Sunday, May 17, 2009

Glass is sand, and pianos are string instruments...

Philip Glass at the RNCM last night for an intimate recital of 8 of his piano studies, Etudes, and other solo piano pieces. Remarkably I was in the first row, with just the "pit" in front of me. (Note to bloke with Afro, get a haircut.) So felt it a very privileged position. The sound was excellent, and what could have been quite intimidating, (for both audience and performer) an hour and a half of one man and his piano, was made very easy by Glass's relaxed attitude. The audience was almost entirely made up of people who'd seen "Koyaanisquatsi" on Channel 4 in 1984, so very homogenous. All the questions about "new audiences" for classical music should have been answered here:- here's your new audience, indie music fans in their 40s and 50s. Yet our next gig will probably be Kraftwerk, or David Byrne or the Arcade Fire.

I'd not heard the Etudes before and they're fascinating, as you'd imagine studies to be, approaching the piano in different ways. I was reminded that the piano is both a string instrument and percussive, and Glass's work has primarily worked with these two parts of the orchestra. He's the not the go-to guy for a brass ensemble for instance. Strings and percussion, fit both the minimalist and sequenced work that is his signature, but also his wider composition. In parts these Etudes felt closer to Schubert Lieder, albeit instrumental versions, with a few American forebears, notably Joplin, and on a couple of pieces Gershwin. Going in the other direction, and an appropriate libretto would turn them into the third Arcade Fire album. These, by the way, are all positives. If Glass is the most transparent of composers in the sense that his music works as popular idiom, it is also true that there is a grit to it, that is leavened by his innate tunefulness. He clearly went a different direction than Reich for instance, and though he may owe something to the experiments of later 20th century classical music, there seems something older, more romantic in his nature. He's a composer who has made himself useful to the film commission, or, as he reminded us of the origin of one piece written for the Dalai Lama, civic occasion. "We're not sure when he's arriving," he'd been told, "so can you make it of indeterminate length?" "Not a problem," Glass deadpanned.

It's perhaps incredible in its own sense that in an age where "classical" music seems to be divided between the repertoire on the one hand and classical performers as pop stars on the other, that a very serious musician/composer can be at once a prolific recording artist, film-scorer, collaborator (with dance in particular), and bestselling performer. This is not difficult music, but neither is Glass is easy, that facility with melody (never to be knocked) aside. When I saw his ensemble over a decade ago, it was the range of his compositions that impressed; he's no one-trick pony, yet he does have that remarkable arpeggiated signature, which, I'd say anyone who loves Glass would agree, is beautiful, emotive, and above all, powerful, however many times it has been appropriated. History may well say that the American composers of the second half of the twentieth century, particularly Adams and Glass, but also Reich, Carter and others, were both chroniclers of that age, and conduits to some kind of universal music, that is unafraid to unpick the distinctions between popular song, rock music, and the "serious" musics of the conservatory.

For yesterday's concert, I was left with a sense of being privileged to have been there, that he'd been able and willing to travel to the north of England, to play to a packed house in a small, venerable hall. Listening to him, before, during and after the concert, I was struck by how much his music has had a subtle influence on much of what I've written over the years, and also appears in much of the music that I like. Not for the first time, I'm struck how much the best of American art, music and literature continues to be distinctly the cornerstone of my aesthetic.

2 comments:

Flat Out said...

he Etudes were my highlight too - not sure which ones he played for you (did he do his 'i'll start with one and end with ten and play five or six in the middle shtick?)but i loved two and four and seven... that's the order they were played in rather than their official number...

fabulous

Bournemouth Runner said...

Yes - same thing "I've written 16, there'll be 20 finally, I've learnt 10 and I'll play 8..." Got a little lost in the reverie so not sure which were my favourites. I reckon there's a couple of hits there...