MAN IN THE BOX Philip Glass

The legendary
minimalist and classical world leading light gets a massive (if incomplete)
career overview.

 

BY JASON GROSS

 

Next to John Adams,
he’s America’s most noted
composer who’s still got a pulse and like Adams,
he’s saddled with the tag of “minimalism.” But being a generation older, Glass
gets a snazzier box set of his work now – Glass Box- A Nonesuch Retrospective
(Nonesuch; www.nonesuch.com) –  adorned with artworks of himself on each side,
a nice thick booklet and 10 CDs of music which include operas, symphonies,
chamber works, small group compositions, string quartets, collaborations with
pop figures, soundtracks and just about any other form that you can imagine in
a classical framework. 

 

It’s not that he
doesn’t deserve it, but you have to wonder who this set is meant for.  The casual fan probably won’t dish out $70-80
for it and you’d have to assume that a real fan would already own most/all of
it.  A collection like this then is a
conversation piece (just like those huge art books which gather dust on tables)
and a collector’s item to put on the shelf.

 

But there is a wealth
of information and history in the confines of this pricey little
nicely-designed cube.  For one thing, you
get not only his early works (which have been sporadically in print for a
while) but also lots of excerpts from 1976’s Einstein On the Beach, the
avant-garde opera that put him on the map, plus his orchestral works and his
movie soundtracks.  The fact that it’s
not complete is a mixed blessing; it misses his ‘80s work on CBS Records which
includes the brilliant opera The Photographer but also his soggy pop
collaborations on Glassworks.

 

One thing you have to
say about his early work, dating from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s is that this
is where minimalism began.  Or is
it?  La Monte Young actually started out
in the late ‘50s and during the early ‘60s, Terry Riley had been doing
ground-breaking work with tape loops, delays and electronic keyboards.  Glass was riding on a wave of a movement that
extended to the art world at the time. 
Heresy though it may be, listening to Glass’ ’69/’70 work, it does
indeed sound minimal in that, like Young and Riley, it explores intensely a
small harmonic area but it also reveals the problem that some outsiders find
with it: things can get a little boring over 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes.  Titles like “Music With Changing
Parts,” “Music With Similar Motion,” “Music In Twelve
Parts” reflect this problem – while they mirror classical minimalist
temperament, in the end they don’t measure up to fellow traveler Steve Reich’s
bicentennial masterpiece “Music for 18 Musicians”.

 

Luckily, things pick
up by Einstein (on disc 3).  As much as
you’d suspect that the music would suffer without Robert Wilson’s spectacular
visuals, the fact of the matter is that they don’t, and Glass himself proved
this recently with a selection of these works as a Carnegie Hall recital.  While it doesn’t provide the whole impact of
the immense opera, it’s still some of the most moving and satisfying work that
the composer’s ever done.

 

Done almost around the
same time is one of his early soundtracks, Etoile Polaire (aka North
Star).  Released on its own in ’77, it’s
another peak for Glass where he masterfully combines ostinatos (quickly
repeating musical phrases), glistening synths and lovely soprano voices.

 

Glass’ next opera, his first with a symphony score was
1980’s Satyagraha (about Gandhi), where we hear several excerpts on this box
set.  Musically, it displays his
characteristic ebb-and-flow musical cycles/motifs but uses old-school European
opera voicings over them for a strange, unsatisfying combination.  That’s a shame because the music itself is
beautiful in several places (i.e. “Confrontation and Rescue”),
especially when it works up to a huge choral peak.  Much more successful is his 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi;
the soundtrack is pretty and somber with his occasional trademark swirling
climaxes.  Powaqqatsi (1987) (another
entry in his series of tongue-tying titles) is an interesting experiment where
he mixes his usual musical sensibilities with South American and Asian music; in
all, it’s a mixed success, finding Glass trying too hard to integrate with
gamelan and Spanish percussion.  A later
disc with his 1990 chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox features more exotic
percussion and vocal histrionics, all of which is saved by Allen Ginsberg’s
classic beat narration (also on that same CD, Glass’ 1983 opera Akhnaten is
still more of the same but without Ginsberg’s saving grace).

 

The CD of String Quartets & Piano Etudes marks
another interesting turn in Glass’ work – the former (from late 80’s and early
90’s) are mostly elegant, quiet and meditative except for last movements of his
String Quartet No. 5 (which becomes quite lively), while the latter (dating
from the mid 90’s) are very pretty and graceful.  You almost wish that he would do more of them.

 

Similarly, the symphonies featured here make you hunger
for more of the same from Glass.  1995’s “Symphony
No. 3” is mysterious, haunted, representing a different type of minimalist
landscape, featuring a bit broader range and varying much more in mood – Movement
4 is especially captivating and dramatic.

 

The last CD in this set is Filmworks (1984-2003), which
is a sampling of his movie scores, including everything from a Jim Carrey film and
Errol Morris documentaries to a Dracula remake and a Scorsese film.  Most selections are a few minutes long so it
almost serves as a pop sampler to his celluloid projects but it’s also maybe
the most overall satisfying disc of the series, letting him show off his motifs
in modest doses and interesting configurations with military drums and tender
waltz (Mishima), delicate but menacing strings (The Secret Agent),
uncharacteristic dissonance (Kundun), settings of awe and menace (Thin Blue
Line), European romanticism (Dracula) and moments of spiritual uplift (The Truman
Show).

 

In all, a very impressive batting average; how many
modern composers, music less bands besides the Stones or the Beatles, could
make a winning 10-CD box set from start to finish?  If Glass has a few warty diversions in his
oeuvre, so did Shakespeare and it didn’t diminish his rep.  The sum total of this box set is to show off
his mastery of composition in several genres, and with that criterion, it does
him proud and proves that he deserves the status as one of the classical
world’s leading lights in the last century and the one that we just began.

 

 

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