As my previous post’s title alluded, I got to experience even more Philip Glass yesterday. Not only was I able to see him perform a live piano recital, but was able to go to a colloquium/Q&A with him.
The Day (necessary capitalization) began with Glass seated at a table in front of a billowing red curtain in a small concert hall that was filled intimately with college students, adults, and a few high schoolers. Like how my dad later described the concert a few hours later, everyone in the room seemed to get chills when he walked on stage. But he didn’t have that inferior aura to him that many people capable of star-striking do. His down-to-earth and casual attitude was comforting. The talk only lasted for an hour and could only hold five questions, but I managed to get one in. I asked if, in his childhood or adolescence, any experiences or habits he had formed affect the way he composes now. He honestly didn’t really answer my question, but the information he did dictate was interesting. He mainly talked about how he had to be one of the hardest workers at Julliard because he was in the middle range of the composition students when it comes to talent. He described how he had to ignore what his teachers told him to do: to not play his own music, because they had better performers there that could. “That was bad advice,” Glass said. He went on to describe how composing is like venturing into a city. “You have to go to the parts of the city you’ve never been to, that’s where you’ll find the things that interest you. You can’t go to the parts you’re familiar with. You might as well stay at home and watch CNN.” Oh, Philip. One of the most interesting things he said was that he has taught himself to only practice between 10 am and 1 pm. He said, “If I get an idea in the middle of the night, oh well.” During these hours, he stays at the piano and works, but outside of this specific time frame, he tries not to think about composing—“I think that’s an important part of it,” he said. Unfortunately, he snuck out before my friend and I could become best friends with him, but we were lucky enough to get to hear his thoughts.
The Day concluded, after the crucial step of sushi, with the recital. Glass played Etudes 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, and 10, “Mad Rush,” “Metamorphoses,” “Dreaming Awake,” “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” and “Night on the Balcony” and the “Closing” movement from Glassworks as encores. Staying consistent with his casual attitude, he wore slacks and a button-up shirt, with his hair in the signature ruffle on the top of his head. The powerful unison chords of the first etude confidently came through his fingers. Glass’s style is much looser than others who I’ve heard play his music. Playing like his could come off as sloppy for energetic and demanding pieces (Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff), but it worked well with his Zen timbres and so-often-used arpeggios. “Mad Rush” was performed most solidly, clear and perfectly meditative. No one understands Glass’s music more than himself, and it is evident when he is playing. He seems unfazed by the simplicity and subtleness of dynamics; it’s even easier to listen to his almost improvisational-sounding interpretations of his own work than someone else’s. I say “interpretation” because of something he had said during the colloquium—when asked how he felt about whom and how interpreted his music, he responded that he still interpreted it. He sometimes finds himself playing his own pieces with reversed dynamics, completely different to how he wrote them.
“Wichita Vortex Sutra,” however, ended up being my favorite piece performed. The original Allen Ginsberg recording played over Glass’s playing, for which I was eternally grateful (that’s even more than a Glass repeat sign). His voice begins at a baritone level, but when it comes to stanzas that require overwhelming emotion (“A lone man talking to myself, no house in the brown vastness to hear, imaging the throng of Selves that make this nation one body of Prophecy languaged by Declaration as Happiness!”), it changes into the tenor, underlying-ly raspy tone us slam-lovers have come to recognize. And the pure Americana, slightly twangy pivots of Glass’s accompaniment was perfectly joyful over the purely honest portrayal of the America and war.
Honestly, it’s almost impossible to critique Glass, or really make too many observations. It’s like describing Warhol making a screen print. One can observe the physical actions and black-and-white motions, but one cannot judge or make opinions, for that’s only really doable if someone else is interpreting their work. The point is, Glass is a master of what he does. For “It's not the vast plains mute our mouths,” but the people who create genres.