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.