It may be hard for some to imagine, but “it wasn’t always like this.” In the first two weeks of September I see at least seven new releases which are in part or in whole dedicated to the music of Philip Glass.
Among these titles, we have two new releases from Orange Mountain Music including Michael Riesman’s new solo piano record “Beauty & The Beast“ (1) which is an extended transcription of Glass’s music from “La Belle et La Bete.” Also from OMM is Massimo Menotti’s new album of Minimalist Guitar Music (2) featuring two early masterpieces Two Pages and Music in Similar Motion. Other non-OMM releases include eighth blackbird’s recording of Two Pages (3), Nicholas Horvarth’s hyperactive version of the etudes (4), Francesco Di Fiore’s versions of The Hours and Truman Show (5), the Carducci Quartet’s recording of the Fifth String Quartet – the Sextet – and music from Dracula (6), and new remixes based on Brubaker’s recent piano album (7).
For long time fans of Philip Glass you might know how welcome this flow of activity is. For more than two decades in the 1980s and 90s, Glass fans would (at best) be given a one album per year trickle from CBS (Sony) and/or Nonesuch. One album! Glass’s work ethic represented dozens of albums which simply never got made in the old recording climate. It was really with the advent of the internet when OMM founder Don Christensen saw an emerging market for bootlegs on eBay that the idea of OMM, a label dedicated to Glass and his unreleased music, was born.
In the first few years of OMM, we almost instantly went from one release a year to three or four releases a year. Copyright dictates that the terms of first recordings of works are authorized by the authors. Back in the 1980s when Glass had no other means or hope to record his large-scale works like Akhnaten and Satyagraha without the “major labels,” he took what was available to him. Later, in the 1990s when Glass had his own subsidiary label Point Music, which was part of Polygram, he had already more flexibility to do not only the projects which were asked of him, but other projects which were more personal.
The advent of OMM opened the flood gates in more ways that one. And not coincidentally, it happened around the year 2000 at the same time as Glass’s sound exploded into the mainstream. The dormant back-catalogue which was deemed unworthy of release by the major labels proved that it was viable in the marketplace. Add to this, in 2013, the majority of the titles financed by Nonesuch reverted back to Glass (and consequently OMM). For all those years, decades of “one release per year” Glass had been composing on average probably enough for three albums a year or more and for a passionate fan-base, this simply was not enough.
After 2001, one record release a year turned into five releases a year. By 2006, five years into OMM, the company was on pace to produce 10 to 15 titles a year. Authors control first recordings of works but second and third recordings fall under what they call “Compulsory Licenses.” This means that provided that one obtains and pays for mechanical licenses from the publisher, almost anyone can record a new version of a work – especially when it comes to notated music like Glass’s.
Soon there were new versions of symphonies (Marin Alsop on Naxos), new interpretations of string quartets (Smith Quartet on Signum, Carducci Quartet on Naxos). In recent months we’ve seen 7 or 8 releases of the piano music including already now three or four collections of Glass’s newly published piano etudes. We have seen a second recording of the Violin Sonata, a second recording of Violin Concerto No.2…and on and on. In addition to all these new interpretations we also have vinyl reissues of almost all of the Sony titles (Solo Piano, Photographer, etc) as well as classic cult interest titles like Candyman (including 400 available cassettes from One Way Static Records).
Should everything be released? At OMM we decided that that really was not our principle concern (who were we to judge?). Successful releases helped the creation of other new releases. If people found a certain release to be not of interest then that was fine. There seemed really to be no connection or formula for success. A personal disappointment I grappled with for years was that certain things I thought or hoped would do well might not. Then later other albums which I had perhaps less interest in performed very well. In other words, sales had nothing to do with quality. For OMM, sales just represented the load bearing walls of a house that contained the entire creative enterprise of the composer.
So what does this all mean? I honestly don’t think you can read too much into it. In the age of streaming – the major labels and streaming services have colluded to create a perception that recorded music is worthless. In fact, the Glass titles that are streaming represent music that to some extent Glass does not control or exercise control over. Regarding vinyl, it a common perception that there is a vinyl bubble, and what sells today for $30 might be difficult to unload tomorrow for $10.
Is all this activity supported by a real market? In other words are there enough Glass fans in the world to consume all of this music and justify the tens of thousands of dollars it takes to create the recordings? Well, that is a more complicated question but to me that the answer is yes. I think the creation of these titles represents on a very real level a basic and healthy interest in the music. New artists are discovering this music, performing it widely, and finding it interesting enough to want to record it. That’s the reality.
That kind of reality is the most healthy reality in the world of music. It’s right up there with people showing up for your concerts and rowdy energetic applause instead of reserved, obligatory and formal clapping.
For music lovers – a.k.a. “consumers” it is a wonderful situation whereby they not only have a chance to discover the music, but they get to select from a large number of versions of a single piece.
For the composer, with this kind of intense interest in his music in terms of hundreds of performances of a broad sampling of his music over an extended period of time, it can all be translated as a message that sometime over the past 15 years that the music became bigger than him.