MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Minimalist Jukebox in LA: Philip Glass

Philip Glass

Philip Glass

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is now presenting its 2014 edition of the Minimalist Jukebox Festival, curated by Creative Chair John Adams. I’m especially excited about the offering for Thursday, 17 April: the Rome section from the CIVIL warS, a Robert Wilson-Philip Glass collaboration. Here’s the essay I wrote for the LA Phil’s program:

Is it too far-fetched to compare Einstein on the Beach’s seismic effect with that of The Rite of Spring? At least in terms of the prospects for contemporary opera in America — in a moribund condition at the time — Einstein’s U.S. premiere in 1976 was a game-changer. And in the context of Minimalism itself, this groundbreaking collaboration between Philip Glass and Robert Wilson opened up a new world of possibilities for a composer who, as Glass has often repeated, up to that point had never dreamed of writing opera.

By the time of his second collaboration with Wilson on the CIVIL warS project, Glass had taken up the “conventional” rhetoric of opera — which is to say operatically trained voices, chorus, and full orchestra — and translated this into his unique style and idiom.

Glass himself considers Einstein to be both his first opera and an end point — the culmination of a long period of experimentation in abstract, instrumental forms with what is now generally regarded as “hard-core” Minimalist processes. This inaugural collaboration with Wilson was followed by Satyagraha, his first work written for an actual opera company (Netherlands Opera). Glass then undertook Akhnaten, completing his trilogy of “portrait operas” based on iconic figures in the period when he was working on the CIVIL warS.

The work we hear on tonight’s program therefore represents another important early step in cultivating a medium on which Glass has concentrated, with incredible productivity, up until the present. It is in opera that “Glass found a medium in which he could put his newly developed language to expressive use,” as the critic Allan Kozinn observed as far back as 1986. His turn “from abstract composition to representational music” has not kept Glass from continuing to write such abstract instrumental works as symphonies, concertos, and quartets, but the collaboration with Wilson in particular left a decisive mark on Glass’s conception of Minimalist language.

This language itself, it should be noted, was in its Glassian dialect initially rooted in “representational” projects from the composer’s early Paris years, when he made pivotal encounters with Indian music and the theater of Samuel Beckett. Through these projects Glass became fascinated by theatrical and musical sensibilities that posited an alternative to Western conventions of narrative linear time and space. Glass apparently first happened upon the work of Robert Wilson via the 12-hour-long The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, which the Brooklyn Academy of Music presented in 1973.

That encounter had the effect of an epiphany. “I understood then, as I feel I have ever since, [Wilson’s] sense of theatrical time, space, and movement,” Glass has remarked. The composer once characterized the sense of time in his own music as existing outside “colloquial time,” with the result that audiences tend to perceive this music “as extended time, or loss of time, or no sense of time whatsoever.”

In Einstein Glass had his first opportunity to match his musical constructions to the vision of the maverick director from Texas. Wilson abandoned the business career intended by his father to instead take up a life in the performing arts, evolving his enormously influential brand of theater in New York City’s avant-garde downtown scene of the 1960s.

Through his idiosyncratic collages of surreal, dreamlike elements, stylized stage movement and gesture, and associative rather than plot-driven content, Wilson created a modernist counterpart to the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk — only this is a “total work of art” that, unlike Wagner’s, reflects the intersecting visions of its collaborators rather than the vision of a single artist.

And, as Glass has emphasized over the years, its meaning is outside the control of the creators. Figuring out the relation of his own music to the words and images of the entire theatrical experience (or film, in the case of his collaborations with the director Godfrey Reggio) thus requires the active participation of the audience to be completed. “Early on in my work in the theater, I was encouraged to leave what I call a ‘space’ between the image and the music. In fact, it is precisely that space which is required so that members of the audience have the necessary perspective or distance to create their own individual meanings.”

Even in a cantata-like concert performance lacking the hallucinatory visuals that originally accompanied the full staged version, the Rome section (a Prologue and three scenes), affords the audience fascinating examples of this “intertextual” space, which might be contrasted to a more straightforwardly expressive “translation” of text and feelings into musical content.

The libretto prepared by Wilson and his collaborator Maita di Niscemi, for example, wasn’t intended merely to be “set” to music. Wilson had already constructed a multilayered verbal and visual text lacking only the musical layer. Glass’s contribution thus represented the final creative stage. He carpentered his score to align precisely with the timings from a pre-recorded read-through of the text as a stage play (though with the words delivered at an abnormally but operatically “true” slow pace).

All of this was meanwhile intended as the part of a still larger whole titled the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, to be performed in Los Angeles to celebrate the international spirit of the Olympics held here in 1984. Wilson began with a characteristically elliptical take on the American Civil War — in particular, Matthew Brady’s haunting contemporary photographs — and imagined a world historical juxtaposition of images and associations from antiquity to the Space Age. These riff on themes of war and peace, nation and family, civil and internalized struggle and enlightenment.

The peculiar typography of the title draws attention to a “struggle” between upper and lowercase letters as well as to the plurality of this phenomenon. “Civil Wars” also happens to be the customary translation of one of Julius Caesar’s writings. The subtitle quotes from Carl Sandburg’s canonical biography of Abraham Lincoln, for whom Wilson devised an unforgettable visual of a figure who is eventuality “struck down” (a singer suspended in a 16-foot-high harness, draped with a long black coat and sporting a stovepipe hat).

Never lacking for ambition, Wilson intended to stage a day-long ceremonial opera featuring composers, writers, and performers from around the world. Glass was one of several composers invited to contribute music for a different section of the vast five-act opus. The sections which were completed took their names from the locations of their separate premieres: hence the Rome section, envisioned as the final, fifth act of the CIVIL warS, was independently commissioned and staged (in March 1984) by the Opera di Roma. Glass also wrote the music for the Cologne section (scenes from Acts 1, 3, and 4), while David Byrne created connective pieces to link the scenes, known as The Knee Plays or the Minneapolis section.

At the last minute, the LA Olympic Arts Festival pulled the plug and canceled its plans to fund the complete staging. One of the commentators in Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s 2006 documentary Absolute Wilson observes that the director has since regarded this decision as the single greatest disappointment of his career. The Rome section, like the others, was thus left as a torso that has been occasionally performed on its own.

There is no story to synopsize. Wilson and di Nascemi’s libretto is largely a collage, an assemblage of texts from letters of the American Civil War period, ancient tragedies by Seneca for the Roman connection (in the original Latin and translated into Italian), and stream-of-consciousness word poems by Wilson himself, recited by a male and a female narrator. (On the Nonesuch recording, these parts are taken by Wilson and Laurie Anderson.)

It is for you, gentle listener, to generate what you will from the text’s recombination of historical, iconic, symbolic, and seemingly “automatic” elements. Figures we expect to see from the American Civil War — Abraham and Mary Lincoln and Robert F. Lee (who reappear in Glass’s more recent 2007 work for San Francisco Opera, Appomattox) share this dreamscape with the (French-born) leader of the Italian Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Hercules and Alcmene (the hero’s mother), and mythic Hopi characters, the “Earth Mother” and “Snow Owl.”

Glass’s very first notes, an ominously descending bass, happen to echo a similar gesture at the beginning of Einstein. But the original commission by Rome Opera — in the land where opera was born — led Glass to reflect on the power of the human voice itself and its central role in this medium. Whereas Einstein had featured relatively little singing, the Rome score is cast for huge, dramatically projected voices, with especially demanding high parts for the soprano and tenor soloists.

At the same time, Glass resorts to a Wagnerian sweep of orchestral sonorousness over which these voices float, as well as recurrent motivic ideas such as the brief trumpet call pervading the Prologue. Oscillation between major and minor provides the fulcrum for Glass’s idiosyncratic slant on tonality. The orchestral writing features primary-color effects, with fresh twists on conventional instrumental “imagery” such as military brass and drums or the floating arpeggios of bel canto accompaniment.

Indigenously American congregational hymn singing also informs some of the choral writing (Scene B), and elsewhere references to nineteenth-century Romanticism (Verdi and Tchaikovsky) color the choral and solo parts as well as the orchestral interludes. Creating a panorama of alternately turbulent and elegiac soundscapes, Glass recontextualizes familiar imagery in a way that’s reminiscent of Wilson’s process. Musically, the result is akin to the opera’s mingling of history and myth, of artifact and dream.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, directors, essay, opera, Philip Glass

Through the Eyes of Another Animal

“We, as human beings, have not seen ourselves until we have been seen through the eyes of another animal,” says the film director Godfrey Reggio, quoting (or perhaps paraphrasing) the anthropologist Loren Eiseley. Last night brought the local opening of Reggio’s latest collaboration with Philip Glass Visitors, shown on the magnificent Cinerama screen in Seattle (one of only three such remaining screens in the world).

The Eiseley quote was Reggio’s reference for discussing the powerful images of the Bronz Zoo gorilla named Triska whose deep, straight-on gaze haunts this meditation on the contemporary situation of the technology-crazed human species. “Visitors” deliberately plays off the etymology of its title – as in one who goes to see something.

Glass’s partnership with Reggio has resulted in some of my favorite work by this composer. I’ve heard stories of Koyannisqatsi changing people’s lives the way we sometimes hear about Einstein on the Beach (one of my big artistic adventures in 2012).

Each time Glass and Reggio work together, they rethink the very foundations of how image and music can interface and together generate powerful emotional responses that are at the same time thought provoking. As Reggio aptly put it, the music doesn’t illustrate a narrative. Conventional film narrative is jettisoned, there are no words, and the linear, plotted “foreground” we expect from a film experience is stripped away so that the background becomes foreground. Music and image are co-equal partners.

And what’s especially striking on first viewing/hearing of Visitors is the often-somber tone of Glass’s score – played with exquisite care and conviction by the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and Glass authority Dennis Russell Davies.

I may have been influenced by the silver-intensified dark palette of Reggio’s black-and-white filming, but the music often seems elegiac, certainly more meditative and slower paced in general than the Qatsi trilogy scores and without their exuberant explosions of manic energy. Glass’s orchestration continues to fascinate: especially his percussive touches and simple but mysterious blends.

Jay Michaelson eloquently describes the focus on temporality in Visitors in his recent article “Philip Glass Is Getting Older — for Better or Worse”:

We don’t know anything about these people visiting planet Earth – only that their time is short, especially measured by the geological time of the moon, but even according to our own reckoning and the lines in their faces.

“Visitors” is a film about the evanescence of life, its mystery and its frailty. It is about how we make meaning out of meaninglessness, and how ultimately we are brought to the blinding light of oblivion. It is a late work by a 73-year-old filmmaker and a 76-year-old composer, reflecting as much on their own oeuvre as on the essential questions of mortality and meaning.

Image from Visitors

Image from Visitors

In the post-viewing discussion with Reggio, the director was asked whether he thought we were better or worse off than in 1982, when Koyannisqatsi came out. Are humans even more out of balance? Unsurprisingly, Reggio said he thought so, that we’ve reached a point where our imbalances are “the price we have to pay for our technological happiness.”

And something to the effect that it takes “courage to have the hopelessness” we need to be able to recover a sense of hope. Visitors represents another attempt “to see that which is most vital but which is hidden by virtue of its presence” — a process of defamiliarization through art, in other words.

Here’s Philip Glass in a recent interview with Sam Adams for The Dissolve:

We began talking about a film about humor. And [Reggio] focused it on people, that it would be people who would represent that. And from that, very slowly over those years, it shifted to the idea of the gorilla. And once the gorilla was there, the whole thing changed, because of the reciprocal gaze…

And then we got into a very interesting idea that the film is really about looking at the film….

Then the role of the music takes on a completely different role. So the question is, how does music function in this?

Filed under: film, film music, Philip Glass

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