Charles Petzold

Happy 75th Birthday, Philip Glass!

January 31, 2012
New York, N.Y.

About 14 months ago I saw the New York premiere of Philip Glass's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No.2 at Carnegie Hall performed by violinist Robert McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. McDuffie had commissioned the Glass work (subtitled "The American Four Seasons") for a program that also included the four violin concertos collected by Antonio Vivaldi as The Four Seasons almost three centuries earlier, and McDuffie took the program on a tour of 30 American cities.

I loved the concert. Although I've been familiar with Vivaldi's Four Seasons for about 40 years, the concertos are mostly encountered these days as ambiant background music. Hearing them for the first time in concert was as if hearing them with fresh ears. The Glass concerto was spectacular, but with a very different structure than the Vivaldi: The four movements of Glass's concerto weren't explicitly associated with the four seasons, and they were joined with short solo violin passages of particular haunting beauty.

Despite the joy of the concert itself, I doubted the wisdom of calling attention to the Vivaldi-Glass connection. If you start thinking about the similarities between the two composers, the first word that pops into your head is probably "prolific" — a word that praises and damns in equal measure. For many decades, nascent Baroque enthusiasts who encounter The Four Seasons and wish to explore Vivaldi's music in further depth discover with some shock that Vivaldi composed over 500 other concertos. As the daunting list on demonstrates, there is very little to distinguish one from the other of these hundreds of concertos, and in many cases, actually listening to them won't help either.

Philip Glass hasn't been quite as prolific as Vivaldi, but he's trying hard, as the composition list on his web site will attest. Glass has now composed over 40 film scores alone. These days, the sound of his music is instantly recognizable and (I suspect) easily imitatable, and in the process the music has lost some of its avant-garde edge. A Philip Glass film score has become as non-threatening as ... well, a Vivaldi concerto.

That's too bad because it means that the music of Glass has now acquired a reputation as being safe and soothing rather than challenging and riveting. His best work — some of it dating back some 40 years but extending to recent years as well — remains an vital part of the American musical landscape.

Artist Chuck Close with his portrait of Philip Glass, 1969

Fortunately there are recordings that help modern listeners partially recapture the intensity, energy, excitement, and exhilaration of Glass's early works, such as Music in Similar Motion (1969), Music with Changing Parts (1970), and the monumental Music in 12 Parts (1971-74). In those years, Glass's music was played exclusively by his own Ensemble that consisted mostly of Farfisa electronic organs and amplified woodwinds, for a very raw, raspy, almost abrasive sound. Particularly in concert, the clashing melodic lines would bounce around the hall, seemingly creating new melodies in the process.

Besides being prolific, Vivaldi and Glass share another interesting similarity: It's probably not obvious to the casual listener, but I think both Vivaldi's and Glass's best music are compositions for the human voice. In Vivaldi's case, this includes operas such as Orlando furioso, religious works such as the Gloria in D Major (RV 589), and delightful secular cantatas such as Amor, hai vinto (RV 651).

Philip Glass used voice in some of his earliest compositions for the Philip Glass Ensemble, but the voice was mixed in with the organs and woodwinds, and employed solfeggio and other sounds rather than actual words. Glass got into opera through a side door of sorts, with the 4½ hour theater piece from 1976, Einstein on the Beach. Created in collaboration with director Robert Wilson and dancers Lucinda Childs and Sheryl Sutton, Einstein remains pretty much inseparable from that staging. Although Einstein has some text, it is spoken rather than sung, and a small chorus chants numbers rather than words.

Starting with that audacious operatic premiere, it is in opera that I think Philip Glass has done some of his very best and most interesting work. I've recently been enjoying his very recent opera Kepler, for example, and anyone who thinks they know exactly what a Philip Glass score sounds like should check out Orphée from 1993.

Philip Glass's second opera was Satyagraha, a commission from the City of Rotterdam and premiered by the Netherlands Opera in 1980 in a production that later reached the New York City Opera, where I saw it. In the years since, it has remained one of my favorite Glass compositions.

Satyagraha depicts seven scenes from Mohandas Gandhi's early years in South Africa (1893 through 1914) spread out over seven scenes in three one-hour acts. The title comes from a Sanscrit word approximately meaning "truth force" that was coined by Gandhi to describe his type of nonviolent resistance in the pursuit of social justice.

Only a few years separate Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha and they are obviously related through their focus on an historical personage, but the musical language is very different. Instead of composing for his idiosyncratic ensemble and amplified singers, in Satyagrapha Philip Glass had to write music for a traditional opera orchestra and classically trained singers. Whereas Albert Einstein was portrayed by a violinist who sat on the edge of the stage, Gandhi would be sung by a real tenor singing real words rather than solfeggio or numbers.

But let's not get too conventional! Glass's collaborator Constance DeJong created a libretto for Satyagraha using text from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita — a text that Gandhi is known to have used for his daily meditations — and Glass and DeJong made the decision that the text was to be sung in the original Sanscrit. While the characters enact historical scenes in a type of abstract manner, they are singing an extended spiritual dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. Consequently, the drama and emotional impact of the scenes comes not from the words, but by the music and the action, which is slowed down to the pace of the music.

Each of the three acts of Satyagraha is presided over (in a sense) by three men with a connection to Gandhi: Leo Tolstoy, whose late writings on nonviolence are known to have inspired Gandhi, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (who gave Gandhi the title of Mahatma), and Martin Luther King, who continued Gandhi's campaigns for social justice into the American South.

Perhaps it was Glass's affinity with the subject matter of Satyagraha, or perhaps the opportunity to write for a real opera company, but something triggered an obvious outpouring of some amazing music. In his book Music by Philip Glass (Harper & Row, 1987), the composer tells how he settled upon the form of the chaconne for structuring the music in each of the seven scenes. (pg. 115-6) The chaconne is found mostly in Baroque music, but it seems to have some resemblance to Indian music as well. But that doesn't really explain how the music enchants beginning with its first notes, and continues straight through the more high-powered second act, and the aching beauty and final triumph of the long slow final scene.

Like traditional operas, the staging of Satyagraha can be entirely reconceived for subsequent productions, and that's what the English National Opera did in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera in 2007. I finally had a chance to see this production at the Metropolitan Opera in December, and I became enraptured with the opera all over again. The set and the visual motifs derive from the central scene in the opera, which involves the publication of Gandhi's newspaper Indian Opinion. During that act, pages of newspaper cover the floor of the stage like tiles, and throughout the opera, paper is often assembled into flat shapes for projections of scattered translations of the libretto, and paper also becomes the basis for puppets that often observe and participate in the action.

A couple weeks before seeing Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera, I saw a live broadcast of the opera in one of the Met's Live in HD events. I've mostly enjoyed the Live in HD broadcasts, but I don't think Satyagraha worked as well in this format. It's much better if you let your own eyes wander around the stage rather than rely upon a video director to determine what you should be seeing and how close up you should be. Through a camera lens, the opera becomes more about individuals and less about the essential context.

Although it can't match a live performance, the video of this recent Satyagraha is worth seeing when it shows up on a television broadcast or DVD. Meanwhile, you can celebrate Philip Glass's 75th birthday today by getting some music — perhaps something as strange as the Etudes for Piano played by an 18-member ensemble of steel drums:

But only if you're already familiar with the splendid original: