When he left serial minimalism behind in the mid-1970s, Philip Glass moved on to become one of the foremost composers for the theater of the late twentieth century. By “theater” I mean performing arts in general — opera, ballet, the stage, and even film. His collaboration with Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach, forged new territory for opera, while his work in dance gave us Glasspieces and In the Upper Room, commissioned by choreographer Twyla Tharp. His soundtrack for the film Koyaanisqatsi is legendary.
A Madrigal Opera shares something with his film scores, being designed as a backdrop as much as anything else. Glass created what he called “a chamber opera with an unspecified story line,” intended to adapt to different narratives at the discretion of the director. In this production from Finland, the score was coupled with poet Lauri Otonkoski’s Cameo and dance sequences to create something that must have been somewhere between an oratorio and performance art. I’d venture that this is one of those creations that begs to be seen and not just heard.
The madrigal, from which this score takes its conceptual underpinnings, is a form that developed in sixteenth-century Italy as a “new” secular music, originally for unaccompanied voices, later adding a solo instrument as accompaniment. It grew out of earlier liturgical music and eventually gave birth to opera. Glass’ version doesn’t stick that closely to the canon, using not only violin but viola as well, and the fusion of his wordless choral passages with Otonkoski’s text is almost undetectable. The choral sections are particularly rich in texture, but make no mistake about it — this is Philip Glass, lean, almost bare-bones — reductive in the extreme.
The most appealing parts of this work are the instrumental passages, ably delivered by Linda Hedlund on violin and Max Savikangas on viola, which, while repetitive and recalling strongly Glass’ minimalist works, somehow weren’t as annoying to these ears as the choral sections. (And nowhere near as annoying as The Photographer, which to this day I can’t listen to without being in danger of breaking a tooth.) I’m not sure why, save that the added weight of the voices seems to mask the basic lightness of the music, the spare and refined structure, and Glass can quite arguably be said to be all about structure.
It’s always been easier to watch Glass’ music being performed than just to listen, and as far as I’m concerned, A Madrigal Opera is no exception — I’d love to see it. By way of context, let me note that this piece dates from 1980, roughly the same time as the opera Satyagraha; Glasspieces premiered in 1983 and In the Upper Room in 1987. Without getting into the relative weight of the “purpose” of the music — dance, opera, concert work, what have you — let me just note the increasing lyricism in Glass’ work throughout this period, against which I think we can hold A Madrigal Opera up as an exemplar of earlier, more strictly minimalist work.
One final comment, which falls somewhere around the intersection of art, science, and the synergy between various modes of expression, and does say something about this piece, although I’m not sure I understand exactly what: I listened to this recording in the back yard, simply because it was a lovely day, and after hearing it all the way through, I took a break to fix a snack. As I was preparing to go back outside, through the open door I heard a bird echoing the first section of Glass’ music — same intervals, same key, same rhythmic structure, but somewhat less busy. Considering all the composers who have used birdsong in their works, I can’t help but feel there’s an element of poetic justice there.
(Orange Mountain Music, 2009)[Soloists, Ooppera Skaala, Janne Lehmusvuo, dir., Jari Hiekkapelto, music dir.]