Since I started following Philip Glass, about 17 years ago, I have noticed that an ancillary benefit for me in listening to his music has been how my own concepts about art and its role in the world have been challenged and formed by Glass’s positions and activity. One aspect of this is the practice of repurposing music.
I thought about this on this snowy day in the Northeast. A friend of mine contacted me telling me that he was listening to Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to Taxi Driver today on the film’s 40th anniversary. I see the world through music – I even choose my movies and TV shows based on who the composer is – so in thinking about Taxi Driver I recall a 2011 NPR interview about a very rare performance of Herrmann’s one and only opera based on Wuthering Heights (1951). In this NPR interview the conductor of the opera the conductor Michael Christie, at the 8-16 minute mark you hear that Christie is taken aback by the fact that Herrmann appropriated the opening music from his opera and re-purposed it for Taxi Driver (1976).
Going the other way, Herrmann’s own favorite score was his music for The Ghost and Mrs.Muir (1947), from which he took the extraordinary love theme and put it in his opera at the end of the Prologue. What you see here is a sense of compositional propriety which I highly revere (“I wrote it, it’s mine, I can use it as I wish“) and free usage of material in different contexts.
In my first big plunge into the music of Philip Glass I found his many instances of re-using music just another fun aspect in the activity of the constant listener. Just as the ear catches the music of others such as the quotation from Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony in Floe from Glassworks, we also can frequently find bits of music or whole sections in different works and different contexts. My take away from this has always been a reflection on the absolute value of music: does music ever belong to anything but itself? (Verdi’s Requiem and a Rossini overture were used to sell products in the commercials of yesterday’s Super Bowl.)
For example, let’s take the music from Glass’s score to the Errol Morris film “The Thin Blue Line” from 1988. That same year Glass took some of his score to this documentary, arranged it for piano, and used it for a stage production of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” also from 1988. Glass listeners are well acquainted with this music as Metamorphosis No.2 has been part of Glass’s piano repertoire since the 1980s. Then later, I remember vividly how in 2002 when I went to see The Hours in the cinema almost laughing in a fit of giddiness when that music re-appeared in a dramatic moment of that film. It has since found a new life as a solo piano “transcription” called “Escape! from The Hours.” So to which project does the music belong?
So what is this music? Is it a film score? Is it incidental music to a stage play? Is it music which belongs to plot and characters of “The Hours”? There are too many precedents in history to list even the top dozen examples of self-appropriation (my personal favorite might be the first movement of Mahler 1: is it better as a song for baritone and orchestra or a movement in a symphony?). What I find interesting in Glass’s music is the abstract nature of it which means it can represent any number of things to all sorts of different people.
Take some recent examples. Glass’s two volumes of piano Etudes which begin to be composed in 1994 in fact trace their genesis to the year before, 1993, when Glass composed “12 Pieces for Ballet” which was used as a basis for the Brazilian percussion group’s improvisations around Glass’s compositions for a dance troupe. As a new listener, if you weren’t paying attention to the music material on UAKTI’s album “Aguas da Amazonia” you could be forgiven for not noticing that the Glass compositions were later deposited into the first volume of his Piano Etudes. To be fair, Glass later really cultivated this first volume to be purely pianistic by editing them and recomposing them for the piano. The second volume of Etudes has a similar path to creation but on the whole is more specific in its intention for the piano.
Etudes Nos. 13 and 12 are “A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close.” Etude No.20 is from the track titled “Gone” from the soundtrack to the film by Godfrey Reggio called Visitors. Glass’s 2012 Symphony No.10 is a wholesale orchestration of his fireworks piece “Los Paisajes del Rio” from 2007. The second movement of the Toltec Symphony is from the ballet Phaedra, the third movement is “The Unutterable” from Powaqqatsi, we hear the finale from The Witches of Venice in the third movement of Concerto Grosso, Days & Nights in Rocinha is a cultivation of rejected music from The Truman Show which itself was clearly modeled on Anthem from Powaqqatsi which the producers ultimately licensed. For that matter going way back, Another Look at Harmony Parts I, II, and III all ended up in Einstein on the Beach. The opening of Glass’s film score to Roving Mars is clearly the opening of “Music with Changing Parts” played by an orchestra. For that matter we also hear a bit of Glass’s opera about Gandhi, Satyagraha (an opera about social transformation through nonviolence) when it appears in The Hours. To look for connections between the music and the images/text/dance that it accompanies is often a futile effort. Does The Hours have something to do with social disobedience? Hardly. So what’s relevant to me now becomes the issue of how Glass responded musically in a certain moment in time to a certain subject matter. If Glass were to compose Satyagraha today it would be a very different piece of musical theater. That music form that opera has appeared in The Hours and The Watchmen speaks to some sort of expressive value deep inside the music itself.
The answers to all of this repurposing is quite interesting. Glass is on record as saying simply that you have a piece of good music buried in something else and it’s never going to get heard. So there’s definitely that very practical motivation. There’s also the argument about a musical continuum. Shostakovich was on record as not understanding composers who spent lots of time revising old works. He would say that in the three years it would take someone to revise a major work that he would write half a dozen new pieces, trying to improve himself in each one. Inasmuch, I always think about music, in its best opportunities, as being a summation of everything a composer knows up to that point. That’s what made Appomattox so impressive to me. In discussing that opera with Glass, he mentioned that he simply couldn’t have written the new sections of Appomattox back in 2007 – he “didn’t know enough.”
So if you think of music, as I do, as one big soupy mess in which composers have all sort of influences passing through their minds at any given time and that everyone in history is in the room at the same time – Beethoven coexists with David Bowie – old world craft is on an equal plane with aural innovation – and an artist’s response and how he/she handles these opportunities becomes the most interesting part. How that music takes a place in the bigger world is a totally separate phenomenon.
I always wondered what a Romantic Comedy score by Philip Glass might sound like. I doubt I’ll ever get to find out, but suffice it to say if there were a new film, with music by Philip Glass, which called for a Love Theme and right at the big moment of the big kiss was about to happen and we started to hear Metamorphosis No.2…I, at least, would find that tremendously funny.