The press corps were seated together at the Dakota Jazz Club on Wednesday night, where composer Philip Glass played a program of his works composed or arranged for solo piano. One of my colleagues, an avowed Glass fan, wondered aloud whether there was any point in reviewing a Philip Glass performance. “All the reviews I’ve ever read say pretty much the same thing. You either love him or you hate him, and no one ever changes their mind.”
As a fellow member of the love-him camp, I can’t dispute that assertion. Glass’s career as a composer can be divided into three phases. In his early career, Glass produced work in a conventional avant-garde vein (by the mid-1960s, “conventional avante-garde” was no longer a contradiction in terms); he no longer performs or particularly wishes to be associated with that work, preferring to see his real body of work as beginning in 1967, when he helped to invent minimalism. In the second phase of his career, he produced sometimes aggressively repetitive pieces; the summit of this body of work is Music in Twelve Parts, which like a labyrinth can drive you mad if you don’t approach it properly. (Also like a labyrinth, it’s something that many would prefer to simply avoid.)
After his groundbreaking minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach (1976), Glass quickly mellowed into an accessible form of minimalism (career phase three, if you’re still keeping track), putting his trademark rippling arpeggios to the service of very accessible scores that, perhaps more than anything, have made him the world’s most famous living composer. The music Glass played on Wednesday night all dated from period; the program demonstrated that he’s taken a constant, coherent approach to his craft for the past 35 years. Glass trained with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger, who also taught Aaron Copland, but unlike Copland, Glass—now 74—is showing no signs of a late-life return from mid-career accessibility back to adventures in the avant-garde.
Though I doubt whether Wednesday’s performance would have converted any members of what Glass calls his “very strong, solid hate faction,” it did hold revelations even for those of us who have spent untold hours listening to recordings and performances of Glass’s music. On record and when performed by ensembles, Glass’s music often rushes forward with a steady, accelerating pulse, like a river running out of control; as performed solo by the venerable composer himself, though, the music opened up and expanded.
Glass took a downright Romantic liberty with his scores, changing tempos and dynamics to highlight different sections of the pieces as he played. The Etudes (1994-1999) that began the program, for example, revealed their shared heritage with Debussy’s Impressionistic Etudes, and the Metamporphoses (1989), indeed metamorphosed. It’s ironic that stripping music down can serve to make it richer, but such was the case on Wednesday.
Glass also performed the relatively recent Dreaming Awake (2006) and Mad Rush (1980), a piece to which choreographer Lucinda Childs set a dance soon after it was composed. It’s his collaboration with Childs that brought Glass to Minnesota this week; Childs’s Dance—set to music by Glass and realized on stage in collaboration with Sol LeWitt—was presented in 1981 at the Walker Art Center, which is re-staging the piece this weekend.
The amiable, conversational Glass concluded the evening with Wichita Vortex Sutra (1990), a pastoral composition set to a poem by Allen Ginsberg and performed with Ginsberg until the poet’s death in 1997; Glass now perfoms the piece accompanied by a recording of Ginsberg reading the poem. Acknowledging a standing ovation, the composer performed an exquisite encore combining the pieces Night on the Balcony and Closing.
Night on the Balcony is drawn from Glass’s beautiful, evocative score for Jean Genet’s play The Screens, a score that was composed with Foday Musa Suso and had its world premiere in 1989 at the Guthrie Theater—a fact Glass acknowledged by way of introducing the piece. Closing is the final track on the 1982 album Glassworks, a bestseller that made the composer a household name among well-educated yuppies and remains the best introduction to Glass’s post-1976 body of work.
It was a rare—in fact, a once-in-a-lifetime—experience to see Glass in the close confines of the Dakota, performing a sensitive, heartfelt solo rendition of one of the landmark pieces in his history-making repertoire. When Glass departed the stage, another of my colleagues at the press table shook his head in admiration as he started to think about what he might say. “How,” he asked rhetorically, “do you even find the words?”