Thursday, April 26, 2001
Believing in composer Philip Glass is a little like believing in God. Either you do or you don''t. Neither gives you any middle ground. On the cosmic level, the Glass career continues to expand like the universe itself. Perhaps the tinkling repetition of minimalism is the real music of the spheres, the unchanging chime of a quartz crystal, or of the vast transparent orbs once believed to have held the distant stars in their firmament.
Whether or not you are a true believer, you cannot escape Glass. His music is everywhere: in the concert hall, in the opera house, on CDs, in movies, on the ballet stage, on TV and radio. Undoubtedly, more people have heard his music than know who wrote it. Now, thanks to Performance Carmel, you can confront Glass head-on when he appears live in concert at Sunset Center this Saturday night.
The composer of the operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten, of film scores for Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Kundun, The Thin Blue Line and The Truman Show, and of five symphonies, numerous concertos, string quartets and keyboard works galore will be joined by three other musicians to play the concert suite from The Screens, a score originally composed in 1990 to accompany a production of Jean Genet''s last and most controversial play. This is one of 24 performances that, along with the retro- spective "Philip on Film," comprise Glass'' touring projects this season.
In fact, The Screens was jointly composed by Glass and fellow performer Foday Musa Suso, a West African griot who, in that bardic tradition, recounts in words and music an oral history of his people. To quote Foday''s biography, "Tribal conflicts, empires and kingdoms, cultural heroes, and family lineage are part of his traditional repertoire, which includes extensive verbal and musical recitations." The Gambia native has made Chicago his base since the 1970s and maintains a worldwide reputation on three continents. He has toured and recorded with such prominent musicians as Herbie Hancock, Pharoah Sanders, Ginger Baker and the Kronos Quartet.
In Carmel, Glass at the piano and Foday playing various instruments (notably the kora, a 21-string harp/lute with a gourd resonator) will be joined by John Gibson on flute and soprano saxophone and Yousif Sheronick on percussion.
Twenty Year Leap
A group of Carmel music and dance fans recently attended the Ballet San Jose production of Flemming Flindt''s Phaedra, most not knowing ahead of time that Philip Glass had supplied the music. Even after reading the program booklet, they still would have had a hard time recognizing the composer from this score. In asking Glass for his response to people today describing his music as minimalist, he told the Weekly, "They probably haven''t heard it in 20 years. That word may have been reliable in 1973, but the Symphony No. 5 doesn''t sound like Einstein on the Beach at all."
The larger quantity of Glass'' music has been composed for theater, which he says is his source of inspiration. The Phaedra score began life as the soundtrack for a Paul Schrader documentary on the life and ritual suicide of Japanese novelist and ultra-nationalist Yukio Mishima. Before writing the music, says Glass, "I read his books, and went to Japan."
A vocal work, the Symphony No. 5 from the year 2000 draws its materials from the texts. But writing purely orchestral symphonies, piano music and string quartets is more challenging. "I have to stop and rethink my whole process," he says. "I have to actually think in a different way. I try to imagine what the music can sound like."
Listeners have initially been turned off or turned on by Glass'' music because of its minimalist repetitions. The same can be said for musicians who often find themselves all but overwhelmed by having to play the same pattern over and over dozens of times. How does Glass feel about the performance challenges he poses?
"For me, it''s just learning the music," he says. "I write much more quickly. But it''s actually not that different in terms of concentration, attention and discipline from playing Haydn or Stravinsky. However, every music style has a performance technique that is unique to that style. It''s true for Wagner as well as Bartok. Musicians complained that their music was unplayable. If musicians don''t understand it, then they simply have to learn it.
"For myself," he continues, "playing has a lot to do with the physical senses. I need to play in a relaxed manner. To play a lot of continuous patterns requires a relaxed technique, a physical ease."
In spite of Glass'' obstinate repeating patterns--or perhaps because of them--Flemming Flindt requested the use of the Mishima score in choreographing Phaedra for the Dallas Ballet. "I had no objection," says Glass. "If someone else sees something in my music, I''m open to it."
Flindt commissioned additional music for the 50-minute ballet. When Ballet San Jose mounted the piece a couple of months ago, Glass was further commissioned to arrange what had been a synthesizer score for full orchestra. Music that had energized and propelled a drama of vengeance, lust and murder to its inevitable doom now played out as a tapestry of vivid orchestral colors. Now, in all likelihood, the original Mishima music will show up in the programming of some adventurous symphony orchestra.
New Kids in Town
Glass is not alone as an aging minimalist. Terry Riley is credited with having launched the movement with his In C of 1965, a work that echoed through the world of classical music like a welcome bull in a desperately precious china shop. Most conservatory-trained musicians in Europe and the U.S. at that time had taken their cues from the continually recycling ideas of Arnold Schoenberg. The more they fell into a habit of writing music to amaze one another intellectually, the more audiences stayed away.
In the stillness that followed Riley''s piece, young musicians like Glass and Steve Reich saw an opportunity. "Everyone else was going east," says Glass. "So I went due west." The minimalist movement attracted a groundswell of interest. Despite being trained in classical music, and having studied with Vincent Persichetti, Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger, Glass avoided the concert world in favor of playing at art galleries and other venues where ears and minds alike were open to something new.
The more pointillistic Glass and the layering Reich have continued to hold places of authority in American new music. Their progeny--John Adams and Michael Torke, to name only two--have carried the standard forward, just as the elders themselves have continually expanded their art.
"We''re in a very good period right now," muses Glass. "But it has both a good side and a bad side. Today''s audiences are much more open and accustomed to new music that they were a quarter century ago. Young composers can truly follow their own instincts. Certain things remain, of course--discipline, hard work, determination, daily practice of your art. The bad side is that in a world marked by all possibilities, it is harder to get into a particular style."
It is now recognized that today''s new music echoes that period in the 18th century when Baroque music was giving way to the Classical style. The composers of that era who did the spadework are largely forgotten. But without them, Haydn and Mozart and their fellow travelers would not have been possible.
A new style that pulls the others into its orbit "will become apparent," promises Glass, "when a man or woman of tremendous talent leads the way, and articulates [his or her] own ideas in a powerful language. We don''t know what that will be, or when. Stockhausen and Boulez believed theirs would be that music. I can see how others believed it so long as they wanted that to be true. But it wasn''t the only music people were listening to."
It certainly wasn''t. There are those who will say they never heard a piece by Philip Glass they wanted to hear a second time. But there are just as many who have eagerly collected every CD and film on video for which Glass wrote the music.
As for advice to younger musicians, Glass says, "I tell my son--a songwriter and classical guitarist--to be sure you enjoy what you are doing. To hope for more than that may be misleading."
Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso perform their original score for Jean Genet''s The Screens on Saturday (8pm) at Sunset Center in Carmel. Tickets cost $19 and $15 ($8 for students, if tickets remain). For reservations or more info, call 624-3996.