About this Recording
GP691 - GLASS, P.: Glassworlds, Vol. 3 - Metamorphosis I-V / Trilogy Sonata / The Late, Great Johnny Ace: Coda /A Secret Solo / Sonatina No. 2 (Horvath)
English  French  German 

Glassworlds 3: Metamorphosis

 

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

Metamorphosis: [noun] A change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one. (Oxford Dictionary)

Chords flying in space … Alberti basses frozen in ice … long melodies lost in oblivion … these were some of my impressions as I read through Philip Glass’ music for the first time. It was more than a decade ago, when I was still a piano student at the very conservative Ecole Normale. At the turn of the millennium, minimalism was still a mortal sin in Paris; it was only after I won my first international competitions and was finally free to organize my own recital programmes that I dared to test this music on the public (along with other styles such as spectralism, neo-romanticism …). The audience reaction was always amazing, ranging from goose bumps to tears. Unlike what I had always heard, contemporary music was not dead and the general public could still love it! Then it became part of my programmes and little by little I expanded this aspect of my repertoire.

Now I have the pleasure of recording the Glass compositions I have lived with the longest: Metamorphosis I-V. It was tempting to programme them with such very well-known Glass pieces as Mad Rush, Wichita Sutra Vortex or Opening. But there are already many recordings that combine those works, so why another one? Also, it would be pretentious to believe for one second that I could equal the composer’s own fantastic, masterful CBS recording, “Solo Piano.” Instead, on this volume I would like to seek a deeper plane, symbolically using the definition of metamorphosis to explore the radical changes that sharpened Glass’ vocabulary, eventually going all the way back to the chrysalis—his student days at Juilliard.

The first stop on our journey, Metamorphosis I-V, features piano transcriptions of pieces written in 1988. Two of them (Nos. 3 and 4) were composed as incidental music for a play based on Kafka ‘s novel The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung); Nos. 1, 2 and 5 derive from the soundtrack to Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. Although assembled in this manner the work could seem like an opportunistic patchwork, the cycle has the ability on the concert stage to stop time and let us enter a new realm of perceptions.

The next stop comes four years earlier with The Olympian—Lighting of the Torch, composed for the lighting of the Olympic cauldron at the 23rd Summer Olympiad in Los Angeles. What could have been a simple fanfare becomes in Glass’ hands a solemn moment of shared humanity. The three parts transcend torch-bearer Rafer Johnson’s actions—his ascent to the cauldron becomes a powerful hymn to mankind, and as the flames illuminate the five Olympic rings the music becomes an emblem of our collective consciousness. Finally, when the cauldron shines brilliantly, Glass’ music becomes a song of human triumph.

The Dance from Act II, Scene III (from Akhnaten), composed in 1983, depicts the energetic celebratory ritual for the inauguration of Akhnaten’s new city. Usually, I perform the three movements in chronological order, but pianist Bruce Brubaker (maybe under Glass’ own advice?) has proven that another approach works as well. With this hair-raising virtuoso piece we can literally feel the sun rising over the Gem-pa-Aten pylons, warming the hypostyle where dancers, accompanied by sistrums, fall into an ecstatic trance.

Composed at the beginning of the 1980s, the Coda from The Late, Great Johnny Ace is one of the curiosities of this album. Written as a conclusion to a sorrowful Paul Simon song dealing with the violent deaths of men whom Simon called “the three Johnnys” (rhythm-and-blues singer Ace, President Kennedy and Beatle Lennon), it is possibly a first draft to Pruit Igoe from Koyaanisqatsi, composed some years later. This elegiac, brief piece gives us the illusion of a never-ending dream.

Satyagraha, composed in 1980, was inspired by Gandhi’s early work in South Africa (1893-1914), drawing parallels with current worldwide political and religious problems. In the mid ’80s Philip Glass transcribed the Act III Conclusion for Rudolf Firkušný, but the Czech pianist never performed it because he considered it too difficult. This intense and masterful piece emits a serene power. The ascending melody is augmented by various accompaniments on each repeat but never loses its equanimity and grandeur—like Gandhi’s Salt March, one peaceful man progressively joined by tens of thousands…

A Secret Solo, another of this album’s curiosities, was recorded in 1977 as an exclusive track for “Big Ego,” a two-LP collection of poetry readings produced by American poet and performance artist John Giorno. Never performed live, it is a short but powerful minimalist piece reminiscent of Glass’ live organ improvisations dealing with the Indian raga binary rhythmic language.

Knee Play No. 4 (from Einstein on the Beach) is a short interlude used to punctuate the opera between acts. Composed in 1976, Einstein on the Beach is Philip Glass’ first and most popular opera and a landmark in many ways for all avant-gardist movements. The secret behind the mysterious arpeggios might have been discovered by Bruce Brubaker: “All those shifting arpeggios in the high register (played on violin by the character Einstein in the opera) might represent the activity of Einstein’s brain. In this music, are we hearing the process of thought? (Music models many processes outside of itself.) As one of Einstein’s ‘ideas’ undergoes revision, the twists and turns of the arpeggio figures spin out, the length of the measure and the groupings within it continuing slightly to alter. Meanwhile, the steady shared knowledge of the choral lines remains, in the long low notes. The ending phrase of this music reveals an E major chord. E = Mc².”

Diving deeper into the experimental years, we encounter Two Pages (composed in 1968), a milestone of the minimalist musical movement. Highly influenced by Ravi Shankar’s raga teaching, Philip Glass elaborated a new language where a simple musical line is rhythmically organized in its eighth-note divisions by 2, 3 or 4 (known as “additive process”). Because the tempo marking (“Fast and steady tempo”) makes it a very challenging piece on piano, Two Pages has traditionally been performed on organ. Unfortunately, this totally flattens the additive process, deteriorating the dazzling trance-like pulse patterns into a mere hypnotic continuum.

The final piece on the programme—the last stop on our backwards journey through Glass’ musical metamorphosis—is the Sonatina No. 2, which stands as the Holy Grail for every Philip Glass enthusiast. Composed during his Juilliard student days (1959), it is pre-minimalist! At this point, he had begun to establish his germinal style under the influence of his Aspen Music School teacher, Darius Milhaud. In three short movements, the Sonatina opens with a very languid and delicate dance, followed by a meditative and harmonically haunting lament; it concludes with a virtuosic but radiant scherzo.

How accurate Nadia Boulanger was when she prophesized Philip Glass’ future: “I believe that someday he will do something very important in the world of music.”

Nicolas Horvath
Adapted by Frank K. DeWald


Close the window