Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Philip Glass

Today's the birthday of American composer Philip Glass (b.1937)
Ever since hearing the song-cycle Songs from Liquid Days (1986) in  the year 1988  (it sometimes takes a year or two for American culture to filter through to British consciousness) I've followed with interest this most prolific composer's musical career. The three large-scale operas Einstein on the Beach (1976) Satyagraha (1978-9) and Akhnaten (1983) were for myself works which opened my eyes to Glass as a composer of unique vision. The ground-breaking 4 hour opera Einstein on the Beach is well-worth a fresh production (2012). It includes awe-inspiring ensemble singing and is as experimental today as when first performed in 1978. The last work in the trilogy of opera based upon Science and Religion, the dark and brooding Akhnaten (its dark orchestral colouring is achieved partially by the omission of violins) in particular the aria for counter-tenor Hymn to the Sun with its expounding of  monotheism and  plaintive coda chorus of Hebrew slaves is a personal favourite. The haunting Facades (1981) for saxophone and strings, is another relatively early work I enjoy hearing.

Philip Glass studied music under one of the most influential teachers of composition in the 20th century Nadia Boulanger (1887- 1979). He has integrated the hypnotic, rythmic patterns of Indian music with elements of pop and World-ethnic music to his classical training to formulate one of the most distinctive and instantly recognisable voices in modern music. It seems as if he has collaborated with  nearly every big name in modern music - David Byrne, Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield and Mick Jagger for starters as well as  Ravi Shankar, Brian Eno,  Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson and the Aphex Twins - testimony to the fact by all the evidence given, that he is no vain and difficult to work with prima donna, but of an easy-going nature and thoroughly professional in his music-making. Included among his many friends and artistic collaborators are the poets Allen Ginsburg (1926 - 1997) and Leonard Cohen (b. 1934) both of whom Glass has written a song-cycle based upon,  Hydrogen Jukebox (1990) and  Book of Longing (2006) respectively. The list of film directors, choreographers,  theatre directors and musicians Glass has collaborated with is seemingly endless, nearly every big name in theatre, dance, film and pop seems to have worked with him at one time or another.

In 2007 I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Glass's opera Satygraha at the Coliseum, London. Sung in Sanskrit, the opera celebrates the lives of those who have fought against racial prejudice in the 20th century.Each act of Satyagraha focuses on a major figure in the struggle against oppression, namely, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The demographics of the audience attendance of performances of this opera are worth noting. The London theatre discovered it was staging a performance attended by the highest percentage of people outside London who had booked tickets on-line and then travelled to the metropolis to hear the opera in its entire history. Some several years earlier I  attended a performance of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 based upon a Doris Lessing novella, also at the Coliseum (world premiere 1988) yet another early memory of hearing Glass's music. Some of the best themes and motifs of  this work appear in the highly popular Violin concerto no. 1 (1987) which again I had the pleasure of hearing  performed  a few years ago in Norwich.

Throughout the decade of the 1990's Glass consolidated his status to the point of near over-exposure. There once seemed a time whenever one attended a cinema or turned on the TV one would encounter Glass's unique and hypnotic music, this is reflected in the fact that he has won awards for music for films such as Kundun (1997) Dracula (1999) performed by the Kronos Quartet and The Hours (2002). Wikipedia gives a long and comprehensive list of the many films Glass has written music for and in this context one cannot overlook mention of the trilogy of Qatsi films, Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of balance (1993) Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation  (1998) and  Naqoyatsi: Life as War ( 2002)  all directed by Godfrey Reggio.  Each of these three films were inspired by Glass's music and filmed specifically and primarily to showcase his music. They contain the essence of the composer's message - a deep concern for the ecological survival of our endangered planet, whether from over-population, pollution or war. Glass's 'message' often seems to be a reminder that we are sleep-walking into our own extinction as a species and according to Wikipedia the composer describes himself as 'a Jewish-Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist'. He's been involved  over the years in the campaign for Tibetan independence and is a friend of the Dalai Lama.

It's a few years ago now since the amazing coup by the organisers of the Norfolk and Norwich music Festival ( the oldest of its kind in the UK ) of booking Philip Glass to perform his piano music at the Theatre Royal. I really wanted as much to attend this recital, to meet the composer whose music has accompanied and inspired many moments of my listening for the last 20 plus years. I imagined quite wrongly, that after performing Glass would retire and rest up for the evening, but no, apparently and frustrating, taking advantage of  a warm May evening, he visited the park adjacent to the Theatre to meet and encourage young musicians. I wonder how many of those young people realised they were in the presence of one of the world's most successful and popular composers of the late 20th century. I shall just have to content myself with playing  recordings of his Dance No. 4  for Organ (1978) and a transcription for organ of the touching aria from the finale of Act IIII of  Satyagraha  in the church of Saint John Maddermarket occasionally for visitors.  

Because his catalogue of compositions is vast, it is impossible to give a full resume of his works here, but  rather continue mention of some of my favourite  music by Glass - these include the early Dance no.3 and Dance no.5 (1979) both of which are real tour-de-force ensemble works involving dynamic keyboards, saxophones and voice - the highly accessible Aguas de Amazonia 1993/99)  music written for the Brazilian band Utaki featuring South American percussion instruments, the two symphonies based upon themes from David Bowie's Low (1992) and Heroes (1996)  1000 Airplanes on the Roof  (1998) and The Voyage (1990) an opera in 2 acts  which juxtaposes Christopher Columbus's discovery of America with space travel. According to Wikipedia Philip glass's favourite composer is Franz Schubert a composer who coincidentally or not he shares his birth-date anniversary with. To celebrate his 75th birthday a recording of Glass's symphony no.9 is released today.

Americans really ought to be proud of such home-grown genius which embraces World cultures in music, a refreshing change from the sometimes insular, inward-looking, self-referencing of much American culture. The music of Philip Glass introduces various musical cultures to each other and strongly reminds the listener through the medium of music of the diversity and fragile existence of humanity.

As ever the collective endeavours of Wikipedia states it all far more comprehensively and objectively than I ever could  - Philip Glass 


teegee said...

Americans are more than proud of Philip Glass. We love his work. Of course, I can't speak for the underprivileged. National Public Radio (under the Fresh Air program) has a full movement of his new symphony (tonight at Carnegie Hall) on line. An interview by his cousin Ira Glass (actually, his father's cousin) from 1989, very, very interesting, was just re-broadcast. Of course, he's not as great as Benjamin Britten, but hardly anyone else is, either.
I didn't know that you had such a library of Philip Glass music!

Laurie M. said...

My dear husband has an extensive Glass collection. Perhaps it's time I took a listen.