glass notes
Pick of the Week: Kepler

In the fall of 2009 I was very excited about Kepler.  I have to say that it seemed to be the first time in a long time that Glass had a lot of time to compose.  The decade 1999-2009 was the busiest of the composer's career as his composing for main stream film took off. The problem, if you will, was that as the commercial work picked up, the art music didn't stop during this period. It's not to say that any given piece suffered from the busy schedule. Indeed, I think some of Glass' best music came out of this period, in each discipline including film (The Hours, 2002), concert music (Symphony No.8, 2005) and opera (Waiting for the Barbarians, 2005).

At a certain point Glass entered hyper-mode, as documented in Scott Hicks' film GLASS: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, and he was composing more than he ever had.  In 2007 he composed three film scores (Animals in Love, Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, No Reservations), almost two hours of music for "Book of Longing" which he spent much time touring, "Songs and Poems for Solo Cello" AND the two hour opera Appomattox which met with mixed reviews.  This super-human workload was unsustainable.  So, in my eyes I welcomed a period, only 2 years later, when Glass' work in film abated and he seemed to have the time to focus on areas of composing which have seemed to be the most interesting for him over his long career.

Not only an issue of time, Kepler is interesting for many other reasons. I have always thought of Philip Glass as the most international of American composers. While other composers of our time push for some form of nationalistic pride (mostly for career reasons as America is where they can hope to make their money before being able to move on to other markets), such as John Adams recent memoir "Composing an American Life" wherein he justifies his music as a fusion or synthesis of many different elements, and how that's what it means to be American.  On the other hand, we have Philip Glass whose serious work has nothing to do with national identity, rather most of it seeks to shed light on the most dignified ideas of humanity's greatest individuals, regardless of nationality. 

It may be true that a piece like Akhnaten, that is sung and narrated in many languages including that of the audience, realizes some sort of international ideal, but it's certainly not Adams' goal of using a large tent to justify appropriating the styles and techniques of others. 

With that said, in 2008 Glass began composing the music for Kepler on a commission from the Landestheater Linz and its Generalmusikdirektor Dennis Russell Davies.  Glass' last few operas leaned strongly towards traditional narrative opera:  In the Penal Colony, The Sound of a Voice, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Appomattox.  All these operas are in English and all present a story with a beginning, middle and end. Kepler is in many ways a throw-back to Glass' first large-scale forays into opera with Satyagraha and Akhnaten.  This work is more abstract and presents to the audience a poetic portrait of a man.  This concept is very liberating for a composer in that it doesn't limit his/her music in tying it to specific dramatic situations.   More about Kepler in due time as it will be released as both a CD and DVD from its original Linz production in the future. But here is a peak at the opera's ending setting the text which is on Johannes Kepler's tombstone:

Mensus eram coelos                                                              
Nunc terrae metior umbras
Mens coelestis erat

Corporis umbra iacet

(I have measured the heavens,

now I measure earthly shadows.

The mind belonged to heaven,

the body’s shadow rests here.)

Kepler Ending (Landestheater Linz, Dennis Russell Davies conducting)

3 thoughts on “Pick of the Week: Kepler”

  1. I think your statement about Glass and other modern American composers is unfair. Although Adams is more verble about the process of composition, it’s also clear that what both Glass and Reich and others in the 60s and 70s were doing would not be possible in Europe: A composer can’t be removed from their cultural context, and “minimalism” was an expression of the fact that here in NYC we really had a sort of clean slate, from an arts perspective. Does “The Death of Klinghoffer” really express US nationalism? How about Music for 18 Musicians by Reich?

  2. As the metter of fact, “Klinghoffer” is a deeply nationalistic work. Not necessarily in exactly the same sense that you meant, but it is nevertheless, so. Here I will also admit to not, shall we say, being a fan of the work.
    And before you diagree, I would also like to bring up “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic”. (I am not saying they are “nationalistic” (or imperialistic) per se nor am I am implying that it is wrong to write on the subject matters perteining to US. Rather, I am pointing out the precedent).
    I mean, you are talking about a guy’s who’s one of the earliest pieces is called “American Standard” 😉 !
    All of this to say, that I think you sort of missed the point of what Richard was talking about. We can argue about how “American” minimalism by itself is. What I think Richard meant (and he is very welcome to correct me on this), is that in both his collaborations, settings, and subject matters Glass has been much more outward looking than absolute most other composers.
    This is not to say that Adams didn’t work in that way either. He did, just like a lot of American composers dabbled with out side influences.
    That said, even with that in mind Glass’ international credentionals, I’m talking time proven credentials are extrodinarily rare.
    And on this I wholeheartedly agree with Richard.
    His explorations of cultures, histories, music, legends, etc, couple with his use of different langauges, travels, collaborations, and general lack of heavy pro-american favoritism set him quite apart. And more importantly, I don’t think “Doctor Atomic’s” brand of pacifism is the same as “Satyagraha’s”.

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