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
Who's there? Philip.
Phil Phil Philip who?
Philip Glass.Philip who?
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."
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.