glass notes
Glass Notes: Brooklyn Rider and the Music of Philip Glass

On a July afternoon in 2006 while I was living in Brooklyn, only a few months after I started working for Orange Mountain Music, I saw listed in the magazine Time Out New York that Glass’ String Quartet No.3 “Mishima” would be performed at Barge Music.

For those who don’t know, Barge Music is what it sounds like.  It’s a barge on the Brooklyn side of the East River.  It’s a small floating concert hall set up in such a way that the audience looks at the performers with a picture window at the back of the stage looking at the skyline of lower Manhattan.    The concert featured a group of young guys from Brooklyn playing a program of Haydn, Bartok, and Glass.  At that time the group didn’t have name and all I knew about them was that they nailed the Mishima quartet. A particularly poignant moment of the concert came when a big barge came bounding up the East River heading north and its wake making our concert hall rock in motion with the music.  After the concert I went up to the players to shake off my sea sickness, to introduce myself, and encourage them to record the piece.  A couple weeks later I invited OMM founder Don Christensen to hear the group. Long-story-short, after seeing them perform at the Brooklyn Lyceum he was immediately sold on the idea of making a record with them.

By 2008 the group had a name, Brooklyn Rider, and had made a reputation for themselves.  As today, they had lot of momentum behind them because of their energy, performance abilities, and skillfully crafted programs. By this time, Brooklyn Rider had a couple years of performing Glass’ quartets as a group under their belt.  We had all arrived at a moment we all felt was a good time to consider recording all the extant pieces composed by Glass for the medium of string quartet.

Our first consideration was what to record. Our second was choosing a place to record.  In choosing which pieces to record we knew immediately that we would do String Quartet Nos.1,2,3,4 and 5.  String Quartet No.1 was written in 1966 and was only the second piece that Glass composed in a reductive and repetitive style.  String Quartet No.2 “Company” is a miniature of four two minute movements that were drawn from incidental music written for the Samuel Beckett play “Company.”  String Quartet No.3 was taken from a film score that composed 1985 for the Paul Schrader film “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.”  The sections composed for string quartet were performed by Kronos Quartet and resequenced into what would become Quartet No.3.  Four years later in 1989 Glass composed String Quartet No.4 “Buczak,” written as a memorial piece for the artist Brian Buczak. At the time in 2008, the Buczak Quartet had particular resonance with the members of Brooklyn Rider.  And finally there was String Quartet No.5 from 1991 which included no extramusical reference or connections, and for Glass had to do with the language of music itself. About No.5, Glass said, “I was thinking that I had really gone beyond the need to write a serious string quartet and that I could write a quartet that is about musicality, which in a certain way is the most serious subject.”  That piece completed a sort of traditional trajectory of a series of quartets, with each quartet growing deeper in emotion and musical content.”

During this process with Brooklyn Rider we had a couple of other pieces to consider. One of them was a student work, “String Quartet” from 1959 composed while Glass was a masters student at Juilliard.  During this Brooklyn Rider project Orange Mountain Music was operating out of “Glass headquarters” which was at 632 Broadway in New York.  It was a space that housed his publishing company, OMM, as well as the Looking Glass recording studio.  One day, when waiting for the freight elevator on the backside of the building which fed on to Crosby Street, I was talking to Glass about string quartets and Brooklyn Rider, which he had a chance to hear in the studio earlier that day.  I mentioned our intention on recording as much as possible including his early quartet from 1959 and the music he composed for the 1997 film “Bent” starring Clive Owen based on Martin Sherman’s play.  At that time, despite what we now know as a strong musical piece, Glass didn’t want Bent to be called String Quartet No.6 “Bent,” as he had done with Mishima, but rather he curiously referred to it as a kind of gebrauchtsmusik.  Glass finally settled on the rather cumbersome named of “Suite from Bent for String Quartet.”  As for his early quartet, Glass stated that it wasn’t representative of his music. I argued that someday some group would record and perform it. He responded in passing that I was “right” and that we should destroy it.  Suffice it to say, I let the issue drop immediately.

It must be recounted that by the time Brooklyn Rider was in the Looking Glass Studio, we had already been working on recording the Glass quartets with them for quite some time. Our first attempt was to record in a church in midtown Manhattan at night. This was a place OMM had recorded before with great success including “Songs & Poems for Solo Cello.” The space had a wonderfully reverberant sound and we were happy to return there.  However, on our first evening of recording we started to notice on this cold night that the old heating pipes of the building were lurching into life, replete with a cacophony of clangs and other noises.  This made capturing a complete take almost impossible and was generally detrimental and distracting to the musicians.

During our second night of recording in addition to the pipes, we started to receive radio frequencies over our microphones.  With the passing of almost a decade it’s funny to think of these things now but it was very stressful and frustrating at the time. Eventually we had to abandon the church.  After that we regrouped a couple of weeks later and went to the Looking Glass Studios.  However, what we all captured there was largely discarded as well. Brooklyn Rider felt rightfully that the sound of that studio wasn’t what they were looking for and there were other problems with the process that made capturing the energy that we all wanted almost impossible.

What followed was another round at Avatar Studios with a goal to re-record Quartets 2-5.  In the end, only Quartet No.1 and “Bent” were recorded at the Looking Glass.  It was a long ordeal but in the end the group made the record that they set out to make and the ultimate result was beautiful.

In the intervening years Brooklyn Rider, probably more than any other ensemble, has consistently performed the music of Philip Glass.  This has been in addition to their broad activity as members of other ensembles like The Knights and the Silk Road Ensemble, as soloists and composers in their own right, and in the case of cellist Eric Jacobsen, in his ever-expanding musical life he became the conductor of the Orlando Philharmonic.  This last bit meant that for the first time since being founded, the group needed a new member. And in cellist Michael Nicholas came on board.

In fall 2016 I had a chance to hear the group perform again at the stunning Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport Massachusetts.  It is ironically another venue with a glass background looking out to the Atlantic Ocean.  It was so great to hear Brooklyn Rider again live…and again more than ten years later, they happened to be performing the Mishima Quartet!

While having post-concert drinks, we picked up on the idea of recording Philip Glass’ new string quartets.  Glass hadn’t composed a numbered string quartet in 22 years since he composed String Quartet No.5 in 1991.  In 2013 String Quartet No.6 premiered in Vancouver.  No.6 is most definitely the most different quartet in Glass’ catalogue.  Composed around the time of his opera The Lost (Spuren Der Verirrten) which plays openly on the European school of modernism of the 20th century, String Quartet No.6 is Glass most challenging and thorny piece in the medium.  It’s heavily layered and textured and follows no previously established model in the composer’s body of work.  It is a probing piece, one that looks for answers whether they are to be found or not.  It’s representative of a strain in Glass’ recent period of music which can be described as more musically active, densely harmonic, and bustling with a different kind of energy, more so than any of his music from the previous 50 years.

Apart from the proper string quartets, in 1995 Glass once again approached four part writing in his Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra. Part of that commission was to compose two versions: one for soloists and orchestra and a separate version for saxophone quartet alone. The piece has been popular to the point where saxophone quartets began making arrangements of Glass’ string quartets.  Brooklyn Rider decided to go the other way and for the first time to arrange Glass’ Saxophone Quartet for string quartet. It’s a wonderful arrangement and works well. The key to the piece opening itself to them happened when they decided to use two violas instead of two violins.

In a phone conversation in early 2014 Glass and I discussed the prospect of recording String Quartet No.6. At 24 minutes, the piece would not be long enough for a conventional album.  We considered what other music for quartet might be included in a possible recording.  I mentioned the music from Dracula as a concert suite or perhaps arrangement of music from his opera In the Penal Colony which is scored for string quintet.  Glass responded with, “How about String Quartet No.7?”  Confused, “I said what will String Quartet No.7 be?  When will you write it?”  Glass responded that it had already been written and was about to premiere as a dance piece in Amsterdam as part of the Colours International Dance Festival, performed by Kronos Quartet choreographed by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot.

Now one needs to understand that I pay more attention to performances of Philip Glass’ music perhaps more than anyone else in the world as a fan and as part of my job. I enter every performance date into the calendar on Glass’ website.  I was totally unaware that this new piece had been written and was about to premiere.  But more than anything, it was surprising that after not having written a string quartet for over two decades, the composer had decided to write two within the period of a calendar year.  Whereas String Quartet No.6 was highly unusual and totally different than its predecessors, String Quartet No.7 stands in total contrast to its siblings.  The piece belongs firmly to what I think of as being characteristic of Glass’ “late” period along with pieces like Etude No.20, the final movement of the Second Partita for Solo Cello, and the finale of the recent Piano Concerto No.3

All of Glass’ quartets are in multiple movements.  String Quartet No.7 is the only piece in a single unified slow movement that is just under 17 minutes long.    String Quartet No.7 is some of the most honest and direct music Glass has ever written.  From the opening bars there’s a simplicity of discourse which lasts for the entirety of the piece.  To some extent, String Quartet No.5 and No.6 are pieces built on complexity.  They are forward looking pieces and they are pieces with something to prove.  String Quartet No.7 exists as a piece by an artist free of expectation of any kind. Free from history. Free from himself.

It’s this last point which I think is the most salient. No.5 was an attempt at touching upon that most serious subject of pure musicality.  No.6 is a loaded reaction, an epitaph to modernism.  No.7 is a kind of “late” music where perhaps nothing more should be said about a subject. It’s the last line of finality after which nothing else seems appropriate.  To that extent, the music lineage of what he started back in 1966 with No.1 came to a definite close with String Quartet No.7 and there could be no better ensemble to be exponents for this music than Brooklyn Rider.

-Richard Guérin, 2017

Postscript:  This past summer, I discussed these notes with the composer and expressed my observation that String Quartet No.7 seemed to be the end of a line and that Glass’ career of writing in the medium of string quartets seemed to be coming to an end with No.7.  Glass said that he thought I was probably correct.  There was one small caveat, that he had just completed String Quartet No.8!  I asked about the piece.  The composer responded, “It’s the kind of piece which makes me think now that No.9 is inevitable.”