glass notes
Sally Whitwell – Mad Rush

Whitwell's album "Mad Rush – solo piano music by Philip Glass", is now available on iTunes
Sally Whitwell

RG: Was this your first experience with the music of Philip Glass?  I find responses on this question vary wildly including conservatory students who had teachers who loathed his music and claimed that he couldn't even read or write music (despite his educational credentials including a Masters from Juilliard and years of study with Nadia Boulanger).

If so, for you what was the process like internalizing the music. You said in the video that's it's as if you know someone when you memorize the music.

SW: Yes, this is my first active experience of interpreting Philip Glass's music.  Initially I decided not to listen to any interpretations of the music during my months of preparation, not until I had thoroughly absorbed everything that I could directly from the score.  As Australian writer and  broadcaster Andrew Ford reminded me, the composer's score is a primary source.  It's the closest link we have to the composer and for me personally, the most important link.  I often wonder if Alfred Brendel actually knows Schubert better than, for example, Schubert's next door neighbours knew Schubert.  Because Alfred Brendel's been inside that music, and that is a very intimate thing (more intimate than living next door).

As a performer of abstract piano music, everything I need to know is on the score.  I play a good deal of contemporary music in my life and although there is always the option of speaking with the composer, I often find it's better if I don't bother them too much.  Good composers tend to be much better at writing the musical dots and squiggles that they are at verbally articulating their desires. 

Philip Glass's dots and squiggles are wonderful to interpret, so full of possibility and life.  Memorising his music enabled me to fully appreciate the musical structures he creates, on both a micro and macro level.  Playing with the score would be a distraction I suspect, because you can't step back and see the whole shape.  The pages simply aren't big enough!
RG: Your comments about the "walkman" are close enough. Glass actually wrote Glassworks on commission from CBS (Sony) as his first record with them and he was the first living composer since Copland to get signed to a major label.  Glassworks was intended to introduce people to his music after, as you said, writing on large and long canvases.  The walkman anecdote had to do with his producer (in the early 80s) said they should make an edit of the piece to fit proportionately on cassette.)…… In any case, it was designed to reach people.  Do you find audiences find this music, now 30 years old, accessible?

SW: I struggle with that word "accessible".  I prefer the word "approachable" because I think that's what people mean.  As far as I see it, Glass's music is accessible to anyone with ears and the opportunity to be exposed to it.  But are they willing to actively engage with it, listen to it, give it a try?  This is the question.

I find it interesting that many of my peers and colleagues, highly musically educated and fiercely intelligent people, are somewhat underwhelmed by the idea of my Philip Glass solo album.  Some of the more vocal ones I've heard say things like "He's just a film composer" or "He's a second rate minimalist", but if they're saying those things then it is clear to me that they haven't taken the time to access the sheer breadth and scope of Glass's output.  At the other end of the spectrum, I find that the writers, artists, dancers, pop musicians and DJs I know are very open to it.  And young people too.  I played some of the album to some eight year olds the other day – they were more silent and still than I'd ever seen them before.  After the piece finished, one of them said "Wow. That's what magic sounds like".
RG: Glass' piano music is a curious case.  Opening belongs to a bigger piece – Glassworks, Witchita Vortex Sutra belongs to a music theater work – Hydrogen Jukebox, Metamorphoses belong to both a film, then later a play. Are you familiar with other Glass music as he principally describes himself as a theater composer?, and

SW: I trained quite seriously in my teens as a dancer and became perhaps unwittingly familiar with Glass's music through studying footage of Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room and also his collaboration with Lucinda Childs and Sol Lewitt on Dance.  I am constantly amazed by the broad scope of Glass's work.  There really is no other composer who writes so successfully in such a range of contexts, his versatility is so impressive. I particularly enjoy his film music.  In his soundtrack for The Hours for instance, it's as though his timeless music is another character, or a greek chorus commenting on the action, or somehow representative of the pathos that threads the three stories together.  Brilliant.
RG: Since he's a composer who writes with pencil at a piano, do you find that this music has particular pianistic qualities?

SW: I often wonder myself if handwriting scores has any effect on the way Glass choses to compose.  It's also the way I chose to compose, in the initial stages.  I write ideas out by hand because they flow from my brain most easily that way, then I structure the ideas with lots of boxes and circles, arrows and asterisks, and finally I put it into the computer software because that's the easiest way to distribute it to the performers.  That said, I rather enjoy there being a little mystery to the compositional process, I like to allow my composer colleagues that mystery.  I think it keeps performers interested!
RG: Were you aware of the other interpretations of these pieces by performers like Bruce Brubaker, Jeroen Van Veen, Alex Karis, and of course Philip Glass himself?
SW: Yes, I'm well aware of other interpretations of these pieces.  I do enjoy listening to Glass's own recordings.  Perhaps this may seem a little voyeuristic, but their is that peculiar intimacy in watching or hearing a pianist composer perform that is just so compelling.  I'm also a great admirer of the interpretations of Bruce Brubaker.  The fluidity of his playing is particularly appealing.

RG: Do you have plans to perform this music in concert?

I've some plans for some solo recitals in the pipeline, details still to be confirmed!
RG:  What other projects have you recently done or soon plan on doing?

SW: I spend a great deal of time working with young people, principally conducting them in choirs and also facilitating their creativity through workshops in musical composition.  I'm off to a music camp soon, run by our Department of Education, and I can't wait to work with the children and hear all their ideas.  Young people have no fear when it comes to being creative, so doing this kind of work fills me with great hope for the creative future of the world.
It's a collection of beautiful interpretations. Thanks for taking the time.

Sally Whitwell's interesting site can be found here.

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