Seven or Eight Pieces? Which is it? In fact it’s twelve pieces? In the early 1990s, Philip Glass composed a piece for the ballet company Grupo Corpo. The ballet itself was originally called “Seven or Eight Pieces for a Ballet” because the penultimate piece Glass composed ran seamlessly into the last piece of the set. Unsure of where the break was, in the studio they joked “well, it’s seven or eight pieces” and the name stuck. On the occasion of the release of the new orchestral version of “Aguas da Amazonia” on OMM, I thought it a good time to do a little archeology.
One thing that remains something of a mystery is the current name, Twelve Pieces for a Ballet as listed on PhilipGlass.com. While we know the ballet premiered with the name “Seven or Eight Pieces,” the music was quickly taken up by the Brazilian percussion group UAKTI (pronounced Waka-Chi) who arranged Glass’ piano pieces for their group of home-made instruments and recorded them for the Point Music label. By that time the music had been expanded to twelve tracks (probably where the final name came from) with most tracks being named after rivers in the Amazon with the exception of the last track which was drawn from Glass’ piano piece Metamorphosis No.1.
What’s interesting about this body of work, other than its vitality and joyousness, is how it relates to Glass’ stream of creativity in the early 1990s. The way I have drawn lines around the composer’s periods of creativity is that the first mature period was Minimalism (1965-75), followed by the still highly repetitive period from around 1980 to 1990 when more expressivity started appearing in his work. Other than traditional operas that premiered during this time, there was very little in the way of works that fit into the classical tradition. This all changed around 1990 when we get the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, Symphonies Nos.1, 2 and 3, and the Cocteau trilogy of operas. This period was the period where we see Glass, for the first time, finally having the ability to pick and choose the projects that he had always wanted to do.
Returning to Aguas da Amazonia, the introductory track Tiquie River is one of three totally original pieces of music from Glass that have never appeared elsewhere. That piece leads into Japura River – quickly identified as what was to become “Les Tourments de la Bete” from Glass’ opera of the same year “La Belle et la Bete.” Next up is Purus River, which we would recognize ten years later as the “Brazil” track from Glass’ world music piece “Orion.” The fifth track, Negro River, would later be reincarnated as Piano Etude No.9, the sixth track Tapajos River is Piano Etude No.4, and of course the track Amazon River, appropriately a broad slow meandering piece, is Etude No.2 a.k.a. Echorus for two violins and string orchestra.
So what are we to make of this? Which pieces came first? For starters, the best thing to remember is how Glass speaks about his interactions with world music. For decades now the composer has talked of his dozens of collaborations with musicians from different traditions as the vehicle for his own creativity. What we see in the case of Aguas da Amazonia is what ultimately served as a sketchpad for the composer. These pieces were indeed written as piano pieces at the beginning so it’s no surprise they were later published as piano etudes. But with one listen to the Aguas da Amazonia album it’s perfectly clear what Uakti brought to the music in terms of their own creativity. This is especially true in the final track “Metamorphosis No.1” which serves as a large canvas for improvisation over the skeleton that is the Glass piano music.
It’s not surprising to see how many of these pieces became other things rather than languishing in the obscurity of a little heard world music album from the mid-1990s. Indeed, the label Point Music, was Glass’ own imprint (as part of Phillips Classics) which was later swallowed up by Universal Music. While it lasted, Point was a place where Glass was able to put out the music of his friends like Gavin Bryars, Arthur Russell, Uakti, Bang on a Can, and others in the days before Orange Mountain Music.
Point Music was also where Glass had the chance to make a proper album with Foday Musa Suso after their first brief interaction on the scoring of Powaqqatsi. Glass and Suso will once again play together this weekend at National Sawdust with Jeffrey Zeigler as part of Glass@80. The result of this collaboration with Suso was The Screens, like Aguas da Amazonia, it is a masterpiece on all fronts. But what we see in the end is how clearly how this engine of creativity is fueled by working with people who don’t originate from the same place of music making that Glass does, and what kind of wonderful results can result.
It’s that kind of openness and willingness which invites events like Kristjan Jarvi and orchestrator Charles Coleman to then take Uakti’s version and decide to create an orchestral version, and orchestral version of piano pieces for a ballet later interpreted by a percussion ensemble and finally voiced by a full symphony orchestra. In the end it was a long road to a new place where no one had been before. That’s how these things happen.
Richard Guérin, 3/7/17