Today is the 80th birthday of one of the biggest composers of the ‘minimalist’ movement in music. Philip Glass, together with Steve Reich, Terry Riley and John Adams, has exerted considerable influence on today’s electronic music artists, and it’s easy to forget just how pioneering his works, the early ones in particular, still are.
Within classical music circles there is a large group of people who think Glass has got lucky, and that his music is little more than repeated arpeggios that don’t really go anywhere. From personal experience I can see why some of the material in the more recent works gets tarred with that particular brush, but I also think that if you look in the right parts of Glass’s massive compositional output there are many treasures to be found.
Steve Reich might be regarded as the more trendy composer, being referenced by pop acts as an influence with great regularity. Yet while he worked recently with Radiohead material in Radio Rewrite, giving him extra credibility, let’s not forget Glass completed three symphonies based on themes by David Bowie and Brian Eno.
Granted, Reich is probably more progressive in his musical thinking, and is certainly more economic with his musical material, but to assume his music is ‘better’ is to misunderstand Glass. There is definitely room for both! So to shout the corner of Reich’s former business partner – the two ran a removal business in the 1970s – here are my Ten Pieces of Glass, given in the order in which I discovered them:
When I first heard the celebrated Kronos Quartet recording of this, Company – Glass’s String Quartet no.2 – it was the first time I had encountered the composer’s music. It had a lasting effect, for despite its incredible simplicity Company contains moving harmonic progressions and propulsive music that somehow serves as a soothing balm. All four movements are untitled, their only indication a metronome marking, but that only adds to the simplicity, and when the opening begins it is as though Glass has turned his attention back several centuries.
Dances nos.1-5 (1980)
When I first listened to this I remember my mother calling up the stairs to check my CD player wasn’t malfunctioning! Dance no.1 is a confrontational listen but in the best possible way, hurling joyful notes at its listener without ceasing. It is a strange but rather wonderful ritual:
Dance no.4, meanwhile, visits another world entirely, and once heard on the church organ is unlikely to be forgotten. The recording I have in mind is that by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, recorded in great splendour by ECM, though the original from the composer himself is very fine too.
The arpeggios are pure Glass, but once the circular harmonic progression begins the listener is invited on a flight of fancy that gets ever more powerful as it moves on:
In contrast the music Glass’s score for the film Powaqqatsi goes straight for the jugular as soon as it begins. Serra Pelada, the opening salvo, has a rush of saxophones and rocking children’s voices, a real thrill for the senses from start to finish:
One of the film scores that got Glass his name as a composer for the big screen was his music for Francis Ford Coppola’s Koyaanisqatsi in 1983. The soundtrack is one of those ‘once heard, never forgotten’ moments, the slow-moving organ and subterranean bass voice combining to make a sonorous yet otherworldly sound.
Metamorphosis One from Solo Piano (1988)
This piece is simplicity itself – no doubt one of the reasons you’re just as likely to hear it in Café Nero as anywhere else. There are three very basic strands to the music – the stern opening chords, then an oscillating arpeggio, then a statement from the right hand that takes a slightly unexpected harmonic twist. It’s that twist that sets Glass apart and gives the music its uncertain air.
Early keyboard Music
Glass’s early work has absolutely no frills, as the titles prove. Music in Contrary Motion, Two Pages and Mad Rush – all contain music of the utmost simplicity, with notes running in sequence or against each other. And yet the energy conjured up here is remarkable, and as the pieces continue a trance can fall over the listener. Steffen Schleiermacher’s recordings of these are highly recommended, but in their absence here is an alternative arrangement of Two Pages (1968):
Symphony no.3 (1995)
The most concise of Glass’s eleven works in the form, the Third Symphony tones down the excesses of the Second to offer a piece for 19 stringed instruments that is a remarkable work of economy.
Different sides of the string orchestra talk to each other, exchanging ideas over an impressive dynamic range – the second movement could be lifted from a Shostakovich scherzo. It is, like Company, music that talks with the utmost simplicity to leave a lasting impression:
Some time ago, English National Opera delivered a winning setting of Glass’s opera about Mahatma Gandhi. The crucial element in their success was the use of remarkable visual props to complement the colourful, trance-like music. Not only that, the staging confirmed that Glass’s music is so much more than Western classical – it searches out other customs, religions and cultures on its path.
Very little happens in the plot of Satyagraha but that’s not really the point, for as the music unfolds this becomes a surprisingly stirring statement and tribute to the work of Gandhi. Repetitious it may be, but again with each statement of his material Glass focuses the listener’s mind on only one thing.
Symphony no.7, ‘Toltec’ (2005)
Some of the classical world get a bit annoyed that Glass calls these works ‘symphonies’, as though they are not deserving of the title. Yet works like the Toltec symphony, performed at the BBC Proms back in 2009, prove that whatever label you put on it, this is a deeply meaningful and powerful piece of work. Glass’s ‘Choral’ symphony has music of grace and power that moves surprisingly close to the world of Bruckner in its tactful use of silence.
(not available on Spotify)
Escape from The Hours (2002)
This proves that Glass is not all boundless energy and fast-moving arpeggios. On the playlist, Amy Dickson’s soulful saxophone is the icing on the cake on this haunting piece of music – yet further proof that Glass can write film music with lasting appeal.