. Individual movements, most notably Facades, get performed and recorded individually from time to time. But this album, recorded live at the NYC performance venue Le Poisson Rouge, represents the first time Glassworks has been performed (in an arrangement) in its entirety by a group that is not the Philip Glass Ensemble.

When I first listened to this album, I was greatly disappointed. The miking and mastering, which is a consequence no doubt of this being a live performance, seemed to make the music seem cluttered; it is hard to hear all the individual lines in Floe, for example, and the bass lines just get lost at times. There is no question that this music benefits from recording and all the nuances that go into the mixing and mastering processes.

But in many ways, this is also a great album, in that it confirms that live musicians can indeed perform continuous music without the major gaposis that usually arises in live performances, even those by the Philip Glass Ensemble. I was actually blown away, having heard many live performances of Glass’s music in which performers drop out to breathe or even get lost in the myriad of notes streaming without break. This performance by Signal is nothing short of incredible; they don’t get lost, and their winds seem to be able to play without the need for room air. I’ll have to remember that each time I get told my own music for winds/brass is unplayable except by those rare performers who can circular breathe.

The inclusion of Glass’s early, and wonderful, Music in Similar Motion, is welcome. While it lacks some of the frenetic energy found of Glass’s early Chatham Square release that is still the definitive version, Signal’s performance, a few minutes longer than that of Glass’s ensemble, works well. I prefer it to the performance by Alter Ego on their Glass album from a few years ago.

So all in all, Glassworks, as performed live by Signal, is a worthwhile album for anyone interested in Glass’s music.

As mentioned, Glassworks could be looked at as a transition away from the longer repetitive works of the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. Kepler, Glass’s 23rd opera, almost bears no relation to his earlier music except for the trademark syncopations and arpeggiations. Kepler really strikes me as more of an oratorio-there are really no main characters outside of Kepler, and as for plot and drama-look elsewhere. Just as Einstein on the Beach seemed to push the definition of “opera” to its limits, so does Kepler. The music is interesting at times, but truthfully, could just not keep me that interested very long. It struck me as many of Glass’s recent operas do-a few interesting ideas here and there, but nothing earthshaking. Unlike Satyagraha or even the somewhat weaker Akhnaten, there is little here that I find truly memorable. But then, it’s hard to get particularly passionate about an opera about an astronomer/scientist lecturing about his theories and findings. I love listening to great scientists lecture, but most of their work just doesn’t lend itself to a musical setting. As much as I’d love to see someone dramatize Chandasekhar’s dismissal by the noted British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington or the discovery of transposable genetic elements by Barbara McClintock, I’m just not sure these things are ready for their realization as operas. In some ways, I even think Glass’s earlier opera, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, has more memorable moments, and that work is not up to his previous standards, I think.

Kepler, performed very devotedly by extremely talented musicians from Linz, Germany, doesn’t suffer from a halfhearted realization. This group, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, clearly in enthusiastic about Glass’s recent music, and that’s a good thing. But after 23 operas, I think Glass’s formula has gotten stale. He’s become the Haydn of the opera world, perhaps. True, there is some more prominent use of percussion in this opera, but if the best thing one can say is “Wow-he’s using percussion to a larger degree,” then there’s a problem.

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Itaipu and Three Songs  

music of Philip Glass

Orange Mountain Music

I used to be somewhat dismissive of the music of Philip Glass.  I was big into Elliott Carter and it isn’t hard to see Glass as being diametrically opposed to everything that I was listening to.  I always respected that Glass was writing the music that was genuine for him and I never thought of him as a fraud or a sellout.  Glass’ voice is so distinct and confined that, popular or not, this is the music he is going to compose.  Over the last decade, I’ve softened my stance on Glass and I do enjoy more of his music than I did in the past.  The respect of his style is still there even if I don’t always enjoy the end result.

Inspired by the hydro-electric dam on the border of Paraguay and Brazil, Itaipu is Glass at his most obvious.  Glass does nothing to strain his limited choice of harmonic progressions and textures.  The performing forces of chorus and orchestra are treated as fairly blunt instruments (pun partially intended).  The four movements are mildly different from each other but none of the sections are particularly memorable.  The differences lie in simple changes such as block chords in one movement and arpeggios in another.  The words of the chorus seem unimportant to the piece and the voices are used as another timbre for Glass’ harmonic repetitions.  These choices tie somewhat programmatically into the work’s inspiration (a giant concrete slab is probably best described through block chords, after all) but I haven’t found that repeated listenings to this work provide anything deeper than a cursory once-over.  The piece is, to my ears at least, a work without surprises.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and the orchestra “made up of the best studio players in Los Angeles” sound excellent under the leadership of Grant Gershon.  The performance is austere and detached, well blended and mixed, letting the music do what it does.  If you enjoy the music of Philip Glass already, I don’t think this particular piece is going to bring you much that you haven’t already heard.  If you are new to Glass, then Itaipu is a worthy place to begin.  Joking that Itaipu is “the best dam piece Glass ever wrote” is fun, too.

The sleeper-hit on this disc is the Three Songs for choir a cappella performed by The Crouch End Festival Chorus National Sinfonia, conducted by David Temple.  Glass’ treatment of the chorus, without any of his usual instrumental accompaniment tricks, reveals the clever and insightful craft that good Glass can possess.  The harmonic skeleton of all of Glass-dom is present but revisited and made more potent by obvious text painting.  The music is not complex but I find each of the three movements much more listenable and enjoyable than Itaipu.  Where Itaipu is a summer blockbuster with a big budget, thin plot, and forgettable characters, Three Songs is a lean and tight flick with a killer ensemble cast.

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