glass notes
On Philip Glass’s First Piano Sonata and the performer Maki Namekawa

(On 4 July 2019, Philip Glass’s First Piano Sonata will have its world premiere at the Klavier Festival Ruhr)

In February 2017 in Washington DC, the piano duo of Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies had just finished a performance at the Philips Collection and were heading to a restaurant in the neighborhood.

Davies is known as one of Philip Glass’s closest collaborators, with a relationship dating back almost four decades.   On the Washington program was a piece by Glass called “Four Movements for Two Pianos” which the composer wrote specifically for the Namekawa-Davies duo. It premiered at the Piano Festival Ruhr in 2008 and has been played constantly by them over the past decade. It was also for Davies that Glass composed his first five piano Etudes in 1994 on the occasion of the conductor/pianist’s 50thbirthday. Glass composed sixteen total études for solo piano.  Davies premiered the first five, and then for almost two decades only Glass himself performed many of these pieces as they remained unpublished.  Only a handful of close associates of Glass even had the music, and of those, they were limited to the first ten.

Then in 2014 as Glass prepared to compose the remaining four pieces for a complete set of two volumes of Etudes (twenty pieces all together), Glass finally got around to the idea of “freeing” this music which had, up until that time, been a very personal part of his own music making.  Publishing the music was one consideration.  The other would be whom the composer might select to be the first to record the music.  Glass’s choice would be Maki Namekawa.

The publication of the Glass Etudes, the release of the Namekawa recording, and the New York premiere of the complete 20 Etudes all took place at the same time at the end of 2014.  By this time, Namekawa had been touring for years with Glass and playing his music all over the world.

The recording was a unparalleled success for everyone involved. Namekawa’s recording GLASS: THE COMPLETE PIANO ETUDES reached No.1 on the iTunes Classical charts.  Namekawa continued her relationship with Glass’s label Orange Mountain Music in recording two more albums including the album MOTION PICTURE of Glass’s film music (performed by Namekawa and the renowned Cello Octet Amsterdam) as well as her most recent album MISHIMA.

MISHIMA was a film from the 1980s about the life and death of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. The film was directed by Paul Schrader and received special prizes, including one for music, at the Cannes Film festival.  For this project, Namekawa commissioned a special arrangement of the entire film score for her to perform in concert.

So here we are at this French restaurant in DC in 2017, the year of Glass’s 80thbirthday, at the back of a restaurant with Davies – conductor, pianist and collaborator fresh from a sold out performance of the world premiere of Glass’s latest symphony, and his wife Maki Namekawa who had become arguably the foremost Glass specialist in the world, and who had, only the night before, completed her first performance of The Complete Etudes the evening before in Brooklyn.  It seemed only one thing remained omitted from this artistic relationship: that Glass had never composed a piece of music specifically for Namekawa.

The very day before Davies had met with Glass right after the premiere of the composer’s Eleventh Symphony at Carnegie Hall.  AS they have often done over the decades, in discussing Glass’s music, Davies asked of what kind of piece was missing from Glass’s artistic output. What came to Davies’s mind was the finale decade of creativity in the life of Franz Joseph Haydn.  Davies know that, after having finished the last of his 100+ symphonies, just before the composition of The Creationand The Seasons, the composer known as the “Father of the Symphony” and the “Father of the String Quartet” created one of his final masterpieces in neither of these forms, but rather in the form of his brilliant masterpiece, the E-flat Major Piano Sonata.

Davies asked Glass to consider such a piece and if Glass would we open to accepting such a commission.  Glass embraced the idea immediately and that Maki Namekawa would be the artist for which he would compose the piece.  Eventually commissioners including Klavier-Festival Ruhr, the Philharmonie de Paris, and the Ars Electronica Festival came forward to support the piece, but it was this following day in Washington DC in the loft in the back of a French restaurant  that Davies announced the news that Glass would compose his First Piano Sonata for Namekawa to be premiered in the summer of 2019.


“The biggest thing with new music is how to realize it.  It’s an issue of how to write it down but it’s also about how to actually play it.“ –Philip Glass

 When asked about his legacy and influence, Philip Glass has shrugged off the idea of being placed in the pantheon of great composers.  He has seen too many “great” composers all but disappear from the repertoire in his own lifetime.  Inasmuch he’s stated, “If I’m to be remembered for anything, it will be for the piano music, because people can play it.”  This is a bold statement from a composer of 25 operas, dozens of which are performed worldwide every season – twelve symphonies, thirteen concertos, and nine string quartets.

For almost two decades Glass wrote exclusively for his own ensemble. It was out of necessity as he belonged to a emerging generation of composers who could not, would not (could not) rely on classical orchestras and ensembles to perform his music.  So Glass composed for his own Philip Glass Ensemble of woodwinds and keyboards.  Later, in the 1980s Glass started to tour as a solo pianist/advocate for his own music. That is the reason why that for many years so much of the piano music remained unpublished. It was also a practical concern as a working musician, Glass explained that “if you wanted to hear my music you had to hire me.”

It was only later that as his music grew in presence, there was more interest in the music than he could accommodate himself in his own performances. While the piano music he composed was for himself and his own level as a pianist soon other pianists became interested.  The music itself also started to change.  We see in the second book of piano etudes that Glass began to compose beyond his own abilities as a pianist, and that only a pianist on the level Namekawa, could perform the music with the technical proficiency that it required.

In late-June 2019 Glass discussed his First Piano Sonataand talked about his relationship to the piece and to Maki Namekawa as the soloist.  His assertion is that any music which is truly new or original has to confront two big issues: notation and performance practice. The First Piano Sonatais a piece “bursting with ideas.” These are ideas which in the first run-throughs of the piece seemed totally unconnected. Emerging through time, both Glass and Namekawa together began to understand how those ideas are connected. Glass stated, “The piece is too difficult for me to play.  I can play some of it, sing some of it. But I won’t really know what it sounds like until someone like Maki performs it.”  The challenge of the piece became about the a process for both the composer and the performer to understand it.

This is fine point and not a question of analysis but rather a question about how to play new music. The piece was composed and could be played as soon as the music was printed. However, what Glass is talking about is discovering of “How to get from A to ZWhen that happens, that is when the real piece emerges.”

 Glass was reached in New York during intensive work sessions with Namekawa two weeks before the premiere and simply asked, “What is a piece that’s never been performed before?”

The Glass Piano Sonata is about 30 minutes long and is cast in three movements. Glass claims that the piece is related to his work of the past two or three years like his Symphony No.12 (2019) or his Percussion Quartet (2018) which were pieces that addressed ways that instruments play material. However while Glass was working in a new way on these pieces, “It turns out that writing for piano was the best place to work out these ideas.  I began to write in a new way.This is the most sophisticated form of these ideas.  I began to see how the music unraveled.  It turns out that the piano is the best place to work out these kinds of things. It works like that sometimes for composers. That’s the case with the Berg Piano Sonata.”

When we think about Glass’s early music like “Music in 12 Parts” and “Music in Similar Motion.” The pieces themselves, even the names of the pieces, were about process.  He composed those pieces in a real, authentically new, and truly viable new musical language. For this, Glass needed his own group to become experts on how to perform it.  He says, “Any new musical language requires a new technique. There’s no way around that. The Philip Glass Ensemble took many years to become fluent in that language.”  No other music, not even Glass’s own music could really prepare Namekawa for what she was taking on.

Namekawa recounted, “I got the music the third week of April 2019.  I had a rehearsal for a big orchestral concert in Vienna on which I was a soloist.  I was about to go rehearse for the dress rehearsal and I opened my email to see an email containigng the finished score for the Glass Piano Sonata.  I had an inner battle about whether I should open it or not because I had other music to work on.  In the end, I didn’t have a choice, I had to open it!

“When I started to play it, I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock.  This was a new style of music.  I thought immediately of when I play Stravinsky.  There are “wrong” notes but they are strange and beautiful. “ 

Glass and Namekawa started the process of working on the piece together while on tour in Spain in May of 2019.  Namekawa says, “This has been a journey for me with Philip on this piece, a musical journey.” When Glass was asked what the piece was about, he said “The big idea of the piece is how to play the piece.”  Namekawa says at one point Glass told her that the left and the right hands have different personalities, which turned out to be a big part of unlocking the piece for her.  In the third movement of the Sonata, she had been playing different tempos, but when she found these personalities for each of her hands, the piece emerged and she immediately said, “It worked!”

The new ideas in the First Piano Sonata are very much about this process. What the composer and performer were going through in Barcelona and New York was “absolutely necessary” as part of the creation of the piece and it has very little to do with the notes on paper, but rather with how the piece reveals itself to the creators (composer and performer) and ultimately the audience..  Glass ended by saying, “Maki is in the soup with me in discovering what the piece itself is. Musical material is bouncing in between movements and we need to find what needs to happen to put the piece together.  What seem like a bunch of funny things at first become parts that pull the piece together. Familiarity breeds understanding.  We ourselves are only beginning to understand.   It’s great that it’s someone like Maki.  We can discover and say “This is how it’s supposed to go.””

-Richard Guérin,

Salem Mass. 24 June 2019