Víkingur Ólafsson – studying Philip Glass

Víkingur Ólafsson (photo: Ari Magg)

Last year, Arcana defined Víkingur Ólafsson as a true classical music entrepreneur. We explored his introductions to classical music, and talked about the two festivals he helps administer – Sweden’s Vinterfest and the Reykjavik Midsummer Festival. We also covered his friendship with composer Philip Glass, 80 this year. Olafsson professed his admiration for the composer and his creative energy, an admiration he has now transferred to disc in the form of his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Time, then, for chapter two in the interview!

When did you first encounter Philip Glass’s music?

It’s quite a specific memory. I was 13 years old, sitting with my two sisters in the back seat of our car on a family vacation. Dad was driving on the highway, heading from France to Switzerland and as we were bored and quarrelling in the back seat, he handed us this recording of Philip Glass Violin Concerto No.1 with Gidon Kremer (on DG as it happens) which we listened to on our Sony Discman players. It was unbelievable to discover this new sound world while passing by the French landscapes on 150 KM per hour.

Some of the Etudes on this album feel like extended meditations. Do you get into a kind of trance when you play them?

Not really, I’d rather have my audience in a trance… I just try to listen intensely and explore the possibilities of the instrument and acoustics, looking for the right proportions of sound and time.

Do you think the Etudes are actually much more emotional than the titles suggest they should be?

What is emotional for one person can be completely impersonal to the next. To me there is a nostalgia to the slow ones, but it’s emotions revealed through the filter of time. Etude means ‘study’, but one can also write etudes on emotions, just as well as on finger dexterity.

What technical challenges does the music present for you?

It’s relatively easy to learn the etudes and play them at an average level. But what I find difficult – as with any music – is to play them in the most specific way, when it comes to rhythm, texture, sound…

To get the clockwork fine tuned in a piece like Opening is extremely delicate and difficult, to take one example. And of course playing a piece like Etude No.6 is quite difficult, and the repeated notes make me feel as if I’m playing a late-20th century Scarlatti.

Etude No.20 requires intense layering of texture and pedal sensitivity and No 15 demands an orchestral palette on the piano. The etudes can be extraordinary when played well, but, like almost all other music, they can also be rather bland when played in a bland way. But blame the performer in that case.

Are you working closely with Philip on any new material?

We’ve discussed briefly a new work, but it’s too early to say more…

Aside from the piano music, what is your favourite piece by Glass?

I saw Einstein on the Beach in Berlin two years ago. It blew my mind to experience it live. I will also mention his Violin Concerto No.1, as it was the first piece I heard by him. And I have to mention Koyaanisqatsi. It’s actually on Youtube, I recommend spending a Sunday afternoon watching and listening to the great work.

Do you play music by any of the other so-called ‘minimalists’?

Yes, but they’re really not minimalists… at least not since the early 70s! I’m playing John AdamsPiano Concerto in Leipzig in June and I’ve played a bit of Steve Reich as well. I love these composers but I’ve played far more Glass than either of those.

What is it like being signed to Deutsche Grammophon, and do you have any plans for future releases on the label?

We are meeting in Berlin in March to discuss next albums. We have roughly three different ideas on the drawing board and they are all very different from one another – and from the Glass album. I don’t want people to know what to expect too much, I’d love for each of my album to tell its own story, independent from the previous ones.

I love working with Deutsche Grammophon as we have a mutual love of listening to, exploring and discussing music. And of course I’ve listened to so many DG records in my life and gotten to know so much great music and so many great performances through the label. It’s both a privilege and pleasure to work with them.

You can find out more about the Midsummer Music festival in Reykjavik here, while you can also discover Vinterfest here. For more information on Víkingur himself, head to his own artist website

On record: Víkingur Ólafsson – Philip Glass: Piano Works (Deutsche Grammophon)

Summary

Deutsche Grammophon have taken the opportunity to celebrate Philip Glass’s 80th birthday with their new signing, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. He has already performed the piano etudes with the composer himself, and has recognised the depth of invention and emotion that sits beneath the surface of what initially seems to be repetitive, mechanical music.

‘My approach to each of the etudes is to enable the listener to create his or her own personal space of reflection’, he says in the DG press release – and we will get more of his thoughts in an interview given to Arcana shortly.

What’s the music like?

Ólafsson is true to his word. The Etudes – even in Glass’s own performances – can seem a bit dry and difficult to approach. Not so with Ólafsson, whose incredible control means he can play with unexpected grace, using the pieces as reflections but also catching the nuances of Glass’s rhythmic writing. The quality of the DG recording helps here too.

The contours of the Opening piece are caressed and beautifully phrased, proving to be much more emotive than if played straight, as Glass so often is. In No.5 he is slow and lost in thought, and in no.14 too, but by contrast the Etude no.9 is quite punchy. Etude no.15 has a powerful surge in D major before adopting a dance-like profile, while the nervous energy of No.3 puts the performance more on edge.

Quite how Ólafsson plays the repetitive notes of the Etude no.6 is a complete mystery! His performance of no.2 brings both sides of Glass together, beginning in sombre and reflective mood but building to something pretty substantial. Here he is joined by a string quartet, an arrangement by Christian Badzura that proves effective at breaking up the sound of the solo piano and introducing some more colours to the mix.

Does it all work?

Yes, thanks to Ólafsson’s sensitivity and Glass’s awareness of the different colours the piano can offer him. Much of the music here is typical Glass, arpeggiated and with subtle but lasting twists to the harmonies – and it works really well in this context.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. So much so that this is probably the best album we are likely to encounter in Glass’s 80th birthday year.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

On record: Amy Dickson – Glass (Sony Classical)

Summary

Amy Dickson has a long-held affinity with the music of Philip Glass, and made her first recording of the composer’s music back in 2008, with a fiendishly difficult arrangement of his Violin Concerto. For this album she adds an equally challenging arrangement of the Violin Sonata, as well as two shorter pieces from Glass’s score for The Hours, arranged by her husband Jamie. Glass sanctioned the arrangements himself – a rare occurrence, and one that illustrates his high opinion of Dickson’s playing.

To play these pieces Dickson has developed a revolutionary tactic of circular breathing (which she describes in her interview with Arcana here). This enables her to deliver the long, repeated phrases that Glass writes without taking a pause.

What’s the music like?

Busy! There is plenty of energy throughout Glass’s writing, especially in the first movement of the arranged Violin Sonata, as well as the faster passages of the Concerto. In the Sonata Dickson and pianist Catherine Milledge dovetail their phrases with really impressive clarity, and largely take away the more mechanical aspects of the music. The agile finger work and incredible breath control from the saxophonist enables her to meet Glass’s challenge of long, arcing phrases.

This music can be heard in two ways – the ear can focus in on the busy movement of the inside parts, or can just as easily pan out to the slower moving harmonies, the phrases operating in bigger blocks.

The most affecting music is actually heard in the shorter pieces arranged from The Hours, and the more restrained passages of the Sonata, whose central movement has a relatively forlorn mood.

Does it all work?

Yes, particularly in the concerto where the extra colours of the orchestra add a greater range of colours and shades to Glass’s music. At times the textures of saxophone and piano can render some of the faster music in the Sonata a little dry, but Dickson’s warm and mellow sound ensures these are short lived.

Dickson plays with passion and feeling, which brings the more calculated music to life. Pianist Catherine Milledge deserves immense credit for her dexterity with some crowded piano parts!

Is it recommended?

Yes, in the main. The music of the Sonata can get a bit too busy for some tastes, but essentially it makes a nice contrast to the already well loved concerto.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

Amy Dickson – the music of Philip Glass and how she had to redefine her breathing

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To mark the 80th birthday of Philip Glass this week, saxophonist Amy Dickson has expressed her love of the composer’s music through an album released for Sony Classical. The record – simply titled Glass – includes two important arrangements highlighting the flexibility of the composer’s music, and showing how well it transcribes for Dickson’s instrument.

In this interview with Arcana she talks about how the arrangements were made, how she had to develop a whole new form of breathing for the recording, and how Take A Breath, her campaign for primary school children, has touched thousands around the world.

As always, to start with, Arcana raised the traditional question:

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I’m not sure I can! I do remember starting on the piano when I was two, and having music lessons early on. Pieces of piano music still take me back to early childhood. My fondest memory is being drawn in by a cassette that we used to listen to in my mum’s car. I would be absolutely rapt while we listened and then we would press rewind and listen over again. The piece I remember most was Andalucía by Ernesto Lecuona. I learned to play it on the piano after my mum went to great lengths to find the score of it.

How did you develop a love of the saxophone?

There was a great teacher, Melinda Atkins, who isn’t that much older than me. I had lessons with her from the age of six. It was just meant to be, she was absolutely amazing for me, and the chances were so slim of something like that happening. We looked at a lot of different styles of music, she was really cool about jazz and classical, and never made me think there was anything I couldn’t do. I was her student in Sydney until I went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18.

I played in jazz bands through my childhood years, and I had the widest range of musical influences you could imagine! I played piano classically, harpsichord in music from the Baroque, while for the saxophone it was so wide ranging. I feel very lucky to have had great teachers, and they have inspired me to have no boundaries. They helped me learn whatever I could, and I also have had parents who are very keen to give me opportunities. I am eternally grateful for that.

Has that approach carried with you to your recording career?

Yes. I definitely had no idea before it about a grand plan. I work from year to year and like to record whatever I feel particularly passionate about. I have recorded some really diverse repertoire so far, and I have no idea where I will be in five or so years – and I don’t really want to know either! I love playing with new and different people all the time, and that’s so interesting. There is no set path as a classical saxophonist, the only way to go is to be open.

What attracted you to the music of Philip Glass?

I feel very emotionally pulled towards it. When I first heard the Violin Concerto I fell in love with it. It was all to do with a place where I was in my life, and it tugged at my heartstrings. I thought about transcribing it, and that was ridiculous in a sense because there was nowhere to breathe! That was when I learned how to circular breathe.

The pieces from The Hours are particularly beautiful too – Morning Passages is lyrical and a complete piece in itself, and is remarkably complete for a film score. The Violin Sonata is similar to the concerto in terms of structure and content. I immediately felt as strong a pill to this as I did to the concerto, but it’s harder than anything I have ever played. Technically it’s tricky, but the element of stamina required is something else – there really is nowhere to breathe, nowhere with a beat’s rest. Since learning how to circular breathe I have dealt with that, but it really is playing constantly for around 25 minutes.

What is circular breathing, and how did you learn it?

While you’re breathing out, you sniff in through your nose and put more air into your lungs. You manipulate the back of your throat to put air into your cheeks, so then you release the air and sniff in again.

It’s a question of separating the muscle groups so that you can manipulate them. I knew a few people who did something similar, but I decided I wanted to play the concerto, and I set aside 20 minutes a day to learn how to circular breathe.

It took around two weeks, and was like learning a new life skill! It turned out to be the first steps, and it was six months until I felt I could really do it while I was playing, as the sound could be disrupted. If you can separate your lip muscles from your cheek muscles, it is much more instinctive now, but I still have to think carefully about it.

amy-dickson-glassWhat has the reception been like to your Glass recordings, and have you heard from Glass himself?

It’s been amazing. I got a message from Sony this morning to say that overnight the video had reached one million hits on YouTube. Philip has been very pleased with it too. Generally he doesn’t let other people touch his music.

Had you heard his previous work for saxophone before starting on this?

I got to know the Façades when I was doing the first transcription. I think the best way to get to know a composer is to listen to as much of their music as possible.

What was the inspiration for the ‘Take A Breath’ campaign?

The focus is to teach children to breathe well, but it stems from playing the Glass and teaching myself to breathe again as an adult.

I have spoken to experts about this and realised that children develop bad habits as they get older. As we get older, so much of our lives could be improved by breathing better. I was going into schools with the Children & The Arts charity, and we noticed that the kids would run and run around the playground, and could then calm themselves down if they took a breath and could breathe properly.

If I had been taught that as a child I would have benefited greatly! Over time with the kids we have developed a saxophone playing elephant – Ellie – that they can relate to. The children called her that, and they would pretend to have a trunk that they would breathe air into. They would breathe through it and it would put air in their tummies. All through the exercises we imagined they were playing a note on the saxophone.

elephant-poster

It’s amazing seeing children remembering these exercises and being mesmerised by them. Some of the children said how it had helped them when they had fallen over, taking their ‘elephant breath’. It’s about having a tool for emotional resilience too. It was amazing seeing these little people doing elephant breaths before exams.

Could you recommend a piece of Philip Glass that you wouldn’t normally play?

There is a violin piece that I have been particularly drawn to – the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin.

Finally, what does classical music mean to you personally?

That’s really difficult! (Amy pauses) What is classical music? I think the term is difficult, I say I’m a classical saxophonist but I don’t play classical music – I see that as being music from between 1750 and 1820.

If you look at classical music it’s difficult to define. I reckon that in fifty years’ time they might call some of the pop music of the 1970s and 1980s classical music. We’ll have to wait and see!

Amy Dickson’s Glass is out now. For more information you can head to her website, where the Take A Breath campaign can also be found

Ten Pieces of Glass – An 80th Birthday Tribute to Philip Glass

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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:

 

Company (1983)

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:

Powaqqatsi (1988)

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:

Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

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:

Satyagraha (1979)

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.