glass notes

Last night's ICARUS performance was a totally unique experience.  The event was held at the "United Palace Theater" (and/or "Cathedral).  I gather that for secular events it's called a theater but otherwise it's for giant church services.  It's a well-maintained opulent movie house from another time designed by Thomas W. Lamb whom I know from his Keith Theater in Boston that was recently restored as the Boston Opera House.  It's located at 176th street in the northern section of Manhattan.  For those unfamiliar with New York scale of geography, this is probably about ten miles north of lower Manhattan.

I attended the world premiere of ICARUS in 2010 at a gala event that included a speech from the stage by none other than Stephen Hawking (who makes an anonymous cameo in Glass’ opera The Voyage and who was also the subject of the Glass scored “A Brief History of Time" by Errol Morris).  During the composition of the music for ICARUS, the temporary narration that was used was done by Alan Alda.  For some reason, the world premiere was done by John Lithgow, though Alda was apparently free that night because he was sitting right next to my wife and me.

This was the third performance of ICARUS in New York, with the continuity of the Orchestra of St. Luke's with Brad Ludman conducting.  There was a problem with synchronization at the premiere that saw the film ending about 30 seconds before the music did.  There's an extended orchestral coda to the work so it wasn't that noticeable.  Last night there were no such problems.

As a piece intended for children, the work itself is effective albeit probably about 8-10 minutes too long.  The narrative is driven by the effects of getting too close to a Black Hole.  They could be summed up in a section lasting only a couple minutes, but the authors linger too long on those points. At 38 minutes, I think it would make a very effective 28-minute work.

The Glass score is a true film score.  There's little traditional development, and other than some motifs that are restated at the end, it is a sectional and episodic score which is effective accompaniment to the fantastic visuals by Al + Al.  LeVar Burton's narration was effective, but from where I was sitting he was too heavily amplified. The audience of mostly young people from elementary school through high school seemed genuinely entertained.

I hope to have the score recorded someday. However, the existence of live narration makes a live recording impossible. So without underwriting for a studio recording, I suspect it may take a while before a recording is made.  There are some remarkable textures in the score including the classic Glassian ominous feeling in the opening chords, the interesting musical analog for the slowing of time in the middle section, tri-tone piccolos, and the nostalgic sections describing the boy Icarus’ journey.  There’s also a noteworthy lilting melody in the high strings at the end during the orchestral coda.

7 thoughts on “ICARUS Review”

  1. When ‘Icarus’ is recorded, I think it would be cool to have two versions (one with narration and one without). Kind of like Symphony #6.

  2. “the existence of live narration makes a live recording impossible”.
    Well, it didn’t stop Nonesuch on the first release of The Thin Blue Line soundtrack…

  3. Again, the difference between the Thin Blue Line and Icarus is that the music for the Thin Blue Line was a studio recording. They simply overdubbed the narration from the film.
    There was always a debate about the inclusion of that narration. I kind of prefer it to the music only release on Orange Mountain. Clearly, its nice to have both.

  4. How about a DVD release; that way you can engineer the option of choosing to watch the film with or without the narration (and you get to enjoy the beautiful visuals created, as well)?
    While I prefer music only tracks for CD releases (you can hear the music more “clearly”), I wish that ‘1000 Airplanes on the Roof’ and ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ had an “optional narration” function included (though the music has prompted me to seek out and read the texts they are based on). I think SACDs may have that ability (?) but who has SACD players?

  5. 1000 Airplane on the Roof and The Thin Blue Line (first version) were released in CD almost in the same period of time. Later, in a conference, I asked Glass the reasons why he removed the narration in the first cd and left it in the second, I would have preferred the opposite. He replied that may be I was right, but it was not his choice.
    Actually Icarus reminds me of 1000 Airplane on the Roof, one of my favourite opera.

  6. It’s interesting that you say that the narration was “removed” from ‘1000 Airplanes on the Roof’ because I’ve noticed that some tracks (or parts thereof) are notably quieter than others on that album, and I often find myself adjusting the volume while listening to it; I wonder if this is why?
    I do think that, in some contexts, Glass’ music works very well with narration, and many of his works feature spoken texts. Personally, I prefer the version of his ‘Plutonian Ode’ symphony that has Allen Ginsberg’s recitation on it, to that which doesn’t; not so much for the quality of Ginsberg’s voice (or the degree to which it is, necessarily, edited to fit the music) but, rather, a strangely affecting quality that arises from hearing his words “echoed” by the singer. For some reason I always find it more moving to listen to than the version without his reading on it.

  7. Me too: I always listen to Plutonian Ode with Allen Ginsberg voice.
    May be I did not explained properly my objection to the choice in the CD release of 1000 Airplane on the Roof. I think that the music were recorded in a studio, without the narration, and not during a live performance.

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