The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Philip Glass, Again, Whether You Like It or Not



Readers of this blog will know that I have three religions: Christianity, my family, and Philip Glass, usually in that order. So here are three things that have come to my attention as of late that will convince you heathens that Philip Glass is totally awesome and everyone who thinks the contrary is a total loser.

1st. Somebody finally posted on YouTube Philip Glass' 1986 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Here he is with his ensemble performing "Rubric".

2nd. Philip Glass is also nominated this year for an Oscar for his soundtrack for the film, Notes on a Scandal. Here is video of him talking about the score, with music of course.

(This is not the first time he has been nominated, but I hope he wins this time. If not, I am going to have to do some hard-core cholo action on some fools trying to player-hate.)

3rd. An article from the Arizona Republic newspaper, that is a good overview of Glass' music. Here is the source, for official purposes.

I reproduce the article in its entirety here:

The sound of striking Glass

By Richard Nilsen

Knock-knock.

Who's there?Phil.

Knock-knock.

Who's there? Philip.

Knock-knock.Who's there?

Phil Phil Philip who?

Knock-knock.

Philip Glass.Philip who?

Hoo-ha!

There is no composer subject to more jokes than Philip Glass. His Web site even includes a page of jokes.

Most make fun of the repetition that is his signature style: "I bought a Philip Glass LP, and it played for more than an hour before I realized it was skipping."

But no contemporary composer has a larger or wider audience than Glass, whose works fill our ears from TV commercials to movies to the opera stage to the pop charts. If there is a contemporary sound in classical music, it is the sound of Glass's furious arpeggios and benthic bass lines.

It's a style that has been called Minimalism, although, truth be told, there is nothing minimal about it: The Philip Glass style is crammed with notes - they race around the electronic keyboard like a dog chasing its tail."

Minimalism was a convenient title for the press," said Kurt Munkacsi, who's the sound designer for the Philip Glass Ensemble, which plays Glass' music exclusively.

The ensemble will be in Scottsdale on Wednesday to present a retrospective of Glass's music over a four-decade span.

"The music never was really minimal," Munkacsi said. "It was always complicated and dense, but when they say Minimalist, everyone knows what you're talking about. It's a catchy phrase."

'Music moved on'

Borrowed from the visual arts in the 1970s, the term Minimalist has always been an uncomfortable fit for the music of Glass and the other composers who shared its style. Most prominent among those at the time were Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams - the Minimalist secular trinity.

Each has developed out of strict Minimalist esthetic, but the label has stuck. Glass used to rail against the term, but has since come to accept it, albeit without enthusiasm.

"The music has moved on," Glass said. "By 1975, what was first called Minimalism was over, but the name was catchy, and it stuck. For 30 years, people have used it without noticing it no longer described anything."

Yet, there is something in the style that has remained consistent over the years. Listen to Glass's 'Music in 12 Parts' from 1973 and to his Oscar-nominated score to this year's film, 'Notes on a Scandal', and you recognize the sound of the composer.

Yes, the music has become more lyrical, less obsessively ostinato, but Glass' fingerprints are all over it.

"It is based on repetitive figures," Munkacsi said. "I've always had my own nickname for it. I call it 'hive music,' as in a beehive. There isn't a single melody and accompaniment, like in more-familiar music, but everyone has an equal part and fits into the entire structure of the music."

The typical Glass piece begins with a figure in the middle range, either a two-note figure or an arpeggiated chord, repeated until it becomes a kind of background noise. Then he drops a single bass note at the bottom of the keyboard - boooom - underneath the arpeggio, a rock in the well. The two elements repeat, with the bass note becoming an ostinato, and finally, he drops a slow melody on top of all of it, diatonic and step-wise, usually in a soprano sax or a singer. The patterns of each part are of unequal lengths, and as they move out of phase, the arpeggio rides over a different set of bass notes and under a different descant.

This slow change of phase, with its concomitant change in harmony, are the substance of Glass's style.In the early days, the pattern became the most important element of the style.

More recently, the melody has become more lyrical, more important.

"The music is much less defined by the music's limited elements," ensemble conductor Michael Riesman said. "Now, he writes something you could call a melody."

Embracing repetition

When it was new, Minimalism was a breath of fresh air in contemporary classical music. Through the 1960s and '70s, the anointed avant-garde was serialism, that 12-tone style that made for unlistenable music that pervaded the universities.

"I rejected serialism in my 20s," Glass said.

Instead, he found a new way to organize sound: Repetition.

"Music has always been based on repetition," he said. "Schubert repeats whole sections of his music intact. But the repetition in my music is different; it is the repetition and change in rhythm and pulse.

"The music is surprisingly old-fashioned in terms of harmony. Things like E-minor chords and C-major melodies show up over and over. The dissonance of serialism has been replaced by an almost "white-key" simplicity.

That repetition makes the music difficult to play."As a musician, you look at a Philip Glass score and it looks like absolutely nothing," said Mark Dix, violist with the Phoenix Symphony, who has played Glass music, including his Third String Quartet. "It looks like it requires no technical practice, nothing demanding. However, in rehearsal, we immediately discovered the difficulty of playing something so repetitive over so long a time. There is a lot of room for error, just in counting. It's very easy to get lost, so your concentration level has to be very high to perform his music."

Even the Philip Glass Ensemble can have trouble keeping track.

"The fun part of playing is counting and keeping track of where you are," Munkacsi said, using the word "fun" with a certain irony. "The way the music is written is with repetitive figures, with a multiplier, like 4X or 6X after it. Our rule of thumb is to always go with Michael."

Michael Riesman, who has been with the ensemble since 1974, plays lead keyboard and cues the other musicians when their turns come."Michael is always right, even if he makes a mistake," Munkacsi said. "You just jump back in and follow Michael."

"When I first saw a concert, before joining," Riesman recalled, "I went to a performance of Music in 12 Parts at Town Hall (in New York) and wondered, 'How do they do that and not get lost?' It takes concentration and you have to stay focused.

"It's like a ritual. Like a primitive ritual and you get into the groove and get lost in its mood and sound - but you have to stay aware of the numbers."

A moving ritual

To many, this ritual element in the music is the reason to listen: Unlike standard repertoire, which begins in one place and goes to another, resolving with a final cadence, Glass' music is more like a place you enter and soak up a sound universe. It becomes like a meditative state.

"When we're 'on' and everyone is listening, it gets to be a kind of ritual," Riesman said. "And it's pleasurable and you're transported to this place. Phil wouldn't be as popular as he is today if it weren't pleasurable. "

Dix likens the slow, hypnotic appeal of Glass' music to the desert landscape.

"It's the same kind of experience you'd have in the natural realm, of watching a storm move in across the desert. It's slow, but beautiful and incredibly profound in how it impacts you."

***********

So y' all need to bow down.

5 Comments:

At 8:51 AM, Anonymous Chandler Branch said...

Thanks for this post and for your blog. I just watched the video of Glass’ Rubric on Saturday Night Live and I read the article from the Arizona Republic newspaper. I must say, I find myself having a mixed reaction to Glass’ music. Of course, to be fair, I can’t remember any other specific works I’ve heard by the composer, but I’m sure this is not my first encounter. In any case, the resolve for me comes in appreciating the music for what it is, and not attempting to evaluate it with the same grid that I would apply in evaluating most other modern composers—say an Essa Peka-Salonen, a Christopher Rouse or even a John Adams. For music that basks in the moods created by a repeated pattern of three or four chords comprised of almost entirely diatonic pitches, a work like Rubric is very effective in giving listeners opportunity to remove themselves from more linear ways of thinking/processing music. It’s a bit like saying two or three of your favorite sounding words over and over, changing the emphasis, the accent, the tone quality, etc., and just enjoying the subtle differences of the sounds and the kinesthetic experience of producing them. And most of us have had fun doing that at some point—when we were infants, if nothing else. But, for my tastes, I would much prefer to enjoy music that employs a greater vocabulary of words so as to construct varying sentences, compound sentences, paragraphs that lead from one to another in such a way that it creates entire statements that communicate human emotions or experiences more varied, rich and complex. (I’m sorry, my bias is coming through!) Still, one has to respect Philip Glass for creating a distinctive sound of his own that connects with so many people. The sheer fact that he and his music were featured on Saturday Night Live is pretty significant.

Chandler Branch, Exe. Dir.
Soli Deo Gloria

 
At 10:28 PM, Blogger AG said...

Sorry, just read this post. Hate to be a naysayer, but when I read this from the author of the article: "When it was new, Minimalism was a breath of fresh air in contemporary classical music. Through the 1960s and '70s, the anointed avant-garde was serialism, that 12-tone style that made for unlistenable music that pervaded the universities."

Serialism, unlistenable? I can understand discarding, say, Milton Babbitt, but to throw out Stravinsky's "Agon," and a number of Webern and Carter works is unfair. In truth, both serialism and minimalism require a great deal of concentration for the listener to be able to follow, which is why they've never taken off in popularity with non-aesthete audiences. And I don't think serialism was still considered avant-garde in the 60s.

Again sorry; I just don't like Mr. Nilsen running down one musical style in favor of another, when the average person tends to find both unlistenable. Just being diplomatic, and not journalistic.

 
At 8:48 AM, Blogger Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Defending serialism? Say it ain't so, AG! Say it ain't so!

Seriously, I do like some atonal music, but most serialism is simply unlistenable. And to lump Stravinsky's Agon in with a Webern string quartet is a bit misleading, in my opinion. Agon is no more serialism than Le Sacre du Printemps is African drumming or Pulcinella is re-orchestrated Pergolesi. Agon is Stravinsky. It just happens to share some characteristics with the dominant musical style of the time.

I can sit through anything once, but I will never understand Boulez or Stockhausen. What were they trying to prove to the audience? That they were better than us? That beauty is no longer possible, so they could compose some tightly controlled and organized noise and call it music? Sorry. No entiendo.

 
At 11:42 AM, Blogger AG said...

"And to lump Stravinsky's Agon in with a Webern string quartet is a bit misleading, in my opinion."

I beg your pardon sir, but I do consider "Agon", from the first coda of the pas de trois to the final coda, a serialist composition. I don't think it can be argued that Stravinsky wasn't specifically using dodecaphony, unless we want to argue about whether dodecaphony and serialism are synonymous. (IMO, dodecaphony fits under the category of serialism, but serialism can certainly be more than just dodecaphonic composition.) And Stravinsky undoubtedly went even further into serialism in works like "Movements for Piano and Orchestra" and "Variations."

I consider serialism to be a technique, not a aesthetic. I would argue that Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" may SHARE the same aesthetic as African drumming (preferably, types of Russian folk music), just as Debussy's "Nocturnes - Fetes" and Indonesian gamelan music share the same aethetic at times. However, Stravinsky almost always stands apart because his own hallmark - that rhythmic pulsing - is so strong. So of course even serialist Stravinsky is going to sound different from Webern, and Webern sounds different from Berg, and thankfully none of the three sounds as horrible as Schoenberg (besides his pre-serialist "Pierrot lunaire".)

I don't think Boulez and Stockhausen are good composers, and my non-scholarly opinion about certain serialist composers is that they did not have an aesthetic vision: serialism was the way non-composers with a desire to be composers could get away with writing music in an age of rapidly increasing media when anyone and everyone could fancy him or herself an artist. There are also, I think (oh, how to state this delicately), political reasons for the dominance of serialism in the West post-WWII. But that doesn't mean that serialism, the technique, is flawed or unlistenable. It just means that some people use the technique to produce crap.

The shorter answer: I dislike it when a journalist dismisses another musical style, particularly with as harsh a word as "unlistenable." Just because I didn't "find myself" by listening to Webern's "Five Pieces for orchestra" doesn't mean that others shouldn't try it out, and just because some serialist compositions are awful and unlistenable doesn't mean the whole technique needs to be described that way. People are discouraged enough from the arts, and for some, including yours truly, some serialist compositions are more enjoyable than minimalist ones.

 
At 12:51 PM, Blogger Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

AG,

Fair enough. I still prefer Alban Berg, but that is another story. And I too dislike some "minimalist pieces" such as some works of sheer noise by La Monte Young or Terry Riley's "All Night Flights" [although the latter could be more appreciated if one was really, really (really) HIGH.] Maybe I will give the twelve tone row another chance.

 

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