Some of his later music makes my toes curl, but there's no denying the
huge importance of Glass's compositions with their unique combination of
experimentalism and listener-friendliness. Read on in The Guardian
-While I couldn't disagree more, I do find this kind of thinking very common. Tom Service is not alone in thinking that everything important that Glass ever wrote was between 1970-76. These people consider themselves the hard-core purists of his original ground-breaking style.
On the other hand I know a great number of people who can't approach that early music at all. Even something like his 1987 Violin Concerto (no.1) is simply too repetitive. "It doesn't sound like anything but the same thing over and over" was a common refrain. Rejecting that early music, these people love his latter-day compositions and generally think he started writing listenable music with The Hours in 2002.
My own idea on this subject is what Glass describes as doing one of two things: you either start way out on the fringes and come toward the main stream or you start in the main stream and get further and further "out there." I see Glass' career as a perfectly normal narrative of the former.
Glass' starting point was the same as so much 20th century art: rebellion and reaction against the status quo. The prevailing musical authority in the 1950s and '60s was music that a large public simply didn't like. He very consciously and deliberately began to write art music that he knew was new and hoped earnestly that people liked. He developed his own language, albeit at the time quite radical, and developed his own audience over a long period of time and some brilliant tactics.
I accept Glass' assertion that by 1975 he was done with Minimalism. As with his contemporaries, how long can you investigate something which by its own definition was reductive. Minimalism was exhausted in that 10-15 year period and Glass began to infuse his music with traditional elements, forms, colors, etc. While his language was still quite reductive at the time he composed Satyagraha in 1979, it was much warmer and approachable than any part of Music in 12 Parts.
For me, the period from 1978-1987 which includes Satyagraha through the Violin Concerto is an extremely fertile period of creativity for the composer. He was writing music which a greater audience could accept while harnessing the formidable power of his personal compositional discoveries of the previous decade. This period includes Glassworks, Koyaanisqatsi, Mishima, the Civil WarS, and many other works. This is not to say at all that later periods didn't yield incredible music but it seems that during this period Glass was a man on fire.
Indeed, my own personal favorite of many favorites is Glass' Eighth Symphony. With this piece, he seemed to encapsulate so many periods of his own catalogue and built them into a refined finished whole while operating in and against the history of symphonic music. The first movement with its eight themes, individually presented as in a Rossini overture, tied together with stretto passages using additive process à la classical Indian technique, and eventually all eight themes are layered in a wonder of Bachian counterpoint is an amazing accomplishment. The second movement – an homage to Shostakovich – the great innovator of the symphony in the 20th century in which Glass uses the passacaglia which he had used exhaustively in everything from Satyagraha to the violin concerto to the third symphony. But in none of those pieces does Glass dig as deep. The fact that he uses the famous "Truman Show" progression is almost imperceptable in the angst-ridden context he creates. The third movement – written because the symphony simply didn't feel finished – doesn't help at all with resolving that problem. Yes, the symphony goes from dark to darker, but after the complexity of the first movement and the emotional turmoil of the second movement, the third seems to me to indicated that an all-encompassing movement is to come. The listener never gets that movement, never gets that resolution.
I don't believe Glass doesn't ever know what he's doing in the classical music world. Just as the Ninth starts in D Minor like the great Ninth symphonies is no mistake. Just as writing an "unfinished" Eighth is no mistake. Any great composer has to encounter, interact, and acknowledge history. When Nadia Boulanger said to Glass that the problem with Americans was that they had no sense of history, he thought to himself that that was his great advantage. While he might have said that, I don't believe for a second that the weight of history is ever off any composer's shoulders.
The Hours may not have broken new ground in the history of music, but it probably introduced more people to the music of Philip Glass than any other single project in his output. Music in 12 Parts is undeniably an impressive accomplishment and treatise on all Glass' thoughts about his musical language in the early 1970s, but one cannot deny the poetic elegance of his Cocteau trilogy and ponder that it sprang from the same pencil as that downtown radical of two decades earlier. Indeed, John Adams who himself was a Minimalist composer "bored with Minimalism" when recently conducting Glass' Ninth Symphony marveled at how very close Glass was still to his voice of the late 1970s. So who is right? John Adams in saying in a way that Glass hasn't changed much? Or Tom Service in saying that he changed for the worse?
Glass was not alone in breaking from the strangle-hold of European art music had over the public and the imaginations of academia. But I believe that no composer in recent times has gone as far in bringing the public back into the concert halls built by the great European Masters while all the while continuing his own very personal intellectual and emotional journey into the expressive powers of music.
3 thoughts on “The Guardian: Tom Service on Listening to Philip Glass”
Ugh, I try my utter best to simply ignore the Guardian.
Great insights, Richard,
While I love lots of Glass’ “late” work, I admit that, with few exceptions, only the pieces from 75-87 really excite me.