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Had I Never Listened Closely Enough?

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I am not averse to repetition or slowness. I admire the way Steve Reich gradually builds intricate architecture out of the minutest shards. I love Malian guitars that just keep purling through the night. But Glass has restricted his expressive range as ruthlessly as he has simplified rhythm. In his Symphony No. 8, from 2005, he assembles new gloom out of old parts: minor-mode brass choirs, Masterpiece Mystery! tunes, and thickly oozing sound. The orchestration skews to the rumbling end of the audible range, giving the score a flickering, crepuscular atmosphere. Yet the mournfulness feels canned, the sense of tragedy simulated.

Only in the Songs and Poems for Solo Cello that he wrote for his girlfriend, Wendy Sutter, in 2007 does Glass’s music feel direct and urgent. Here he peels away the layers, dispensing with ensemble, orchestra, visual aids, and showmanship and producing instead a spare soliloquy. The repetitions feel integral—as in Bach’s suites, he uses them to build counterpoint out of a single line, savoring the dark, melancholy sound of a cello alone. What does it say about a composer that his best work is also his least characteristic? Maybe that he has stifled his imagination by the relentless application of habit.

American Composers Orchestra: Philip Glass 75th Birthday Concert
Carnegie Hall.
January 31.


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