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Brubaker on Performing Philip Glass’ Piano Music

I had lunch this week with pianist Bruce Brubaker who now has three recordings which contain Glass piano music including this year's release TIME CURVE on which he recorded a wonderful interpretation of the original six piano études.  I invited him to share something with Glass Notes readers.
Time Curve Brubaker

GLASS PIANO – by Bruce Brubaker
Philip Glass’s piano music is personal. He plays it himself. And, some of the rest of us pianists play these pieces too!

 At the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in a public conversation with me and Jon Magnussen, Philip said: “Every music has its own style of performance, and every new music has to have a new style of performance, otherwise it's not new.”

In Princeton, we talked about how musicians are coming along today who play music that seemed almost impossible when it was new. Sometimes performers do exactly what the writer of a piece had in mind. Sometimes though, performers do something quite different — unintentionally, or willfully.
I  think Philip’s piano pieces lead to what can be called “molecular” piano playing. In some pieces, my desire to maintain an unbroken sound fabric of repeating note-patterns challenges the resources of some pianos — pianos that would seem of the highest quality in music by Beethoven! Glass’s hypnotic, slow shifts call for an instrument that produces no accidental lumps. There can be no notes prone to stick out, no unmatched voicing of the hammer felts, no unequal regulation of the action mechanism. And the greatest tonal equality must sometimes be attained at the softest dynamic levels — something not required in most traditional classical repertory.

Glass’s piano music has taught me how to play the instrument better, and listen with more subtlety. The loud, fast repetitions of Mad Rush yield more left-hand finger acuity. Long passages of moderately slow unchanging two-note ostinato allow for the heightened perception of rhythm in time. Micro-inflections can have large musical impact.

Philip has described his realization that theatrical work by Samuel Beckett is actually completed by each audience member at each performance. Roland Barthes declared the omnipotent “author” dead, in the 1960s. The kind of participatory involvement Philip (and Barthes) advocate for the audience applies to performers too. No matter what the performer’s intentions, or the composer’s wishes, each new reading (and each different instrument) adds to, reveals more of, and even alters, the complete identity — the complete range and possibility — of the music being played and heard.

Philip has written: “Art objects — be they paintings, string quartets, or plays — don’t exist or function by themselves as abstract entities. They function and become meaningful only when there are people present.”

Once, when I went to play for him, Philip said, just as I was about to begin Mad Rush, “Let’s see what you have to say in this piece.”

3 thoughts on “Brubaker on Performing Philip Glass’ Piano Music”

  1. As a pianist I have throughly enjoyed playing Glass’ published piano works, and wait impatiently for more works to be published! I am itching to get my fingers on the Etudes. Lately, I have started transcribing, as best as I am able, some of the movements from “Music in 12 parts”.

  2. 12 Parts! I’m not sure how that’s possible since A, the scores aren’t released, and B the minimum instrumentation I believe is four keyboards. This is not deter you!
    I think that as soon as Glass finishes the second set of piano etudes, the first will be released. As evidenced by recent pianists Davies and Brubaker making recordings of the first set, maybe it’s not so far away.
    Richard Guerin
    On Sep 25, 2009, at 1:06 PM, wrote:

  3. Sorry for the confusion, what I meant was that I am working with the recordings and transcribing by ear one of the keybaord parts. Not sure which keyboard part it is (well, I no it is not the “Bass” part). I do enjoy playing along with the recording from my transciption.

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