Philip Glass and Wendy Sutter’s Songs and Poems for Solo Cello

Philip Glass is not only arguably the best-known contemporary American composer, and one of the most prolific, he is also one of the most versatile. He’s done operas, film soundtracks, orchestral works for the Philip Glass Ensemble, and chamber music. Wendy Sutter is one of those musical wonders (she made her solo debut with the Seattle Symphony at age 16) who has a wide background and a strong connection with contemporary music: she’s worked with Tan Dun, the White Oak Ensemble, is a member of Bang on a Can, and premiered Glass’ Cello Concerto in the U.S. Songs and Poems for Solo Cello were composed for Sutter and represent a collaborative effort: they were premiered after a year of the two working on them together.

The Songs and Poems somehow manage to maintain Glass’s signature style will exploring a much greater emotional range than is often apparent in his larger works. This disc opens with “Song I,” a piece that says quite firmly “late twentieth-century” and that segues almost imperceptibly into “Song II,” a melancholy, almost plaintive work that lays bare Glass’ characteristic repetitive phrasing and fluid rhythms. The Songs as a whole maintain that emotional color — they are quiet, contemplative pieces that nevertheless develop some real intensity, as in “Song V,” a longer work that takes the time to explore the interplay of contemplation and passion. It’s the emotional center of the music, the pivot on which the others turn. “Song VI” returns once again to a quiet place, and is itself not only thoughtful, but lean and very elegant. It ends as though poised for something, and “Song VII,” instead of continuing the idea, shifts back to a more characteristic Glass mode in which the repetition builds and then releases, very quietly, a reprise, in mood, at least, of “Song VI.”

The Tissues were originally composed for the soundtrack of Godfrey Reggio’s Naqoyqatsi. Only two of them were finally recorded and used in the film. These are subtle pieces, for cello, piano and percussion, and form a richly textured soundscape that does feel essentially cinematic (although I don’t claim to have found a narrative line at all). Richard Guérin claims a relationship between these pieces and Glass’ writing for the voice, although I do spot some reminiscences of La Belle et la Bête and The Witches of Venice — nothing so blatant as quotations, but more on the order of echoes. “Tissue No. 2,” in particular, calls to mind both. “Tissue No. 6” has something of the eldritch feel of the former, while “No. 7” displays as well a sense of Beauty’s growing melancholy.

As is so often the case with the “classical” music I review (“classical” in the sense that it is not loud, obnoxious rock and roll), it’s impossible to compare this release with others — there aren’t any. It’s obvious that Sutter has a good head for this music (indeed, I would be nothing short of flabbergasted if she didn’t), and since she is joined for the Tissues by Glass on piano and David Cossin on percussion, I think we have to take this as definitive.

(Orange Mountain Music, 2007)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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