Sunday, April 19, 2015

Philip Glass: An Affinity with Bach?

"Do you think you have a special affinity with Bach?"

Terry Gross asked this of composer Philip Glass on NPR's program Fresh Air.  They were discussing Glass's new memoir Words Without Music, recently published.  

Glass deflected the question with humor, laughing that his teacher Nadia Boulanger had "pounded" Bach into him.  Indeed, Boulanger would extract an alto part from a Bach piece and Glass could derive Bach's bass line and melody from it.     

A longtime fan of Glass, I'm on the same page with Terry Gross: I've always thought of Glass as a Bach for our day.   As Gross mentioned, arpeggiated chords and rapid scales are characteristics of both composers.   They re-arrange old music for different instruments to present under new titles. Both directed small ensembles to perform their own works.

Having read the memoir, and having recently seen Scott Hicks' documentary Glass: A Life in Twelve Parts, I have fresh insights into Glass's affinity for Bach.

The composers seem to stand in roughly analogous positions to the concert music of their times. Bach was a bit isolated from the musical mainstream in his day, stuck in a backwater parish and unappreciated, but his work came to define what we hear in tuning, harmony, and key relationships;  Glass, though a gregarious artistic collaborator, remains isolated in the niche he carved for himself during the 1970s and 80s, and yet his work "permeates" our culture. So said the judges of Canada's biennial Glenn Gould Prize who honored Glass this year.

Their music shares a quality of feeling that transcends the personal.  I hear the orchestral preludes to both Bach's St. John's Passion and Glass's opera Aknaten as giving us the same sense of roiling notes, implacable forward movement, and tightly sprung energy, detached from the personal inner-drama we're accustomed to hearing in Romantic music. Glass aimed for a quality he found in cutting-edge theatre of the 1960s, especially by Beckett and Richard Foreman, a "detachment" from the world of the rational storytelling to reach "transcendent" emotions (Glass, Kindle edition location 3233).  Glass prized "joy" in Beckett's work, a "clearing of the decks" (i.e., of dense personal expressions such as plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller), and humor (1699).   He credits John Cage for the insight that the joy and feeling come from the cognitive work performed by the listeners (1552).

A "quality of feeling that transcends the personal" would be a pretty good definition of "spirituality," something quite apart from Bach's devout Lutheran faith or Glass's many years of yoga, travels to eastern shrines, his photo with the Dalai Lama, or his sessions with a Native American shaman.  Glass's choice of texts and subject matter often take us to a place where the world as the character knows it is challenged at its root.   (See links below for my articles about Glass's works on Gandhi, Kepler, Aknaten, and "barbarians at the gate";  I'm thinking also of The Making of the Representative from Planet 8, his opera with librettist Doris Lessing about a planet that learns to accept its rapid extinction.  I saw that in Houston, 1988 -- not a success, though Glass suggests that strife between director and designer were to blame (4969).) 

Compare their catalogs to find books of etudes, suites for solo cello, and encyclopedic works that methodically demonstrate all the composer's techniques, such as Bach's Art of the Fugue and Glass's Music in Twelve Parts.   This is music as music, written for study, for exercise; but anyone who attends closely to the form will find "feeling has become unrelated to the actual material you're attending to" (3238). 

Both men worked tirelessly to support themselves and their families.  Bach cranked out a cantata per week for years, and whipped up specialty works on commission (Goldberg variations, Brandenburg concerti).  Glass's pride in work well done shows in the detail he gives about the many jobs he kept to support his family while he worked on music after hours:  nail factory worker, wood stacker, truck loader, plumber, taxi driver.  (He also devotes a lot of ink to detailing costs and savings.)  When Glass gets into the avant garde art scene, he describes his fellow artists in exactly the same terms as he described co-workers in the other jobs: physically strong, with "very regular lives, rising early and working all day" (3755). 

About working, Glass explains how he "tamed his muse," forcing himself to sit at the piano three hours straight every morning, whether ideas came to him or not (1349).  Eventually, musical ideas did flow during that time, and did not bother him later in the day, though he does tell Scott Hicks that music is always running "like an underground stream" through his day.  In the documentary, we see Glass at the piano, staring at manuscript paper while Glass says, in voiceover, how he often has no idea what he's supposed to do.  Then, he jabs the pencil at the paper and fills in a measure.  Other times, his work involves rehearsing with a group on tour, preparing for a solo concert, meeting with Woody Allen about scoring for a movie, reviewing a score with conductor Dennis Russell Davies, and listening to his music programmed into a synthesizer by young Nico Muhly (who tells Scott Hicks, "I talked him out of using just a string sextet, and that's my victory for today").

Optimism, sometimes blithe self-confidence, is another quality that emerges from Glass's memoir.  He never doubted that he'd get into a program for young teens at the University of Chicago, or Juilliard, or Boulanger's group.  When it took seven years to sell the LPs by Schoenberg that young Philip had unwisely purchased for his dad's store, the lesson Philip derived was, "Give me enough time, and I can sell anything!"  As a student scribbling music late in a cheap diner, he saw in a similarly-occupied middle-aged man not a caution that composers can't rise, but an affirmation that he had chosen a good life.  He hired his ensemble before he could make a living as a composer, accepting that he'd have to support them with his day jobs for awhile.  He borrowed $30,000 to rent out Town Hall, hoping to sell out the crowd for Music for Twelve Parts. 

The shadow side of that quality is a certain obliviousness to others.  In the memoir, when Glass falls for a young woman and wants to set up a new home for the two of them away from his wife, he evidently thought it was a great idea to borrow thousands from his children's savings accounts.   His sister remarks in the documentary about how his "wife du jour" has to be "half his age plus seven years."  In an unguarded moment, Holly Glass (wife number 3? 4?) tells us how this marriage was not quite what she signed up for, as he is so unavailable while he's so wrapped up in his music. 

After all this, my favorite Glass quote is still the one from his interview with cousin Ira Glass on This American Life back in the early 2000s.  Ira wondered if the composer ever tried to write something that wouldn't sound like Philip Glass, the composer replied, "All the time!"  and laughed.  He added, "It never works." 


Elsewhere on this blog, I've written appreciations of Philip Glass, his music, and certain operas:

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