Glass, thick and thin

February 11, 2014, 8:27 pm


Chuck Close, Phil (1969)

For a long time, I have detested the music of Philip Glass. As a teenager, I was swept away by Koyaanisqatsi in the theater (more because the images were new to me, and the dystopian picture of modern life sympathetic, than because of the music, however fitting), but under several influences came to dislike the blunt, in-your-face rigidity of his minimalism, preferring the Steve Reich of Music For 18 Musicians or the Morton Feldman of Rothko Chapel. I went 25 years without changing my mind, snickering at the unflattering Glass segment of Peter Greenaway’s documentary Four American Composers, sighing at the redundancy of the film scores — but a year or so ago, listening to the radio, I found myself rapt again.

Glass by Steve Pyke

Glass by Steve Pyke

The piece was Glass’s Symphony No. 9. It’s repetitive (what would you expect?) but with nuance and form — the movements have a sure trajectory from beginning to end, with subtly judged transitions and surprises. And the sound is great, fully worthy of the comparisons the medium makes inevitable. It’s performed by the Bruckner Orchester Linz, and the effect is as grand and gloomy as the post-Wagnerian epics of its namesake.

Since then, I’ve listened to a fair amount of his later music, and found more to admire. Of the symphonies, I like the second, third and eighth as well. (I’m looking forward to the release of the tenth.) The Kronos disc of string quartets is excellent, especially no. 5 (the musicians play better than I’ve ever heard them). The “Tirol” piano concerto, and the first violin concerto, are OK…and now I’m running out of suggestions.

The music I don’t like seems to fall into two categories. The first is the film scores, which may work well as background but are too thin to occupy the foreground of one’s attention. (He’s been very successful in this domain, so plainly this quality is intentional, but knowing that doesn’t help listen.) The piano music, and the symphonies based on rock albums (“Heroes”, “Low”) are similarly stretched out. The second category is his electronic music, where his taste in sound seems crude. Even the Violin Concerto no. 2 runs off the rails whenever the synthesizer comes in, sounding like the preprogrammed “harpsichord” sound from a Yamaha circa 1985. The concerto no. 1 is less ambitious (with a reserved string-heavy orchestra like the early symphonies) but more effective — credit also to Adele Anthony’s sharp execution of the deceptively simple violin idiom.

It’s still the symphonies, and particularly the latest ones, that are richest for me. I’ve spoken of the form, but their textures too are notably more complex than elsewhere in his music — his characteristic rhythmic effects are layered more deeply and with greater variety. And his orchestration is not merely good, but individual, in ways that build, surprisingly perhaps, on traditions of the 19th century more than the 20th. For example, he uses woodwind doubling more heavily than (say) Bruckner, the various clarinets and brass not just warming the lower string sound but cutting through. And he uses percussion as well as anyone in this idiom, even Stravinsky. It’s not an afterthought, as in 19C music, or an imitation of popular music, as in too much from the 20th — it’s up-front, relentless and distinctive, yet of a piece with the old-school philharmony.

With the masses of music he’s written (gibes that he makes this easy by repeating himself are not out of place), the question is where to dig next. Given my success so far with his Uptown side, I suspect the answer is the operas. And he seems to be continuing with the symphonies — long may he wave.

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