Philip Glass’ Itaipu/The Canyon

Glass-ItaipuProgram music has a fairly long history, going back at least to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (which was actually composed as separate concertos, but let’s not be picky). Among contemporary composers, perhaps the most notable for writing program music is Philip Glass, whom Nick Jones, in his essay accompanying this disc calls “a composer of images.” Call it “images” or “program,” it’s a tendency that has persisted throughout Glass’ career (and probably accounts for his affinity for the theater) and one that is well illustrated in Itaipu and The Canyon.

Itaipu and The Canyon are Glass’ second and third “portraits of nature,” following The Light. These works are analogous to Glass’ portrait operas — Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten. Like the last two, Itaipu makes use of a text in an obscure language – in this case, the creation story of the Guaraní Indians, in the Guaraní language. Granted, there are not going to be many, if any at all, in the audience who understand Guaraní but that is of no matter: the main idea of the work is implicit in the music; the text is, more than anything else, another layer of sound.

Itaipu is composed of four movements: Matto Grosso; The Lake; The Dam; and To the Sea. Matto Grosso is actually two states in Brazil, Matto Grosso and Matto Gross do Sul; the two, along with portions of Bolivia and Paraguay, are the location of the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. The Patanal feeds the Paraguay River, which in turn is a tributary of the Paraná, the second largest river in South America. So, we have the sequence of events, perhaps best understood as the flow of the water: from the Pantanal in Matto Grosso, to the lake behind Itaipu (because when you build a dam, especially one as large as this one – at the time of its construction, the world’s largest), you inevitably have a lake; the dam itself (large enough that at one point the Brazil Symphony Orchestra gave a concert in one of the generator housings); and the Paraná, which flows on to the sea.

The music itself, unless one has an intimate knowledge of the geography involved (or speaks Guaraní) is somewhat divorced from specifics. “Matto Grosso” opens quietly, almost serenely – the mood (and make no mistake – this work is about a series of moods, because that’s what music does) is almost, on the one hand, reverential, as befits a story about the Creation, and on the other, strangely evocative of a vast, quiet swamp. Likewise, “The Lake” is a picture of ripples on water. One might assume that this is a somewhat static episode, but then, this is Philip Glass: his signature driving rhythms create a definite momentum, underscored by the sung text. “The Dam” opens with what is almost a fanfare announcing one of the world’s largest man-made structures; there’s a certain majesty to this section, appropriate for what the text terms “the center of the world.” It does become somewhat more active (which is only to be expected – there’s electricity being generated here, after all), and again the music generates a significant momentum and an intensity that builds as the movement progresses. “To the Sea” again partakes of that majestic, reverential mood that is one of the ongoing characteristics of the work. One does get a sense of what is now a large, slow-moving river making its way to the ocean.

The Canyon does not refer to any particular canyon, but rather an ideal canyon. Once again, Glass’ style provides a significant, although not always obvious momentum. One does get a sense of water in motion, a function of the underlying rhythmic structure, while the themes evoke an almost architectural sense of space. There is a sometimes excruciating tension to this piece, an ongoing sense of something about to happen, the result of that ongoing drive punctuated by periodic climaxes. It does build to what might be a real climax; the denouement takes us back to the beginning in an understated finale.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Shaw gives what must be the definitive reading – no surprise, since the Atlanta Symphony commissioned Itaipu, which it premiered in 1989; the Orchestra also gave the American premiere of The Canyon in 1990.

When all is said and done, I have to admit that these works are not what I consider among Glass’ strongest. They might almost serve as soundtracks. This is not meant to disparage them, but more to point out that they don’t have that “stand alone” quality that one finds in major works.

(Sony Classical, 1993)


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. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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