About this Recording
GP677 - GLASS, P.: Glassworlds, Vol. 1 - Piano Works and Transcriptions (Horvath)
English  French  German 

Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Piano Works and Transcriptions

 

Philip Glass (b. 1937) discovered “modern” music while working as a teenager in his father’s Baltimore record shop. When he graduated with a master’s degree in composition from Juilliard in 1962, he had studied with William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti and Darius Milhaud. His early works subscribed to the twelve-tone system and other advanced techniques. But in spite of some success (including a BMI Award and a Ford Foundation Grant), he grew increasingly dissatisfied with his music. “I had reached a kind of dead end. I just didn’t believe in my music anymore,” he said. A 1964 Fulbright Scholarship brought him to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger and met Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitar virtuoso. In their different ways, those two individuals transformed his work. Boulanger, in his words, “completely remade my technique,” and Shankar introduced him to “a whole different tradition of music that I knew nothing about.” He rejected his previous concepts and developed a system in which the modular form and repetitive structure of Indian music were wedded to traditional Western ideas of melody and simple triadic harmony.

After returning to the United States in 1967, he formed the Philip Glass Ensemble: three saxophonists (doubling on flutes), three keyboard players (including himself), a singer and a sound engineer. Embraced by the progressive art and theatrical community in New York City during the early 1970s, the Ensemble performed in art galleries, artist lofts and museum spaces rather than traditional performing art centres. It soon began to tour and make recordings, providing Glass with a stage on which to premiere and promote his ever-growing catalogue of works. It established him as a contemporary voice with something personal and thought-provoking to say, and since those heady early days he has never looked back. Although he has sometimes been labelled a “minimalist” along with composers such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley, Glass rejects the term.

Glass thrives on cooperation with other artists. With Robert Wilson—architect, painter and leader of the theatrical avant-garde—he created Einstein on the Beach in 1976, a four-and-a-half-hour multimedia event labelled an “opera” by its authors. There are now over two dozen operas and chamber operas in his catalogue, as well as numerous film scores (including Godfrey Reggio’s groundbreaking Qatsi trilogy and the Academy Award-nominated The Hours), dance scores, ten symphonies, six string quartets, and concerti for diverse instruments. Now in his eighth decade, he shows no sign of slowing down.

Piano is Philip Glass’ primary instrument (he also studied violin and flute); he composes at the keyboard. With its seemingly contradictory elements of lyricism and percussiveness, it is in some ways the ideal medium for Glass’ musical language. With its deep roots in tradition (spanning the Classical, Romantic and Modern eras), the instrument embodies the composer’s desire to merge new ideas with classic forms. It is perhaps via piano (and, by extension, keyboard) that performers and listeners can make the most direct and personal contact with Glass’ musical genius. This complete Grand Piano Edition—which includes many premieres—expands our understanding of and appreciation for one of the most influential musical minds of our time.

Frank K. DeWald

I first came across the music of Philip Glass in the late 1990s. The work was Company, his Second String Quartet. I still remember today the effect this music had on me—it was like floating on a calm lake at night and watching stars move across the sky.

During my studies, Philip Glass’ music wasn’t taught at French conservatories and few pianists risked performing his music in concert. On the other hand, the composer himself has had a very busy concert career. Unlike the apparently simple and austere nature of his scores (and the rather careful renditions by some of his early advocates on recordings), the composer has a very free, improvisatory, romantic approach to his own music. The score is only the blueprint for a complete, profound and sensitive universe waiting to be discovered, like trails in the middle of a huge and dense forest.

For years I have had the pleasure of sharing my love for Philip Glass’ music though my concerts—both recitals and marathon events in which I performed all his piano music without any break. I have chosen not to organize these recorded programmes in any chronological or thematic way. The Philip Glass corpus is vast and encompasses a wild variety of styles, from early avant-garde works through film soundtracks, from displays of virtuosity to meditative pieces. Each volume of this Philip Glass Edition will reflect this richness by alternating virtuoso, modern and popular pieces.

Opening from Glassworks, composed in 1981, is the first movement from Glass’ debut album on CBS Records. The composer describes it as a work in six movements, “intended to introduce my music to a more general audience than had been familiar with it up to then”. Opening introduces us to what could be called the “Glass classical style”, a mix of ’80s stereotypes which many musicians associate with the composer even today: alternating thirds in the left hand and rhythms of three-against-two. But the effect obtained here is not at all static. As a master of his art, Glass knows how to get around this cliché: he uses “classical” four-bar phrases (a strikingly bold choice for a composer during the last quarter of the twentieth century) alongside rich, consonant harmony and a steady build-up to a sudden drop in dynamics. Opening must be repeated two times, enabling the creation of a larger structure in which feelings such as sorrow, anger and despair dissolve in the final sustained note as if the composer would attain a degree of inner peace. (It is worth noting that not all recordings of Opening (Glassworks) include this very last note—one that really changes everything.) The final effect is not all that far from the psychological evolution of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The Orphée Suite for piano (2000) is a transcription by Paul Barnes of excerpts from Glass’ Orphée, the first opera in his Cocteau Trilogy. Composed in 1993, the two-act chamber opera for ensemble and soloists is based on Cocteau’s fascinating retelling of the Orpheus myth updated to the 1950s.

The first movement, The Café, is one of Glass’ most individual piano pieces. Cocteau’s film opens in a trendy, Parisian poets’ café. Like Erik Satie some decades earlier—and, indeed, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century composers before him—Glass combines popular music (in this case, virtuoso American ragtime in the purest Scott Joplin tradition) with his own style to evoke an American musical heritage. Keyboard virtuosity in The Café is balanced by a lyrical love theme, surely the apparition of the mysterious Princess…

Orphée’s Bedroom features a subtle, moody and profound melody reminiscent of an aria from Gluck’s opera. It accompanies a scene in which the mysterious Princess violates an important rule of the Underworld: she lingers in the human world for personal reasons as she watches Orphée sleep with Eurydice.

The next movement depicts Orphée’s Journey to the Underworld with the Princess’ chauffeur, Heurtebise, to reclaim his lost Eurydice. This tormented vision of Hell starts with a rhythmic ostinato in the right hand, pursued by a threatening figure in the left (suggesting Cocteau’s “great and inexplicable breath”). Dense harmonies rise to sinister peaks only to be abruptly stopped twice by intoxicating, trancelike arpeggios. In this movement, Glass evokes more Jonathan Harker’s nightmare journey to the land of phantoms inside Nosferatu’s carriage (in Murnau’s 1922 classic film) than Cocteau’s vision of Orphée and Heurtebise trudging their way to the Underworld.

Orphée and the Princess, a ray of light among the darkness, reflects the Princess’ pure love toward Orphée. As an antithesis to the Journey, the ethereal melody in the right hand (over flowing chord progressions) continues the mood of Orphée’s Bedroom. A brief excursion into the minor mode perhaps suggests the impossibility of such a love.

In the fifth movement (Return to Orphée’s House), Glass reprises the trance-like arpeggios from Journey to the Underworld—this time in both hands—to depict the return of Orphée and Heurtebise to the mortal world.

Orphée is killed in a fight and returns to the Underworld. The music of Orphée’s Return is calm, evoking a state of inner peace. Orphée again faces the Princess: “I found a way to reach you”. Glass here develops the love theme alongside a most beautiful chromatic melody in the right hand, reaching an almost intoxicatingly ardent climax as the Princess sacrifices herself to enable Orphée to return to the mortal world after the clock strikes six. “A poet’s Death must sacrifice herself to make him immortal.”

We end in Orphée’s Bedroom, where Orphée again watches Eurydice sleep, while the Princess faces judgement for helping him. The piece is calm but suggests an inner depressed tension. It ends with the Princess’ adieu, a resentful but stirring bimodal chord (a combination of C major and minor), expressing in one single instant that, even though she now faces her ultimate doom, she was fortunate to experience the divine feeling of love.

Dreaming Awake was composed and recorded in 2003 as a benefit project that was “never to be recorded by Philip Glass again”. The four-movement piece (with a da capo added by the composer on the recording) blends the mood of Opening (Glassworks) with the virtuosity of his more recent etudes. Again, the music deals with feelings of sorrow, anger and despair. Through scales, arpeggios, chords and harmonic progressions, Dreaming Awake reaches one of the most impressive climaxes in all the Glass literature. As a reminiscence of The Hours (composed some months before Dreaming Awake), the piece ends sadly in hopeless silence and oblivion.

“Every new musical language requires new performance skills,” asserted Philip Glass when he introduced How Now. It was composed in 1968, when Glass “was beginning to work in a highly reductive, repetitive style that made most of the musicians who encountered it very angry. They wanted nothing to do with it.” How Now requires a phenomenal degree of virtuosity, stamina, structural sensitivity and a relaxed quality recalling certain kinds of jazz. Its structure is influenced by Indian ragas and gamelan music with decidedly non-Western rhythmic changes. In concerts, How Now hypnotizes the audience, and if the performer follows Glass’ pedal markings, the merging harmonies can make the piano resonate in an organ-like manner.

Nicolas Horvath
Edited Frank K. DeWald


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