THE BLOG
02/12/2014 08:55 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: Glass

I became aware of Philip Glass's music in 1975 when Ron Perera at Smith College introduced me to Music in Fifths. I thought it intriguing. While studying at Yale a few years later, Philip came up to New Haven at the invitation of the Art School (not the music school of course). He played some of his Knee music, the joining movements of Einstein on the Beach. As no other composers attended, after the presentation he and I hung out, and he told me of the travails of working with untrained singers in downtown New York who couldn't read or count too well. He asked if I would like to join them and do the tour to Europe to introduce Einstein. After thinking it over I declined, deciding I was better off sticking to writing my own music, and after graduating I moved to New York City to seek fame and fortune.

Soon after I got to town Einstein hit the city with its performance at the Met. It was, of course, a sensation. I missed the event but followed Philip's progress and sooner or later got to listen to Einstein. I still consider it a seminal piece, probably some of the best work that he has done. While I still haven't the patience to sit through it in its entirety, I find parts of it absolutely mesmerizing. Having said this, it may be that the individual layers of music in and of themselves just don't hold all that much content. But there is indeed something about the confluence of all of the layers that is satisfying if not completely enriching. And here is the problem -- the texts do not, and are not meant to, make sense. In fact the totality is not meant to make 'sense'. It lies somewhere in the world of dreams, and these dreams, rather than revealing some deep truth, lead us instead to the realm of the original version of... whatever.

In fact this may, in a way, be the first and ultimate Valley Girl opera, feigning sophistication, but being pretty empty. Which is to say that the collaborators really have nothing to say, say it very well, but leave it up to the viewer to make sense of it. Years later, after its revised performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, critic Samuel Lipman tried again to make sense of it as an artistic object and as a phenomenon. I think he is on to something when he says:

As music heard apart from the stage spectacle... Glass's score seems not only harmless but even appealing, as if it were quite content to function as a sentimental pop anodyne; heard in the visual context of Wilson's shameless exploitation of contemporary anomie, the music takes on a character no more musically impressive, but vastly more evocative of a certain kind of cultural despair.

Glass has, however, written well for his ensemble, that amplified quasi-rock band heavy on keyboards and winds.

I am less sanguine about work thereafter and after he became Philip Glass, Inc. As the music came, endlessly and in reams, it just didn't develop much. A solo piano recital was a superficial joke with each piece being exactly the same except for the number of repetitions of various measures; the chord changes in each piece were exactly the same. I couldn't make it past an act of Akhnaten; the vocal lines are a dreadful bore and the orchestration is intolerably sophomoric. I feel similarly about Satyagraha and works then up to the Concerto for Two Timpani (which includes a complete rip off of the Mission Impossible Theme -- Philip should be paying part of his royalty to its composer Lalo Schifrin). I have occasionally dipped into the latter symphonies which I find phlegmatic for the reasons already mentioned.