It’s spring in New York, and Philip Glass is bursting out all over.
The biggest event is his Satyagraha, which is in the middle of its first-ever run of performances at the Metropolitan Opera. Naxos has just released a four-CD boxed set of previously recorded works called Of Beauty and Light: The Music of Philip Glass, which contains his second, third, and fourth symphonies, plus The Light, Prelude and Dance from Akhnaten, Violin Concerto, and Company, for string orchestra. At the IFC Center, they’re showing Scott Hicks’s 2007 film documentary of the composer, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. Glass even managed to get in last week’s New York magazine after he stated at an April 9 Brooklyn Academy of Music gala that he thinks the United States should pull out of the Beijing Olympics because of China’s record on human rights.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Glass is how his place in the classical-music universe has changed over time. In the 1970s and 1980s, well before the mainstream Western classical-music world began to get seriously interested in incorporating non-Western sounds and compositional methods, Glass was doing his mesmerizing, repetitive, instantly recognizable arpeggio thing. He studied with Nadia Boulanger—and Ravi Shankar and Steve Reich. He was more accepted by the downtown crowd than at places like the Metropolitan Opera. A boyfriend of mine at the time didn’t know anything about classical music, but he had seen the film Koyaanisqatsi with its Philip Glass score and liked its music enough to buy the CD. Glass’s music has always attracted lots of rock-music types—people who filled their record collections with David Byrne and Laurie Anderson, not Beethoven or Verdi.
Over the years, Glass became more and more successful, but to judge from the critical response to Satyagraha the classical-music world is still on the fence about his music. So even if it took 28 years, I’d say getting the 1980 opera Satyagraha on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera is a pretty big deal. It’s not Glass’s first opera to come to the Met—that was Einstein on the Beach, in 1976. But at age 71, Philip Glass has managed to get Met audiences to come to this three-and-a-half-hour opera without Met Titles and sung in Sanskrit, for crying out loud. As the always quotable Martin Bernheimer quipped in his review of the opera in the Financial Times, “There is, for instance, doodledy-doodledy-doodledy-doodledy, which, reduced to its essence, becomes doodle-doodle-doodle-doodle. Precious? Profound? Psychedelic? Who knows? Ultimately, this sort of thing is great if you like this sort of thing. Did I like it? Minimally.” In the blog soundsandfury.com, A.C. Douglas, who listened to Saturday’s Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Satyagraha, called it “bloody perfect. As a soundtrack for The Blue Planet…. I don’t know what that says for Glass as an opera composer, but I can say I’ve never enjoyed The Blue Planet—or Satyagraha—more.” But back in 2002 Washington Post critic Tim Page called Satyagraha “one of the two or three best American operas.” And this month in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini wrote, “Ultimately, despite its formulaic elements, Satyagraha emerges here as a work of nobility, seriousness, even purity. In the final soliloquy, timeless and blithely simple, Gandhi hauntingly sings an ascending scale pattern in the Phrygian mode 30 times.”
Clearly, the issue of repetition in Glass’s music seems to be a hot button; over the course of an evening, either you can handle a scale played 30 times in a row, an arpeggio pattern repeated eight or sixteen times, or you can’t. For the most part, Glass is not writing music where, if you zone out for a few minutes, you miss an important theme—you’ll have plenty of chances to get it again later. Piling-on is an integral part of the listening experience for Glass’s music. It’s not as if repetition is something new in classical music; music from the Baroque and Classical periods is built on structural sequences like ABA, and the music is littered with double bars with repeat signs attached. Recently, I attended a Rob Kapilow “What Makes it Great?” lecture at Lincoln Center about Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44. One remark that really stuck with me afterward was his explanation of how composers make their music work: “The key to gettability is repetition.” Kapilow is right. But evidently it’s the amount of repetition that sets people off.
By the way, one of the funniest tributes to Philip Glass is David Ives’s early-1990s short play “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread,”a version of which exists on YouTube, embedded below.
Photo: Richard Croft as Gandhi in Satyagraha. Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera