Sunday, January 18, 2009

Philip Glass

In an attempt to avoid worrying about frozen pipes, I went to two Philip Glass events at Mass MoCA this week and it did the trick. Well the second night did, anyway. The first featured a film by Scott Hicks, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts which, at nearly two hours of sheer tedium, offered more than enough time not only to worry, but do my eye exercises. I left thinking that Philip Glass has to be one of the most boring people on earth, one of those artists—it does happen—whose personality gets so soaked up by their work that there’s nothing left over. I’d seen a number of Glass performances, including a choral piece at MoMA in 1976, not long after I moved to New York, which left me with the feeling that anything was possible in art. There was the positively exultant 1984 revival of Einstein on the Beach, and then a magical New Year’s Eve when I appeared with Butch Morris’s “Chorus of Poets” at the Public Theater, on the same bill as Glass, and found myself at midnight leaning on the grand piano listening to him play. He also once came to my loft for a photo shoot I’d arranged but we hardly interacted as he was distracted, pacing, on the phone almost the whole time. I remembered thinking that he was much too Type A for a Buddhist, while his friend, Allen Ginsberg, who came with him, was just the opposite, completely chill.

[Actually, where Glass seemed to take no notice of his surroundings, Ginsberg’s interest was unnerving as he went around my kitchen and living area examining absolutely everything—I was glad I cleaned up before he came—picking up each object, turning it over, asking “What’s this? Where’d you get it? What do you do with it?” And, after a while, “Are these your paintings?”
When I told him I was a Nuyorican poet (meaning I performed regularly at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe) Ginsberg said, sweetly, “Me too.”]

In the film about Glass, amidst a few snippets of music, we see shots of the composer making pizza, playing with his small children, practicing T’ai Chi with his teacher (who was a fellow student in the classes I took for many years with Master Ham King Koo) while various friends, family members, and colleagues weigh in with remembrances. Having just returned from my first experience with film editing, I’m hyper aware of what’s essential and what isn’t—such as the shot of his houseguest taking out the garbage, or the part where his wife reveals her Internet password, a bit that’s kinda cute but tells us nothing.

The second evening featured Glass in person, in an interview with a film critic who’d chosen a number of cuts from films for which Glass had written the score, asking him to comment on each one. And guess what? Glass was totally interesting, probably because he was talking about making music, which Hicks, when he brings it up at all, treats it as a product rather than a process (never touching on the things I wanted to know, such as, what was the first piece Glass composed? Did his early study of mathematics have an effect on the kind of music he makes? When he works, does he noodle around on the piano or does he hear it in his head first? What does he learn from hearing his work performed by others? What did he get from his classical studies, from the work of John Cage, Ravi Shankar?). But here, listening to Glass discuss his concepts for each film we got an idea of how his mind works, his fascination with the art of filmmaking, how he wants the score to be an integral part of the process rather than something tacked on in post-production. For Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (1988), Glass went with the director to Brazil to document fortune seekers mining for gold, the cinematographers listened to his music as they shot the footage, and the childlike nature of the of the very young gold-diggers Glass met inspired him to later add a children’s choir to the score…all of which is so much more interesting than pizza (my impression of him as a phonoholic stands, however, because at one point onstage he did actually check his cell and may even have been texting).

To round out the evening Glass played several pieces—his encore was from the early (1970) Music with Changing Parts, one of my favorites—and as we drove home, while I hadn’t completely forgotten about my frozen pipes, I didn't care so much.

For a documentary that successfully delves into the heart and soul of a musician, do your best to catch Steven Sebring’s Patti Smith: Dream of Life (schedule)--also available on NetFlix:


CAP said...

I'm surprised you make no mention of Koyaanisqatsi which I could have sworn I saw in some version in London in 77 or 78, although Wikipedia assures me must have been 82 or 83. Anyway that's when I first took note of this avante-garde composer doing a film score (albeit a kind of avant-garde film).

I always preferred Terry Riley, both as a person and composer. But a good friend who was a huge Glass fan, when she finally got to meet him found him very disappointing, talking mainly about money, or lack of for composers. "Whatever he used to be, now he's just a breadhead" was her summary.

But I think you're spot on in describing his lack of personality, away from music, or as a person - there is just nothing left over. But then I also think the music reflects this paucity, at least in terms of development. I don't think his music has really developed very far from the 70s.

Carol Diehl said...

Thanks, CAP. I didn't mention "Koyaanisqatsi" because it wasn't one of the films Glass discussed, and also my experience with it was on TV—not definitive.

As far as Glass’s development goes, I’m not saying this is true of you—but I find that many Glass critics have not listened to his music closely in recent years. I also think it’s challenging to assess development in the work of an artist one doesn’t particularly enjoy. I do enjoy Glass’s work, as I have always loved structure and deviation (both in music and visual art) but also find it lyrical and emotional. As far as “changing”—I don’t think Glass’s work has changed as much as it has gained depth and breadth. If you didn’t already, you might want to check out last year’s Alex Ross’s article on Glass in The New Yorker:

Joanne Mattera said...

I have a Philip Glass story for you. Sometime in the late 80s, Glass's music was being performed at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea in conjunction with a dance performance. I don't remember the details, except that it was the premier of the dance and the music, and that Glass was sitting in the center seat of the L row.

An acquaintance of mine, visiting from out of town, came along at the last minute. I had my customary side aisle seat on the M row, and she was able to get a center M seat--right behind Glass.

The Glass work was the last one of the evening. When the lights came up and she began scootching down the row to the aisle, she boomed to me, blithly unaware of the composer, "Well the dance was good but that music was TERRIBLE!"

Glass was still seated so I didn't see his reaction, but the entire rest of the audience moved slightly away from her, some looking back at Glass an others at the stairs as they walked up to the exit. I pretended I didn't know her until we got to the relative anonymity of the sidewalk. The funny this is that I thought it was the best Glass I'd heard in a while.