Looking forward – one of the strongest characteristics of Philip Glass’s music, is its constant sense of forward drive which captures one of the most basic and admirable human characteristics. This perpetuum mobile serves dramatic purposes in that no matter what transpires, Glass’s music – and his characters – constantly move forward.
This part of Glass’s music coincides perfectly in his operas about men (indeed his 20 something operas to a large extent only take men as their main subjects). The composer’s visionary music is often a perfect analog for the vision of the main characters. Such is the case with Gandhi, Akhnaten, Kepler, Disney, et al. These are men of great conviction in their artistic, religious, political visions of the world. These characters remain undeterred in their life’s work to strive to achieve their goals.
And so it is with Philip Glass’s music. The music constantly looks forward, hardly ever looks back or pauses to be self-referential. It captures that admirable human quality of moving forward not merely for its artistic agenda, but also satisfying and celebrating humankind’s most basic desire to survive among the madness. In KOYAANISQATSI, as spectators we are presented with images of a terrifyingly inhuman world. But there’s something about the inherent drive of the music which makes such a vision digestible if not exciting. In the case of that film, I have never been able to resolve my own feeling of excitement about such a dire portrayal of the conditions of our collective life. My takeaway was that despite such bleakness, the Glass engine grinds on and gives beauty to meaninglessness. The search for beauty is art’s greatest purpose. Such character has always been my highest standard in art, much like in the case of Mahler’s Second Symphony, perhaps music’s loudest and defiant cry into the abyss.
The Glass musical engine always moves forward. It’s always been an extremely attractive quality to his music for me. It’s this aspect of Glass’s musical language that I’m thinking about as I watch this Guggenheim workshop, Works & Process on Glass’s opera APPOMATTOX. What is discussed is extremely interesting to me on a number of levels and I hope to write about it more in the coming weeks and months.
It is true that the opera was relatively well-received back at its first iteration in San Francisco in 2007. In the intervening years I have studied the opera from the archival audio and high-definition video which was made at San Francisco Opera. The piece was composed at an extremely busy time in Glass’s compositional life, even by Glass standards. There are a few long-term artistic goals to which Glass returns to only when given an opportunity. Much like Appomattox, Glass has always hoped to “complete” his oratorio The Passion of Ramakrishna, doubling its length from 45 minutes to an evening length 90 minutes. But the composer has yet to find the chance to do it. In the case of Appomattox, the truncated period of composition in addition to the revelation of the stage play version of the story by the librettist Christopher Hampton, gave Glass and overwhelming desire to re-examine the opera from top to bottom. I can think of no other case like it in Glass’s catalog.
Indeed, the occasions of Glass revising his major works are almost unprecedented. I can think of the not-small revisions of the Toltec Symphony, but those changes were really nothing more than edits and didn’t require any new composition. Appomattox adds somewhere from between 60 and 90 minutes to the original length of the opera. There has been a major overhaul of the basic dramaturgy of the whole piece and for those of us interested in what this final outcome will finally achieve, we will have to go to Washington DC next month to find out. Of only one thing can we be certain of at the end of this process…that the very next day the unrelenting locomotive of creativity known as Philip Glass will be on to the next thing.