Sunday, February 5, 2012

On Philip Glass, About Philip Glass, Regarding Philip Glass

It is fascinating to me to test a critical opinion for accuracy. But for that, it is necessary for someone to actually express a critical opinion. By "critical opinion" I mean an evaluation of a piece of music that is genuine, that takes a stab a characterizing the music and discovering good and bad aspects. The vast majority of published talk about music seems to be what I would call "puff pieces"; pieces written to praise and publicize. One can learn little from them. But an evaluation that is earned, that is, where the writer tries to lay out why he or she has come to such and such a conclusion--now that is worth while.

I ran across a well-written piece on Philip Glass today in New York Magazine. Go have a read; it's worth it. Here are some excerpts:
I felt that I could have walked away in the middle of an arpeggio, had a four-course dinner, and returned to find those soothing chords still burbling away ... To criticize Glass for excessive reiteration is a little like complaining that the rain is too damp. He repeats therefore he is. But even as he abandoned the rigors of early Minimalism, he continued to wear out the products of his own invention.
Yep. I've known Philip Glass' music since the early 1970s when he was composing stuff like this:

Through the 1980s when he sounded like this:

Later in the 80s he turned to more historic forms like the violin concerto:

And even more recently he has taken up the symphony. The Symphony no 8 dates from 2006:

Now I have always thought that Glass was a bit of a lightweight. It was Steve Reich that was the original 'minimalist' and I've often wondered if early on Glass weren't just following in his footsteps. They have both wandered back from the austerity of the 70s, but while Reich still sounds just like Reich and each piece seems to carve out new ground, Glass sounds more and more like somebody else. The early stuff sounds like Reich simplified. The piano music Glassworks is a lovely frozen moment. With the violin concerto he starts sounding like Vivaldi if Vivaldi were kind of stoned and asked to score a movie. The Symphony No 8 sounds even more like movie music and, with the percussion, startlingly like that Rameau overture I put up yesterday.

I am reminded of the series Lost. It was very exciting at first because with all the cliffhangers you had the sense that something important was about to happen or be revealed. That is how Glass' music feels to me. The problem is that in both the TV show and the music, the "something important" never arrives--just more cliffhangers.

So I find Justin Davidson's view of Philip Glass to be pretty accurate--soft-pedaled if anything. He ends up by praising the recent music for cello Songs and Poems for Solo Cello. Let's have a listen:

I find myself hoping that he will take us somewhere after that powerful and dramatic opening. But no. We remain trapped in those few notes...

Philip Glass is a very famous, very popular, very prolific composer these days. I just wish the music were better. Perhaps we in the 21st century are just shallow, foolish people and this is the music we deserve. But if only he had been able to write for solo cello something like this (and you know what I am going to post!!):


Nathan Shirley said...

I think it could be summed up like this- Glass might have been a much better composer if only he wasn't a minimalist.

Bryan Townsend said...

I dunno: I find a lot of Steve Reich's music pretty convincing...