Had I Never Listened Closely Enough?

Painting by Chuck Close. Phil, 1969, acrylic on canvas/Courtesy of the Pace Gallery

Philip Glass turns 75 on January 31, and on that night the former cabbie, plumber, iconoclast, avant-gardist, and loft pioneer will get a resounding confirmation of his elder statesmanship: the U.S. premiere of his Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. I decided to celebrate ahead of time and in private, by trying to overcome years of distaste for his music. Perhaps, I thought, I had never listened hard enough to get beneath the churning surface, and impression had hardened into prejudice. A friend of mine speaks of the “ecstasy” of listening to Glass; I wanted some of that, too.

I haven’t listened to every note of his bursting discography—has he?—but I’ve made my way through what iTunes informs me is “1.9 days” of symphonies, operas, movie soundtracks, and a saxophone quartet, as well as the portentous symphonic cantata Itaipu, which crops up on a compilation promisingly called “Classical Music for Hipsters.” At times during this voyage (I also sampled his opera The Voyage), I felt that I could have walked away in the middle of an arpeggio, had a four-course dinner, and returned to find those soothing chords still burbling away. Glass may well have done the same when he was composing the stuff. Surely there’s an app for that.

But I also found long seductive stretches that buzzed with energy or settled into feline languor. He is a master of texture and pattern, and roaming through his output reminded me of browsing among the great rolls of fabric arranged on racks in a Lower East Side upholstery emporium: endless lengths of sumptuous brocades.

Glass began as an austere revolutionary. In Music With Changing Parts, from 1970, the dominant timbre is the car-alarm oscillation of an electric organ, set against long vocal drones. He strips every element of its old meaning: Rapid rhythms meld into stasis, harmonic logic dissipates, and time stretches to the point where it almost stops elapsing.

Early fans saw Glass as a countercultural force—the critic John Rockwell described a 1973 performance in a Soho loft, in which the biting, electric sounds sprang out the open window and into the warm night. “A pack of teenagers kept up an ecstatic dance of their own. And across the street, silhouetted high up in a window, a lone saxophone player improvised in silent accompaniment like some faded postcard of fifties Greenwich Village Bohemia.” Yet that mellow bliss could only be achieved by the eye-scorching alertness of musicians who tended the pulse for an hour or more. Since then, his style has developed as glacially as each piece does. In 1976, he and Robert Wilson created Einstein on the Beach, the five-hour plotless, character-free stage work that’s famous partly because so few people have seen it. (A new touring production arrives at BAM in September.) “At first I was bored—very bored,” recalled the flutist Ransom Wilson. “Then, with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it. I began to perceive within it a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental.”

That time-consuming transfiguration is at the core of the Glass mythology, but drugs work differently on different metabolisms, angels appear only to the elect, and I lack the gift of spinning Glassian tedium into bliss. In fact, I start to get his music at precisely the point where his first acolytes fall away. The 1980 opera Satyagraha, which recently returned to the Metropolitan Opera in a spectacular production by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, is not exactly traditional music drama, but it does feature seductive melodies winding above gentle brooks of harmony. Instead of the juiced, serrated sounds of the early years, this score has a quiet, gilded beauty. In place of radical erasures, Glass’s score evokes Bruckner, Lou Harrison, Ravel’s Bolero, and medieval polyphony, among other precedents and allusions. In the final scene, Gandhi intones a rising Phrygian scale, redolent of Arabic chants and Gypsy tunes, as the orchestration becomes gradually denser. But Glass never had a good idea he didn’t flog to death: He repeats the haunting scale 30 mind-numbing times, until it’s long past time to go home.

To criticize Glass for excessive reiteration is a little like complaining that the rain is too damp. He repeats therefore he is. But even as he abandoned the rigors of early Minimalism, he continued to wear out the products of his own invention. In November, the New York Philharmonic finally performed its first Glass work, Koyaanisqatsi, the soundtrack to Godfrey Reggio’s documentary. As the camera pans over the doomed and derelict hulk of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, the score’s wavy scales, chiming brass, and chanted syncopations accumulate into a sonic panorama. It’s a gripping moment, and there are enough like that to make me wish he valued them more. But he is less craftsman than musical trucker, tirelessly eating up the road.

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.

Had I Never Listened Closely Enough?