Tuesday, February 14, 2012

800 Words: Ten Hours of My Life Spent Arguing With Philip Glass

Hour 1

Minute 1: This is really interesting. Nice chord progressions, nice rhythmic variations. He looks like he can really do something with this.

Minute 5: Wow, this is really fantastic, all the patterns are well-developed and keep morphing.

Minute 10: So that’s the whole point of the piece eh?

Minute 15: I hope I remembered to put the milk back in the refrigerator.

Minute 20: He really is still going with this...

Minute 25: What am I doing here?

Minute 30: Please God, smite me, smite me now. Whatever I did to deserve this, I’m sorry.

Minute 35: All I need is a toaster and a bathtub.

Minute 40: Wow, I get it! This is a Buddhist meditation on transitory consciousness, it doesn’t matter whether we listen fully or not. That’s brilliant!

Minute 45: Still Buddhist...

Minute 50: That guy with the long beard in the front row is really into this.

Minute 55: What am I?


Hour 2:

Summer 2003. Philip Glass is coming to Columbia to give a recital of his music. My roommates are Glass fans of a fashion - they all know Einstein on the Beach and we entertain ourselves late into the night with impromptu musical recreations of its most memorable (I provide the music, they provide the poetry). We all plunk down $30 - a fortune for college underclassmen - pile into my purple Buick Century (The Purple People Eater) and go to Columbia.

What follows is the biggest musical letdown imaginable. Glass goes to his piano, plays through an hour of generic pieces with arpeggiated triplets in the right hand against a duplet bass-line. Every piece sounds as though it could just as easily bewritten by Enya or a high school beginner. My friends slump further and further into their seats, every one of them asleep by the end. After my horror subsides, so does my ability to stay alert, and I fall asleep too. At intermission, we consider...for the second half? Five minutes later, we’re all back in my car with AC/DC blasting from my stereo.

Hour 3:

Fall 2000: I’m on the bus for a Hyde cross country meet. My friend ‘Dov’ is very into Philip Glass. I tell him I’ve been trying to listen to Glass since I was a kid. I still don’t get it. He gives me the Glassworks CD - six easily digestible tracks of Philip Glass designed to put him squarely into the David Bowie market - not a single track over eight minutes long and hardly any developed in the usually inimitable Glass fashion. To my astonishment, I have never enjoyed a Glass piece more than this one, before or since. This is a piece designed for pleasure, nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

Hour 4:

Knock Knock

Who’s There?

Philip Glass. Knock Knock....

Hour 5.

Some composers treat compositional rigor as a nice byproduct - far more important to them is melody, harmonic originality, and rhythmic variety. But then there are those composers for whom the form of the piece is the thing in itself. Bach was such a composer, so were Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Glass and Reich. Handel was not, neither were Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Stravinsky, Messiaen and Berio. Mozart wasn’t either, but he happened to have a perfect sense of rigor inborn.

(da da da daaaaaaaa)

From the era of Haydn and Beethoven, we have what’s called motivic development. Motivic development is the idea that a piece of music can be developed from a single cell, all that’s required are half a dozen notes or less to gather an infinite number of potential permutations. Think of the da-da-da-daa from Beethoven’s 5th, repeated (if memory serves) 512 times over the course of the movement - each time a little bit differently. After Beethoven, the meaning of motivic development went in two different directions. In Wagner, it became leitmotivic development - every small cell became connected to an extra-musical idea that represented a character, object, emotion, or idea from one of his operas. Thanks to Wagner, music then became something that could explain absolutely anything. And since music was thought able to explain absolutely anything, it became a Rorschach test for the desires of whoever explained the music - programs were appended which had nothing to do with the piece but everything to do with the person who wrote the program.

(a chain of thirds is all it takes to build Brahms 4)

In Brahms, motivic development became developing variation. Like Beethoven with motivic development, Brahms did not invent developing variation, but he did perfect it. Thanks to Brahms, we still believe that one tiny musical cell with a little bit of harmony underneath is all it takes to provide all the material necessary for an hour’s worth of music. It provides all the material necessary for logic, continuity, contrast and variety - and can therefore be emotionally expressive without expressing anything concrete. Thanks to Brahms, the 19th century question of whether or not music needs to express extra-musical things to express anything at all is a resounding ‘No!’ The form of the music carries is its own expression, and needs no extra-musical description to tell us what it expresses. After Brahms, the meaning of developing variation went in two different directions.

In Schoenberg, who coined the phrase ‘developing variation’, this process became ‘serial theory’ (you got a better definition?). Schoenberg took the principle of developing variation to such an extreme that musical theory became as much science as music - creating all sorts of mathematical formulas to explain new possibilities of music which previous generations of musical geniuses had to search for unconsciously. But as with Wagner’s leitmotifs, the process Schoenbeg created was of its time, not for all time. It created music of baffling complexity, yet the pleasure of the listener was of secondary importance. If Wagner’s influence lead music to too many questions of what music can express, Schoenberg’s influence lead music to too few.

(Sibelius transitions effortlessly, merging all four movements of a symphony into 1)

If in Brahms, development was a constantly occurring process, then in Sibelius, development became the entire point of the composition. I’d never heard this term before, but Kenneth Woods brilliantly termed it ‘transitional development,’ in the case of Sibelius, the themes are constantly transitioning into one another - in a process so effortless that you barely notice it. Thanks to Sibelius, the artificial, rather arbitarary boundaries of classical form are no longer necessary. Symmetry and a sense of completion were now less important than what one finds along the journey. For the first time in modern musical history, composers did not need a sense of symmetry in order for a piece to feel organically developed. In at least one sense, Sibelius took the training wheels off form.

Hour 6:

Perhaps I’m missing a generation between Sibelius and Glass, but I’d be hard-pressed to name the figure that links between them. After Sibelius, development became the most fruitful pursuit in musical form. In his best work, Glass did away with the next arbitrary barrier. Sibelius, even at his most concentrated kept the constructs of traditional symphonic works - even in the seventh symphony, there are passages resembling an opening movement, scherzo, slow movement, and finale. But there is no such transition in Blass. The development never arrives anywhere, it is development and only development.

Glass is best known for repetition, and at his least rigorous, his music is mere repetition. At his most rigorous, it’s a kaleidoscopic panoply of development. No two seconds of music are the same, with music that constantly changes. the technique on display is dazzling, but after a while is it anything more than technique?

Like Wagner and Schoenberg before him, Glass is an end in himself. After this sort of harmonic stasis is achieved, where does the music go? How many hours of this stasis do we listen to after we get the point? You either find this stasis brilliant, or you don't. It’s this reason that, like Wagner and Schoenberg, Glass’s music tends to divide people into the believers and the infidels.

Just as Wagner had his antipode in Brahms and Schoenbeg had his in Sibelius, Glass has an antipode. But his is far less remote, it’s his former collaborator Steve Reich. If Glass’s music can be defined by the absence of event, then Reich’s music puts events back into music. In Reich, there is just as much kaleidoscopic development, but it’s development with a difference. In Reich, development once again has and ending goal. The end goal is usually simple, perhaps a key change from B-Flat to E-flat and back again, but because it’s so simple, it seems absolutely momentous - all it takes after that incredible technical sophistication is one little harmonic event to make all the difference.

Glass is probably the most influential composer for the newest generation of American composers. But his musical style is exactly what it was in 1976, whereas Reich grows ever more inventive, ever more profound, as he reaches old age. The present belongs to Glass, the future belongs to Reich.

Lots of musicians - never geniuses but very talented ones - mine the same idea for their entire careers. It's not in them to adapt to new times or new styles. Music meant exactly the same thing for them in 1965 as it does in 2012. They hang on to a set idea of what great music must be and they think any divergence from that idea somehow cheapens the art. And because their idea of music never changes, they see music not as an infinite series of possibilities but as a 2-D model that can be mastered. So whenever they encounter genius, the same story ensues: the genius takes their musical contribution, assimilates it into his/her musical vocabulary, and then moves on to soak up different influences, and then the mere talent cries bloody murder. This is the mindset of Wynton Marsalis to Miles Davis, the mindset of Pete Seeger to Dylan, the mindset of Boulez to Messiaen, and one day we might find out that the reason for the quarrel between Glass and Reich was precisely this. Glass is a composer of destruction, Reich of creation.

Hour 7:

Thanks to Kyle’s Mom’s usual ability to inflame people’s moral righteousness, South Park Elementary has to strip the Christmas pageant of all Christian overtones. The result is the Happy Non-Offensive Non-Denominational Christmas Play with Music and Lyrics by New York Minimalist Composer Philip Glass.

As usual, South Park’s aim was 100% accurate. Try and tell me that Glass’s music is not the ultimate in blandly non-offensive music for the politically correct. On the one hand, it is an amazing achievement - with a concentration of technique and beautiful sounds that can last for hours on end. On the other hand, it is completely empty - divested of meaning, expressing no emotion deeper than its own patterns. It is music both formidably great and stupefyingly empty.

Hour 8:

“When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.”

These are the final lines of Philip Glass’s opera, Satyagraha. They were the words with which Philip Glass chose to address the crowd at Occupy Wall Street’s Lincoln Center Protest after the final performance of his opera: Satyagraha. True to form, he repeated it three times. It’s a statement with all the crypticness of a Papal Blessing. Within it lay an empty gesture of resistance and hypocrisy from a very wealthy man. A perfect display of radical chic over liberal substance - more concerned with the appearance of resistance than affecting any change.

Yet what do these lines mean in plain English? Is it to say that the world is a sick place? Well, yes, of course it is. That we’re forged by terrible times to make the good among us take a stand for righteousness? Perhaps, I hope so. But it’s the ‘away’ that bothers me. Is the opera then saying that there is no righteousness? That the world is so sick and beyond redemption that we have to take all the existing models down and rebuilt the world from scratch? I feel like I’ve heard this before. Wasn’t this the message of the Ring Cycle, in which the old world is destroyed and a new, pristine world emerges in its place, reborn by the power of love? I feel like we’ve all seen this opera before, and it didn’t end well for anybody....

Hour 9:

Music for Changing Parts - Gorgeous, dazzling, the definition of virtuosity. Boring, boring, boring. Repeat for forty-five minutes.

Music in Twelve Parts - Like the Ring Cycle and Brahms 1, one of the founding pillars of the new era with Music for 18 Musicians. Maybe you have to go further back, a new Well-Tempered Clavier? Brian Eno’s sober brother? Arvo Part on vicodin? Art Blakey for the John Tesh crowd? A delirious haze of cloudy textures, demanding you conform yourself to its pace before you snap out of it screaming for mercy only so it can ease you back in again. Then the changes between sections come on like a mixture of roller coaster and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Is it a good trip or a bad trip? Either way the Green Mile can seem so long...

Akhnaten: It’s certainly stylized enough to be Grand Opera. Like everything else, staggering one minute, agonizing the next.

Koyaanisqatsi - At least there’s something to look at. With images, it seems to mean something. I’m not entirely sure what but I’m entertained.

Einstein on the Beach - An American myth, the Ring Cycle in one night. Mesmerizing, maddening, life-changing and banal all at once. The perfect musical reply to Andy Warhol. Sculpting art from the bullshit banalities of everyday life. Is it pure world-altering genius, a morally repulsive repudiation of everything we hold dear in art, or just dumb as hell? I have no idea.

Hour 10:

Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Clifford Brown, Paul Chambers, Elvin Jones, Wes Montgomery, Allen Toussaint, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Randy Newman, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lieber & Stoller, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Ralph Stanley, Earle Scruggs, Phil Spector, Carl Perkins, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Loretta Williams, Eartha Kitt, Al Green, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Isaac Hayes, Ashford & Simpson, Bock & Harnack, Kander & Ebb, and Stephen Sondheim.

These are some of the most important pre-boomers of American music. Perhaps a greatest generation of American musicians? When the dust clears and all these musicians are long gone, will Glass and Reich be anything more in this hall of fame but the least important?

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