For 30 years or more, Philip Glass's music has been criticized for being repetitive, loud, and too accessible. This last quality is his greatest sin in the eyes of academic musicians. As in other fields a sense of elitism adds immeasurably to one's self-esteem; there's nothing better than belonging to a club with only a few members. Philip Glass broke up that cozy little club with music which has both depth, and mass appeal.
When I was a student at University of California, Santa Barbara, in the mid-1980s, I had the chance to meet Philip Glass and review a concert he and his ensemble performed on campus. Sorting out some papers recently I stumbled over the review and decided to publish it for the benefit of old and new fans of his work.
Philip Glass, prior to an appearance at UCSB, April 1985
The work which brought him the most fame in recent years is his soundtrack for the film "Koyannisqatsi". During an interview before the concert he described how he came to write the score.
"Godfrey Reggio first approached me about doing it about three years before the movie was completed. He asked me to do the music and I said I wasn't interested in doing film music. He said 'I want you to see how well your music works with these images.' And I was convinced."
Although Glass has subsequently written music for an upcoming Paul Schrader film, "Mishima", he remains dubious about working in film.
"I'd rather work in the field of opera. I find film limiting in a way... there is something very disappointing about doing a final mix. In a way it's all over. With an opera, we can reinvent it, we can visualize it, we can reinterpret it. With film once it's done it's done."
He and the ensemble still play music from "Koyannisqatsi", which was originally scored for a full orchestra. This obviously involves the problem of adapting the music so an eight-piece ensemble can reproduce it.
"I have nine synthesizers in the ensemble and we cover string parts and brass parts ... it's amazing, the state-of-the-art is quite extraordinary now. I can make very convincing adaptations."
The concert on Wednesday bore this out. After seeing "Koyannisqatsi" for the first time only days before, I felt that the power of the work would be reduced without the accompanying images, but I was proved quite wrong; the physical force of the music was stupendous. Amplified to a level not normally associated with classical concerts, his work took on the epic scale which I'd previously associated with Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," or the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, better known as the Olympic hymn.
Fittingly, the piece which showed this most strongly was "the Olympian", the music Glass composed for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympics. Stirring and powerful, this piece exhibited the ensemble's craft to the fullest. The musicians and the group are forced to use unusual techniques to play Glass' music, as he explained.
"You just don't drop into the group and start playing. Any new musical language has to have a new technique... how could it be otherwise? If you are using the old techniques, how could it be new? You have to play rhythmically very accurately and your sense of intonation has to be very defined ... those are classic things in a way. However, we've rediscovered them. We're talking about music which is largely polymetric, so that you have to fix your part into a very complex rhythmic scheme that's going on ... and it has to be not just fitted; it has to be very steady. It's quite different from the kind of modern music where you'll have different rhythmic things going on all the time, and changing all the time. It's the steadiness of it that's the problem."
The piece which had the greatest effect on me and, it seemed, on the rest of the audience, was "Facades," one of three sections that the ensemble played from his suite "Glassworks". Two synthesizers provided a swirling, evocative base for a dialogue between Jon Gibson and Jack Kripl, both playing soprano saxophones. This piece showed the influence of jazz music on Glass' work, both rhythmically and harmonically. The depth of feeling reached by the sax players equalled anything which mainstream jazz musicians have ever achieved. Much of the evening's music was powerful, but this was breathtaking.
The evening ended with an unscheduled encore, a storming version of "The Spaceship" from "Einstein on the Beach." Fantastically powerful, this sent the audience away on a burst of adrenaline. A fitting end to a great show.