Turning 70 is a big deal for most people, and especially so for Philip Glass, whose birthday is being celebrated worldwide big time. He’s just been feted in New York by Music At The Anthology (MATA), and Groningen, Holland, is putting on a Glass Festival.  The composer and The Philip Glass Ensemble performed his massive compendium of minimalist moves, Music in 12 Parts (1971-74), this summer in the Hague and the San Francisco Bay Area pays its homage with the world premiere of his SF Opera commission, Appomattox, this coming Friday, October 5.  

Glass is such a big name, and  pervasive influence–I caught a chord progression in a dance mix lifted straight from him in a bar–that it’s almost hard to see the trees for the forest.  But Glass emerged clearly from that penumbral place in Philip Glass: An Evening of Chamber Music, which kicked off San Francisco Performances’ season at Herbst Theatre on Friday night.  And all the frenzied Zeitgeist schtick on Van Ness– couples out on first — will there be a second?– dates, bobbing heads on cell phones, opera patrons running to catch the curtain, and monster traffic–was happily left outside. 

Glass, mike in hand, (“is it me, or the machine?) began by announcing a program change. He’d begin with 4 sections of the 5-part  Metamorphosis (1988), for solo piano, and not play either of the 2 Etudes (1994) planned. Metamorphosis, though it uses material from the composer’s score to Errol Morris’ doc The Thin Blue Line (1988), takes its title from the Kafka short story of the same name, for which Glass wrote scores for concurrent theater productions in Brazil and the Netherlands. And though the music stands proudly on its own, its lines and harmonies suggest the haunted atmosphere of Kafka’s tale–Gregor Samsa’s alienation from the world, and his dogged journey to a kind of transcendence. 

And Glass, sitting erect at his Steinway concert grand Model D, brought its many beauties to light–the poignant hesitations in #1 struck the heart, he made the massive floating harmonies in #2 acutely affecting through discreet pedalling, his attacks gave the bell-like paralllel chords of #3 power, and his command of color gave #4 its dramatic weight. Glass has spoken of his drifting sense of meter, and this was certainly apparent throughout; pianists like Alec Karis and Michael Riesman would surely have been metronomically regular. Metamorphosis has sometimes been described as Satie-like, though the equally private worlds of Schubert’s Impromptus and Brahms’ Intermezzi, come strongly to mind. My first encounter with Metamorphosis live was when Glass played the entire set ,as Molissa Fenley danced, at The Unitarian Church, which is a little more than a stone’s throw from Herbst.  But what sticks most is how the music the composer has written in the intervening years has colored his gestures when he plays this piece now.  

Next came the West Coast premiere of Songs and Poems for Cello, which Glass wrote for NY-based new music star Wendy Sutter of Bang On A Can fame, who plays a wide range of works from uptown –actually West Village people like Elliott Carter–to downtown composers. This is a thoroughly demanding piece, which Sutter played from memory, and which, with its sense of duende–Lorca”s term for anything  springing from deep within– seemed to evoke music as various as Bach, bits of the Suites for Cello (BWV 1007-12), and Brandenburg 6 (1721), as well as Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920-22), and Dohnanyi’s Cello Sonata (1899), which Martha Graham choreographed as Lamentation, without ever resembling any of  these.  Its seven sections–applause broke out in one–were mostly grave, intense, deeply sonorous, and completely lacking in easy effects.  Sutter negotiated its myriad technical–long sustained lines, double-stopping, pizzicati, and focus on different registers, usually sequentially–and expressive difficulties with almost superhuman ease.  

Four interconnecting episodes, or “Tissues”, from Godfrey Reggio’s third and final installment in the QATSI trilogy, Naqoyqatsi (2002), scored here for Glass, piano, Sutter, cello, and PGE percussionist Mick Rossi, followed. One was struck by the cello writing’s resemblance to that in Songs and Poems for Cello, the ultra soft sounds from the keyboard, and the floating sounds Rossi achieved on marimba and celeste. Naqoyqatsi never got the attention it deserved in its initial theatrical release, though Glass’ tour with his ensemble here last year–the film and score were performed by him and his PGE live at Davies–helped to right that wrong. 

Equally atmospheric were the last two offerings–The Orchard, a kind of slow sarabande from Glass’ score for JoAnne Akalitis’ 1991 theatre production of Genet’s The Screens, transcribed here for piano, cello, and percussion, from its original incarnation for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion and cello, and Closing, from Glass’ 1981 record debut on CBS, Glassworks, misunderstood as a pop/crossover piece then, and probably now as well, which Glass and his two fellow musicians played with both point and affection. “How can such a quiet person write such powerful music?” I said to my companion, who sat stock still, hands folded, throughout. Who knows?  But this concert proved beyond the slightest doubt that Glass has always been and remains a chamber musician intent on speaking to his listeners in the most intimate terms. Appomattox, which struck this listener as almost unbearably intimate, when he heard most of its first act at a Sitz-Probe 2 September, will likely fall into this exalted class

14 thoughts on “The Intimate Side of Philip Glass”
  1. Philip Glass is to be commended for two thing: staying power and influence. Whether his compositions are something that the average listener would listen to is, of course, subjective and up to the individual listener in question. I personally am more of a fan of music from the Romantic era.

  2. Classical Music dead?
    As of 3:25 PM EST 10/5/07
    PHILLIP GLASS is #9 of the Yahoo Homepage’s Most popular Web Searches.

    Of course this fits him in between #8 ‘South Carolina Football’ and #10 (the incomparable) ‘Leave It to Beaver’

    Perhaps they could re-release ‘Leave it Beaver’ with a Phillip Glass soundtrack:
    Eddie Haskel Eddie Haskel Eddie Haskel
    You like nice You like nice
    Mrs. Cleaver Mrs. Cleaver
    Cleaver Cleaver Cleaver Eddie Eddie Eddie Nice Nice Nice

  3. “Don’t most artists fall into that description? There are very few who can keep innovating throughout a career.” (bill)

    Josquin, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Ives, Stravinsky …


    Also see Simon Schama The Power of Art.

  4. Don’t most artists fall into that description? There are very few who can keep innovating throughout a career.

    I don’t know about “most.” Feldman, Cage, Nancarrow, Partch, Ligeti, Ives and many others did indeed “innovate” in their later years. In terms of writing mostly great (but perhaps not innovative) music in their later years, there are any of a number of composers who fit that bill, including Vaughn-Williams, Bloch, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Stravinsky (some would put him in the late innovator class; I wouldn’t, even though I love his late music), Delius, Ruggles, Messiaen, Copland, Bartok, etc.

    And even if we judge him just on those early, innovative works I still think he comes across as one of America’s greatest living composers.

    That’s your opinion. Mine as well, which is why his post-Satyagraha music is such a disappointment to me! 😎

  5. “So yes, I can’t explain the “greatness” of Philip Glass except through his early works.”

    Don’t most artists fall into that description? There are very few who can keep innovating throughout a career.
    And even if we judge him just on those early, innovative works I still think he comes across as one of America’s greatest living composers.

  6. zeno, I’m not a big fan of operas in general, although I love certain ones like Wozzeck, Lulu, Moses und Aron, Il Prigioniero, Einstein, Satyagraha, Akhnaten and a few others. For American composers, Glass is one of the only ones whose operas I do like. I have very mixed feelings about Adams’ operas—parts of Nixon are ok, and the same with Klinghoffer. I did not like Doctor Atomic, but that’s just me. Again,this is my own particular taste, and if someone loves Glass’s more recent work, that’s fine. Nothing objective about any of this.

  7. “I did indicate that perhaps 85% of his stuff is crap and 15% is fine …” (David Toub)

    Referring now strictly to his operas:

    Though its been a good 20 years since I last listened to ‘Einstein on the Beach’ and over 15 years since I recycled my LPs of Einstein by giving them to the Moscow Conservatory, I would guess that my proportional favorable musical response rate to ‘Einstein on the Beach’ was about 2%.

    With ‘Satyagraha’, my favorable musical response rate was perhaps 12%; and with Akhnaten, perhaps 12.7% (in part because it was better orchestrated and better recorded; if not as inspiring, in my view).

    I have not heard ‘Making of the Representative for the Planet 8’; but have long wanted to. (I did see, but will ignore here, such lesser, in my view, Glass efforts as The Leopard and 1000 Airplanes on the Roof.)

    My favorable proportional musical response to ‘The Voyage’, based upon two Met radio broadcasts and two listens to the new Linz production recording is perhaps 13.6%. [On all four listens, I have been tripped-up by atrocious English-language text-setting early on; something that I had less of a problem with in Einstein and Satyagraha].

    ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ was wildly received by the Erfurt audiences and press, and my hope is that when I in fact hear the recording, or watch the DVD, my proportional favorable musical response will be, at least, in the 17 – 20% range.

    Similarly, I hope that my favorable musical response to “Appomattax” and the future NYCO operas will be, at least, in the 17 – 20% range.


    David, who are your most admired American operatic creative artists? Philip Glass is certainly one of mine; and one based, in large part, upon his operatic achievement beyond ‘Einstein’ and ‘Satyagraha’.

  8. Zeno, I never said I heard every one of his operas, including those in the future. Duh! I did indicate that perhaps 85% of his stuff is crap and 15% is fine. Maybe the stuff you’re mentioning is in that 15%, and that’s great. I do know The Making of the Representative from Planet 8 and for the most part, it’s dreck. I’ve heard many of his recent works, including the stuff that was in that movie about him and am unimpressed. He’s written so much stuff in the past few years that it’s a challenge to keep up with it all. Nor does it all get released on recording. Tidbit: I took my kids to see an IMAX movie last year at the Franklin Institute about the Mars Rover, and the opening music was a dead ringer for the opening of Music in Twelve Parts. I was sitting there thinking that Glass could (note I said “could” rather than “should”) sue for someone expropriating his music, since it was close to the original, but not quite perfect. I liked it, since it recalled Glass’s early work, although the rest of the film score was pretty boring and uninspired. Sure enough, it was an original Glass score. I’d be fine with his music being ubiquitous if it were really good…

  9. “Unlike the innovative and deeply inspired Einstein or Satyagraha, we get fifty billion operas that have his signature syncopations and arpegii, but without the depth or warmth or inspiration.” (David Toub)

    I take it, David, that you saw Glass and Hampton’s “Waiting for the Barbarians in either Erfurt, Germany, or Austin, Texas; and that David Gockley and his staff have granted you the rare priviledge of attending the S.F. Opera final technical and dress rehearsals of Glass and Hampton’s “Appomattox”?

    I also bet you don’t know the inspiration and source (and possible depth) of the new opera that Gerard Mortier just commissioned from Mr Glass (and Mr Hampton) for the New York City Opera in 2010?

  10. (see an older post on this)

    When I was much younger, I didn’t exactly “drool” over his music, but was very fond of his (earlier) music and felt that like Reich and many others, his stuff was being stupidly neglected by the establishment. So I featured his music on my 10-watt college radio program, and got to interview Glass a few times. My honeymoon with his music started to end once The Photographer came out—it has some good parts, to be sure, but was pretty uninspired and commercially focused. His later music is, in my opinion, about 15% likely to be good and 85% to be a waste of time. That 15% is still pretty good—Symphony #2, for example. But the other 85% is pretty bad. I think Kyle Gann summed it up very nicely in one of his older Village Voice articles about Glass (I don’t have the URL handy, but you can find it through Kyle’s link to his older Voice articles). Essentially, Glass’s earlier stuff was pretty groundbreaking. I still love it, and suspect many would continue to find it a bit “out there.” But for someone with so much promise, he manages to churn out tons of shit over and over again. So many things are slight variants of what he wrote before. Unlike the innovative and deeply inspired Einstein or Satyagraha, we get fifty billion operas that have his signature syncopations and arpegii, but without the depth or warmth or inspiration. He forces himself to write pretty much daily, but I think his muse is taking some time off.

    So yes, I can’t explain the “greatness” of Philip Glass except through his early works. But when he writes good stuff, it’s really, really good. It’s just so few and far between these days. Why do people drool over him? I don’t know, but suspect that they’re taken in by the hype and cult of personality around him. I remember when Glass was writing stuff that really was out there, and most people either had never heard of him or else were blisteringly critical of his music and folks like me who couldn’t say enough about his works. Somehow, the atmosphere that Glass was an artist ahead of his time finally became more pervasive, perhaps due to more exposure and marketing (initially via CBS Masterworks). And then people somehow decided that anything with his name attached was “in” and they latched onto it to seem cool themselves. I’d see albums where Glass was just slightly associated with the music on the album, and his name was blown up on the album cover as if he was the main person responsible (like the old Polyrock album that he produced). Hype manages to do that. And Glass keeps churning out the stuff, 85% of which is crap, because it works for him and there’s really no downside. He once told me that he did a lot of things to make sure he kept control of his music and kept a lot of the revenues, since he knew what it was like to be poor. And to give him his due, he did work really, really hard to get where he is today. Remember that he paid his dues, doing plumbing, driving cabs, etc. But I think that also made him realize how tenuous fame and money is, and does a lot to make sure he can keep raking it in. Can’t blame him, to tell the truth.

  11. Can anyone explain to me the “greatness” of Philip Glass? It seems everything I read about Glass just drools over him as if he invented the wheel. Sounds to me like someone gone crazy with the copy-paste tool.

  12. “-I caught a chord progression in a dance mix lifted straight from him in a bar–”

    Which one, I-vi?

    Walter Ramsey

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