Itaipú / The Canyon
Itaipú & Three Songs for Choir a Cappella
Music by Philip Glass
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Robert Shaw, director


Sony Masterworks SK 46352


1 I. Mato Grosso 11:41
2 II. The Lake 10:03
3 III. The Dam 11:47
4 IV. To the Sea 5:39

The Canyon
5 The Canyon 16:32


Philip Glass is a composer of images or, as critic Robert T. Jones wrote, “a born theater composer.” Each of his works summons up a body of thoughts, mental pictures, and attitudes that merge and metamorphose as the music sweeps toward its destination. In his famous series of “portrait operas” (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, concerned with the life of Mahatma Gandhi, and Akhnaten) the musical evocations and the staged images reinforce and contrast in fascinating and often unexpected ways. Subsequently, Glass embarked on an analogous series of symphonically conceived “portraits of nature,” noting in an interview that his music has always been strongly programmatic and that program music arose as a response to nature.

The first of these portraits was The Light, commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of the Michaelson Morley experiment that confirmed the way light travels through space and paved the way for Einstein’s theories. Glass has written, “This is a portrait not only of the two men for whom the experiments are named but also of that historical moment heralding the beginning of the modern scientific period.” The Light received its premiere at concerts of the Cleveland Orchestra in October 1987, Christoph von Dohnányi conducting. The second and third of his “portraits of nature” are The Canyon and Itaipú, both completed the following year.

Itaipú was commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and first performed on November 2, 1989, in Atlanta under the baton of Robert Shaw. The Canyon, subtitled “a dramatic episode for orchestra,” was first performed by conductor Robert Longo and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra on October 21, 1988. Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony gave the American premiere in May 1990.

Like The Light, Itaipú originated as Glass’s response both to nature and to a modern technological wonder, in this case the massive hydro-electric dam, by far the world’s largest, that was then taking shape at Itaipú on the Paraná River which forms the border between Brazil and Paraguay. Everything about this project, begun in 1974 and not completed until 1991, is astoundingly huge. Taller than a fifty-story building and almost five miles wide, the dam backs up a lake of 563 square miles. Any of its eighteen generators alone could handle the entire flow of the river Seine; the Brazil Symphony Orchestra once demonstrated their enormous size by giving a concert inside one of them.

Glass visited the dam’s construction site with his friends Gerald and Daniela Thomas in 1988. Touring the immense ducts and gigantic turbines, he marveled at the act of imagination through which humankind was transforming nature, an undertaking comparable in daring and inventiveness to the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. He knew immediately that the choral-symphonic work for the Atlanta commission would be inspired by the Itaipú dam: “I looked at it and said, I know the piece!”

With the music already forming in his mind, Glass began to look for a text. His friend Marcelo Tassara came up with what he considered the perfect solution, a creation myth of the local Guaraní Indians, for whom the Paraná River is “the place where music was born.” In their language “Itaipú” means “the singing stone” and refers to the unique sound of a loose rock that once vibrated in the rapids at this location.

While the music itself hymns the wonders wrought by nature and by humankind, the exotic text recounts the creation of the world, the actions of the gods and how the first people came to this special place. This seeming dichotomy of textual and musical images will not be surprising to those familiar with Glass’s portrait operas like Satyagraha and Akhnaten, where the text is frequently in an obscure language, compiled from sources already in existence, and used to supplement rather than duplicate the thrust of music and action. The words of Itaipú will be understood by few if any listeners, and the composer prefers the distancing this inevitably causes. He hopes the music can succeed as pure music, as a work of art inspired by something palpable and dramatic.

Writing for large and well-disciplined choral forces, Glass called for the largest orchestra he had used in any work up to that time. Itaipú is in four movements, each with a programmatic title. The music follows the waters of the Paraná from their source in the highlands of Brazil’s Mato Grosso province, into the sprawling new lake, past the mighty dam, and finally (after joining the Uruguay River) on toward the Atlantic Ocean. An English translation by Daniela Thomas of the Guaraní words follows:

I. Mato Grosso. The inhabitants of the first land reached, all of them, the state of indestructibility.
Those who prayed, those who possessed understanding, those who reached perfection, drove towards their future home.
They themselves created their homes from the eternal the land of the minor gods.
Those who lacked understanding, those who were inspired by bad science, those who disobeyed the ones standing above us, had a bad fate, suffered metempsychosis (re-incanation).
Some were converted into birds, or frogs or beetles; our Father converted into a deer the woman who had robbed: only by living in accordance with the precepts set down by our good fathers will we prosper.
Our Incestuous Lord challenged our First Fathers: he married his paternal aunt.
The waters were coming; the Incestuous Lord prayed, sang, danced; then the waters came, but the Incestuous Lord had not yet reached perfection.
The Incestuous Lord swam: with his wife he swam; in the waters they danced, prayed and sang. They were overtaken with religious fervor; at the end of two months they gained strength.
They reached perfection; they created a miraculous palm tree with two leaves; in its branches they rested and soon set forth towards their future home, there to be converted into immortals.
The Incestuous Lord, the lord of the abominable union, built himself a home of indestructible soil in the land of the minor gods. The Incestuous Lord became our Father Tapari; he was converted into the true father of the minor gods.
Itaipú. Ah.

II. The Lake. Our Papa Miri created this land. He made the sacred chant of man sound on his land. The accompaniment of the sacred chant of man — in this earthly home — was the sacred chant of woman.
Before making the sacred chant of man to be heard over the earth, he expelled his mother and then called her back home. Before having filled the whole of his earthly home with the sacred chants of man, before having covered his earthly home with caresses, our Father went back home.

III. The Dam. The place where our grandmother comes from is called the land of surging waters. This place is the center of the world, the center of the world of our father Papa Miri.
Standing above this place is a miraculous palm tree. When the miraculous palm tree flowered for the first time, it was the bird Piri’yriki who first licked its flowers.

IV. To the Sea. Itaipú. Ah.

Composed for the Rotterdam Philharmonic, The Canyon utilizes a smaller, more modest orchestra than Itaipú — except for the percussion section, which uses up to eight players on a variety of instruments. Glass had no particular canyon in mind when he wrote the work, thinking instead of an idealized canyon of the imagination. In Rotterdam, it was presented with a stage set suggestive of some great gorge or canyon, with a single character silently walking through it. The Canyon was later presented in Brazil as one of several Glass works under the overall title Mato Grosso.

The eighteen-minute piece consists of a single movement in ABA form. A distinctive rhythmic motive heard at the beginning is important throughout and becomes prominent again at the ending. A long, lyrical tune emerges as the first theme, contrasted with another that is more jagged and chaotic. This second theme is heard first rhythmically, played by percussion against the first theme from the rest of the orchestra. Later the orchestra plays it melodically against the rhythm of the opening motive. After an orchestral climax, the work concludes with an epilogue based on the first theme.


Music Composed by Philip Glass. Performed by Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Robert Shaw, Conductor.

Text to Itaipú: Traditional Guaraní Indian; English Translation: Daniela Thomas.

Producers: Kurt Munkacsi & Michael Riesman for Euphorbia Productions, Ltd., New York City. Recorded at Symphony Hall, Atlanta, Georgia. Remixed at The Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Assistant Engineer: James Law.

Cover design: Joel Zimmerman. Cover photo: Joe McDonald.

Itaipú: Music composed by Philip Glass; © 1988 Dunvagen Music Publishers, Inc.; Commissioned by an anonymous gift to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Shaw, Director.

The Canyon: Music composed by Philip Glass; © 1988 Dunvagen Music Publishers, Inc.;

Commissioned by Voorheem ADM Oudegracht, The Netherlands.

© 1993 Sony Music Entertainment lnc.



The Canyon

Glass / Salonen on RCM