glass notes
Pick of the Week – Violin Sonata & Kepler: Questions of Scale and Subject


photo by M. Walther

As I thought about what to write about today I was pulled toward the stunning new recording by Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff of the Violin Sonata which will be released later this fall on OMM.  However, at the last moment I was reminded of a conversation that I had with the composer.  As he was writing the Violin Sonata I asked Glass: "So what does the Violin Sonata sound like?" to which he responded "It sounds like it's by the composer of Kepler." (as they were composed not far apart.)

If one puts aside including scale, subject, and tone, what we have left are somewhat tedious compositional things which Glass doesn't tend to talk about. Glass usually prefers to talk about what a piece is about rather than how it was composed. That is to say that the inspiration for composing a piece comes from something else other than musical processes and manipulation of the elements of music. Something inspires him to compose it.  It could be a subject, a performer, money.  All sorts of motivations.

The one time I can recall Glass being truly brought into a conversation about composition, at which he described the elements of composition was an interview with his second cousin Ira Glass at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn a year ago where he showed a rarely seen glimpse into his mastery of craft and a broad understanding and facility with music.  But surely composing a Violin Sonata is 100% different from composing one of his large scale portrait operas? 

One would think in a context of concert music v. theater music, a violin sonata would be about nothing other than music.  I'm not talking here about the eternal battle between so-called "absolute" music and so-called "programmatic" music.  I'm referring rather the specific case of Glass the composer and what he has in his mind as he sets out to compose a piece of concert music for a violin and piano versus what he has in his mind when he's writing a theater piece for orchestra, singers, chorus, and all the choreographed pageantry which is grand opera.

For Wagner everything in the world could be music (not music as representing something, rather being something: music as love, a hero as music, etc), furthermore he made no distinction between music and drama. It was all the same thing. What is becoming clear to me now is that Glass' music is almost independent of anything other than itself even though it's often masquerading as any number of things thanks to all the media that he works in and all the collaborations that he's done.

Stravinsky has that famous quote in his autobiography about music having no ability to contain any meaning at all.  I believe that for many of his admirers, all of Glass' music has meaning.  It can't help but have meaning from its most ho-hum commercial examples to its richest most poetic presentations, all because of how his language developed and evolved.

But the interesting thing for me is how that "meaning" remains almost totally abstract yet uniquely and undeniably his own. That what the composer discovered way back with Einstein on the Beach was that not many knew what the opera was about.  But they knew it was about something. I still remain transfixed by that indescribably meaningful something in all the music.

So here we are with a violin sonata and a grand opera.  And I'm thinking to myself after all these years of listening and thinking about his music, "who knows…maybe they're ultimately about the same thing."

Listen to excerpt from Violin Sonata

Listen to excerpt from Kepler

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