The Philip Glass Ensemble’s A Retrospective

The Philip Glass Ensemble: A Retrospective isn’t, actually. Granted, it covers Glass’ music, and the Ensemble’s history, over more than thirty years, but it is, in reality, a live recording done in 2004 in Monterrey, Mexico, the Ensemble’s first actual “concert” since 2001.

The program includes works from the years 1970 to 1992. It leads off with “Dance No. 9” from In the Upper Room (1986), a fluid and engaging piece from the suite commissioned by the Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation, which received its premiere at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival.

This is followed immediately by Parts I and II of Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74), a massive work that illustrates (usually over the course of two or three concerts) the musical vocabulary that Glass was developing. Music in Twelve Parts is fairly hard-core (although I’m finding it easier to listen to than I had expected — I think my ear has finally gotten tuned to early Philip Glass). At this juncture, I find the work engaging, almost hypnotic: the repetition, the small variations that grow over time, the spare textures . . . well, take the “almost” out of that statement. Coming from someone who spent years happily hating early Glass (unless he could see it in concert — there’s always been a certain theatrical quality to the composer’s work), this only proves my oft-repeated comment that one has to allow one’s ear to retune itself before one can actually hear the music. This is followed by another work from the early 1970s, “The Building” from Einstein on the Beach (1974).

The disc then jumps to three works from the 1980s: “Facades,” from Glassworks (1983), a piece originally included in the score for Koyaanisqatsi (1982) but cut from the film, followed by “The Grid,” which was included in the final film score, and Act II of The Photographer (1983) at the beginning of disc 2. The first two represent an overlap, so to speak, in Glass’ history: the first is lyrical, fluid, almost romantic in concept, while the second harks back to earlier pieces, energetic (indeed, almost frenetic), much closer to the Music in Twelve Parts in feeling. Act II of The Photographercontinues that feeling, but also acts as a bridge: the energy is there, the small, discrete patterns, but the music starts to reach toward a longer line, although there is much more in common with the first two works of this sequence than with Satyagraha, which had its premiere three years earlier.

“Mosque/Temple” from Powaqatsi (1988) brings us back to that more fluid mode, longer melodic lines, greater lyricism, with, suddenly, recognizable references to other musical traditions, in this case more or less direct borrowings from the musical vocabularies of the Middle East and North Africa, which settle in quite nicely with Glass’ own idiom.

The third movement of the Low Symphony (1992), developed from the record of the same title by David Bowie and Brian Eno, recalls very strongly the music of La Belle et la Bête (1996), to the extent that one can spot Glass’ reuse of thematic material from the symphony in the later opera. It’s much freer than anything that has come before, even more fluid and more romantic in concept.

I’m not sure you’re allowed to issue a collection of Philip Glass’ music without including the “Funeral March” from Akhnaten (1984). While it’s very lively, energetic music, it is definitely Glass of the early 1980s, that vocabulary formulated in Music in Twelve Parts firmly in place, although Glass’ handling of it is much more assured, much looser.

The disc ends by coming back to Einstein on the Beach, from which the Ensemble has pulled “Spaceship” to close the program. And so we’re back to 1984, and a pretty representative example of Glass’ music from that period.

This set, a 2-CD release, is not a “retrospective” in any scholarly sense, not in terms of offering a clear, orderly explication of the development of Philip Glass’ music, but the jumping around among various stages of his development does offer some insights that allow one to make some connections one might have overlooked, which is always fun.

And, when all else is said and done, it’s nice just to listen to.

(Orange Mountain Music, 2010)

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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