Monday, March 14, 2011

Shards pt. 1

Today today today today today today today today today today today today today today today today I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I  listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to some some some some  some some some some some some some…

          Philip Glass.

Hopefully that doesn’t come off as mockery, because I cannot say I do not like Glass. In fact, I respect Glass immensely. But, contrary to a hasty glance at the music industry in general, he is like a politician to the classical music world. Some love him, some don’t really care, and some really, really dislike him. All of these opinions more or less pertain to his tendency of repetition, and it’s an incredibly complicated subject (also like politics). After seeing and listening to Glassworks today and hearing the differing opinions of the audience and performers, I can see the sides of these different viewpoints.

Glassworks begins with the steady and tranquil solo piano movement (“Opening”). The piece has that quintessential Glass touch, with its slowly morphing chords and singular notes that cause the listener to sit on the edge of their seat just a little more. The contrasting rhythms of the two hands, with its triplet eighth notes in the right hand over eighth notes and whole notes in the left hand in common time, is infectious and slightly surreptitious when just listening. After my hands mastered the pattern, I couldn’t stop them from tapping anywhere I went, whether it was on the piano itself, a wall, my legs, or each other (more difficult). It is difficult to deny the simple genius of this movement—its effortless splendor transcends classical music’s complicated expectations, much like Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” does. Every now and then we need wakeup calls like this movement to remind us that sound is sound and not a race to complexness.

The following movements of Glassworks include two French horns, a bass clarinet, two flutes, a viola, a cello, keyboard, a tenor saxophone, an alto saxophone, and two soprano saxophones (which sound like 50/50 blends of an oboe and a French horn). The French horns stand out to me as the unsung heroes of the piece, showing their velvety resonance with small-interval couplets between the two. The soprano saxophones act as top-layer voices, and with their slightly ambiguous and hard-to-categorize sounds add just the right amount of unexpectedness.

Slightly Pink Floyd, wouldn't you say?
As an audience member, I felt relaxed and invulnerable with the predictability of Glass’s harmony clouds. Sure, I thought, this is certainly repetitive, but unless your naïve-to-classical-music self has been dragged to a Glass performance or you’ve been plugging your ears for the past 40 years, the cyclical style is inevitable. I was surprised I didn’t get sleepy or end up with numb legs. Through the reoccurring patterns and identical chord changes, the simplicity of the music shone through and wasn’t irritating to the audience from what I gathered. However, after the concert, I heard many opinions from the performers and detailed descriptions of the unwelcoming trance they were falling into on stage. If one thinks about Glassworks from the performer’s type of view, eyelids almost immediately close. Playing the same alternating notes for 8 minutes straight only to see another D.C. al coda? That sums up the experience.
There enters the problem so often encountered with Glass. Even though there’s no debate that the chords and harmonies themselves sound amazing, are constantly repeating ostinatos of singular notes respectable? And one cannot deny the fact that a large quantity of his music sounds eerily similar. In a 2007 New Yorker article, Alex Ross wrote, “To encounter a new Glass work these days is to pass through a familiar sequence of emotions. More often than not, you start with a disappointed sense of déjà vu: a rapid onset of churning arpeggios and chugging minor-key progressions dashes any hope that the composer may have struck off in a startling new direction. At times, it seems as though he had launched Microsoft Arpeggio on a computer and gone off to have tea with, say, Richard Gere.”
The problem I have encountered with Glass is not the first letter of the sentence, per se, but where the period finally comes in the piece, and where it finally comes in his repertoire. I heard recently the point that audiences need to be more patient and that “entertainment” does not need to be constant. This point is incredibly valid and I lobby for it entirely, but I think that Glass’s repetitiveness goes beyond the rejection of entertainment and into the realm of rare but existent surpluses. The ideas that Glass begins with are so wonderful and straightforwardly gorgeous, but when used to the point of oblivion, they become too familiar even though they do not become irritating. When I learn a new piece or motif I am crazy about, it’s not uncommon for me to stop whatever I am doing at the moment and run to the piano. But when I start doing this, say, around 10 times a day, even I get (short-term) sick of the piece. Listening to Glass is like eating the most delicious cake ever tasted… every day. It loses its flavor. It’s not really a question of becoming bored as a listener/player, but when the music starts to slightly lose its magic.
Despite all this, one cannot overlook the emotions Glass conveys. One of my first Glass memories is watching Koyaanisqatsi with my dad when I was around 9. Then, the average movie I encountered had constantly moving characters, and, like mentioned before, was terrified of boring its watchers. But Koyaanisqatsi was simply not; it only had footage of cityscapes, masses of people, and landscapes. I expected to be jaded, but I wasn’t. I might have fallen asleep due to my elementary school-timed internal clock, but I was never bored.

Glass Glass Glass Glass Glass Glass… (fermata-ed rest) will always be one of the most famous composers in the general music business and one of the most controversy in the classical, but he will always be churning out those lines and lines of music he has come to claim as his own. Sometimes his repetitiveness is painful due to the loss of the initial beauty of the themes, but he will always compose, and we will always listen. In the long run, we need Glass's unquestionable talent to teach us patience and the effortless art of chord-morphing. And maybe we are all in fast-forward and he’s the only one who’s hit “stop.”  

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