02 October 2007
everybody is always being what they are
Sometimes it was just by chance that I started listening to certain composers. I can’t remember when or why exactly I started listening to Philip Glass, but it was a long time ago. In fact the first CDs I ever bought were Handel’s Solomon (John Eliot Gardiner, in what was then a brand-new performance) and The Photographer, which I had recently seen staged by Joanne Akalaitis. Maybe it was Koyaanisqatsi that started me. I was surprised to realize last year during all the Steve Reich birthday celebrations that I knew very little about his music; I would have said it was because he didn’t happen to come to Boston when I lived there, but recently when sorting out over twenty years worth of playbills I came across some flyers advertising him, so I guess it’s just that I didn’t happen to go to any of his concerts, who knows why. It’s strange to say that a major composer slipped through the cracks, but so it was with Reich and me. So I bought the Nonesuch set to catch up on what I’d been missing. I can see why he and Glass (and Adams) were grouped together, but they don’t really sound alike, and I can also see why they all rejected the “minimalist” label (it’s odd how many art movements bear names that started out as dismissive insults: Gothic, Fauve, Impressionist, Ash-Can School. . . ). But Glass I heard fairly often: chamber operas (The Juniper Tree and The Fall of the House of Usher) at ART; 10,000 Airplanes (a collaboration with David Henry Hwang with such an awful libretto – hey, maybe the crazy people are really the sane ones! – that I ended up never seeing M. Butterfly; knee plays and tissues for Robert Wilson works like The Civil Wars; and performances by the Philip Glass ensemble. One of these is particularly vivid in my memory, since it took place in the long, narrow auditorium belonging to the Berklee College of Music and the woman right in front of me was bobbing her head in time to the music. Think about that for a minute – she was nodding her head up and down in time to Philip Glass’s music. A glance around verified that not one other person in the entire place was similarly bobbing. Nope, just the person directly in front of me. My habit of listening to instrumental music with my eyes shut may have started that night. I had to do something to avoid vertigo. Too much of a steady beat is actually what made me listen to less Glass over the years; increasingly I was disturbed by the overwhelming monotonous thump of most pop music, and I look for sounds with a little more variety. But every time I think I probably wouldn’t like Glass any more, I listen to him and find him mesmerizing. Satyagraha is one of those works I just need to hear on a fairly regular basis. You respond to this sort of thing or you don’t. People like to say that all Glass sounds the same, but you could say the same about Gregorian chant, if you didn’t respond to it. But if you do, there’s infinite variety within a very specific-sounding world. Hearing Philip Glass is like reading Gertrude Stein at her most cubist; both have a stripped-down feeling that sounds permanently modern, and both are going to send some people screaming into the night, while others will be hypnotized by how significantly a single modal change can affect what’s happening, and find a lot of wit and profound understanding in the experience. Last Friday’s “Evening of Chamber Music” with Philip Glass, presented by San Francisco Performances, was more intimate than the other Glass concerts I’ve heard. It’s always interesting to me to hear chamber works from a composer when I’ve mostly been hearing big operas or symphonies; a year or so ago Cal Performances presented a John Adams Composer Portrait featuring small-scale instrumental works (performed by Alarm Will Sound, I think – my apologies to the artists, but I always get them confused with Bang on a Can), and there was a whole side of Adams I hadn’t heard much of lately. Glass has a pleasingly low-key, slightly confused-sounding manner that obviously hides a very determined personality. He announced the program from the stage; he started off by himself playing Metamorphosis on the piano. I’m not really familiar with this piece; I wonder if another pianist would have used the pedal as much, but I also don’t care a whole lot – there’s something really thrilling to me in hearing an artist perform his own work, even if he’s not a dazzling pianist. This is, I suppose, basically irrational, since the thing is to hear the music and not see the person through whom it arrived in the world, but music itself is an irrational pleasure, so I enjoyed his performance possibly more than I would a more accomplished one. Then Wendy Sutter took over with a fluent Songs and Poems for Cello (which, by the way, is a piece that doesn’t “sound like Philip Glass,” the way Metamorphosen to me doesn’t sound like Richard Strauss, which may say more about the assumptions we make about composers than about their actual range). Then the final performer, Mick Rossi on percussion, appeared, and we heard Tissues from Naqoyqatsi and some music for Genet’s The Orchard (Glass rather endearingly admitted he had seen the play so long ago that he couldn’t remember what part was prompting the music). The concert closed with the Opening and Closing sections of Glassworks, which, Glass wittily noted, “sound the same.” But even within the distinctive Philip Glass sound, there are differences; his music seesaws between frenzy and elegy, which I think captures the mood of our time persuasively.