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Philip Glass

On the most influential of the minimalists.


Charlemagne Palestine looks like someone who has wandered into the church by mistake. Instead of the usual black concert dress favored by organ recitalists, he wears a loud Hawaiian shirt and two colorful baseball caps, one on top of the other. During the first half of the concert he can be seen in one of the front rows of pews listening to the other performers; eventually he gets tired of listening and wanders around the church reading the memorial plaques on the walls. Finally he climbs onto the organ bench for the second half of the concert: for his performance the console has been decorated with ribbons and an array of small plush animals, and a small table has been set up with a wine glass from which he drinks during the performance (I later learn that it is full of cognac).

Once a fixture of New York’s downtown music scene, Charlemagne Palestine (born Charles Martin) has been based in Europe since the 1980s and is largely unknown in North America; his performances on this side of the Atlantic are rare. I have no idea whose idea it was to book him to perform at an organ festival in Toronto, a city with a markedly conservative organ culture, but I cleared my calendar immediately and arrived at the church on the concert day in a state of high excitement. As I spoke to the other concertgoers, however, it became clear that I was one of a small minority who had come to hear Charlemagne Palestine; most of my organist colleagues were there to hear the new Canadian compositions on the first half of the concert program. I tried to convey to the other audience members that an opportunity to hear Charlemagne Palestine in Toronto is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that to be present for a live performance of his piece Schlingen-Blängen was for me the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but it seemed to have little effect: despite my advocacy, a noticeable number of people had left at intermission.

There is no sheet music for Schlingen-Blängen; this is not a musical work in the usual sense, but a framework for a semi-improvised performance that is different at every venue. Palestine begins with a long sustained low E and gradually adds more and more notes until an increasingly complex chord begins to coalesce. A point is quickly reached where the organist needs to press more keys than can be played by ten fingers; for this purpose, a set of cardboard wedges is used to hold down the keys, conveniently leaving the performer’s hands free for the occasional sip of cognac. But if the music surpasses the limits of the player’s physical capabilities, it also quickly exceeds what a human listener is able to process. A good musician can make sense of complex polychords containing eight or ten different notes, but nobody can hear a sonority of thirty or forty different pitches and understand it as a musical chord in any conventional sense; what you hear in Schlingen-Blängen is a continuous, overwhelming wash of sound. For Charlemagne Palestine, the organ is not a conventional keyboard instrument but a kind of synthesizer, with each of its thousands of pipes serving as individual sound sources that can be combined in limitless permutations.

What this description cannot convey is the extraordinary, overwhelming experience of listening to Schlingen-Blängen. From one perspective, there is nothing much happening: the organist is playing one continuous chord, which he gradually varies by adding and removing pitches and changing the organ stops to change its volume and tone color. But the resulting sound is so richly complex that the listener hears constant change and fluctuation. The sound ripples and shimmers; it seems to move around the room, coming from different places in the church that do not correspond to the actual positioning of the organ pipes; particular chord configurations create the illusions of ringing bells or of ghostly pitches different from the notes the organ is actually playing. Schlingen-Blängen is designed to exploit the resonance of a large building and the extraordinary effects that can be heard when the sustained sound of the organ mingles with its echoes and reflections from other parts of the room. Palestine can sustain the listener’s interest over a long period of time because Schlingen-Blängen is not finally about the manipulation of time: it’s about the exploration of space. The 1988 studio recording of the piece lasts seventy-two minutes; I have no idea how long the performance in Toronto lasted.

Is this minimalism? If musical minimalism is defined by repetition or austere simplicity, then Schlingen-Blängen is not minimalist. There is too much going on; the music changes too rapidly, the musical means used are too complex and too extravagant. Certainly we are worlds away from the metronomic, repetitive patterns of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Palestine’s music has more in common with the more radical and lesser-known manifestations of musical minimalism: the drone music of La Monte Young, the slowly shifting electronic soundscapes of Eliane Radigue, or the tape compositions of Alvin Lucier. What links all these kinds of minimalist music (if so they are) is the special quality of attention that they demand of the listener. None of these composers are interested in using their music to convey a narrative shape with dramatic climaxes; they simply set a process in motion over a long time span and allow their listeners to react to that process as they wish. Listening to Schlingen-Blängen, you have the choice of blissing out and letting the music wash over you or listening carefully to concentrate on the changing acoustical effects that the organ produces. The one approach that is guaranteed not to work is listening for the traditional narrative arc of musical form; there is no “development” to be heard here and no “themes” to listen for.

Twenty years ago, it seemed like American minimalism was set to become a new lingua franca of contemporary classical music. The post-minimalist composer John Adams won the Pulitzer in 2003 for his 9/11 memorial piece On the Transmigration of Souls; Steve Reich won in 2009 for his Double Sextet. Adams was perhaps the most influential American composer in the early years of the new millennium, with a unique synthesis of styles that proved immensely popular (all the groovy rhythmic patterns of minimalism, but applied to a more palatable Romantic tonal scheme to suit the attention spans of symphony orchestra subscribers). But this music now seems dated, redolent of the cloying optimism and naïve self-confidence of its time. Music students of the Nineties and the Aughts thrilled to the music of Adams’s Nixon in China (“The people are the heroes now”; “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung”) but today the opera comes across as vaguely embarrassing. It’s not just that today’s musicians cavil at the opera’s self-satisfied Wilsonian politics or the monolithic way that it depicts its Chinese characters; they find the whole thing cheesy. Minimalist-influenced music is still very much with us, especially in commercials and film soundtracks, but no one still thinks that post-minimalism is destined to become the dominant soundtrack of a new “post-style era.”

Now that the institutional dominance of post-minimalism has faded, the ultimate legacy of minimalist music is all the more controversial. A critical consensus now identifies Steve Reich as the canonical composer of minimalism; his recent works have retained a formal rigor that appeals to classically trained performers, and they are short enough to find a place on conventional concert programs (the Pulitzer-winning Double Sextet is over in twenty minutes). A competing narrative emphasizes minimalism as an underground tradition, originating in New York’s downtown music scene; in this narrative, Reich and Adams are sellouts, and the true pioneers are radical artists with unconventional lifestyles like La Monte Young or Terry Riley. Neither of these accounts of minimalism gives a prominent place to the most famous and commercially successful of the minimalists, Philip Glass. Charlemagne Palestine, who once shared a studio with Glass, hastens to disassociate himself from the more famous composer’s music; he finds the metronomic pulse of Glass’s music inhuman and disconcerting. Philip Glass, in other words, is the minimalist everyone loves to hate: too slick and commercial for the downtown performance artists, but not sophisticated enough for the uptown musicologists.

Alone among the major minimalist composers, Glass has charted a path from the most abstruse and challenging musical experimentation to the most frank and unabashed commercialism. Fans of Glass’s mature style are always surprised by his earliest New York compositions, which are arguably the most difficult pieces to listen to in the repertoire of early minimalism: in pieces like Music in Contrary MotionMusic in Changing Parts, and the three hours of Music in Twelve Parts, the listener is confronted by repeating patterns played at high speed and without any dynamic variation on heavily amplified electronic organ. Early critics commented on the overpowering volume of this music as one of its most notable and radical features: “It was so loud,” said Alvin Lucier, “as to obliterate any sense of being present in a real space.” In recent years, performers have taken to recording Glass’s early works in more soft-edged renditions, on acoustic instruments with slower tempi and more moderate dynamics. Glass himself seems to have collaborated in this revisionism; these days even his performances with his own ensemble are more lyrical, less intense, than his recordings of the Seventies. But the original recordings reveal the mechanistic, utterly remorseless quality that made this music so unsettling to early listeners. The British music critic Wilfrid Mellers saw the insistent repetition of Glass’s music as evidence of a “fundamental negation,” the working out in music of the Freudian death drive. “Although one is not against commercial success,” said Mellers, “one prefers it to be on behalf of life rather than on behalf of death.”

This is a harsh diagnosis, but it is easy to see its force; it is clear that there is something inhuman in the relentless working out of abstract process that characterizes early minimalism. The early works of Glass and Reich eschew human subjectivity in favor of predetermined musical procedure. In the case of early Glass, the procedure is usually an additive one: you repeat the same identical series of notes twelve times, add another eighth note to the series, repeat the new series of notes twelve times, and so on. Once it becomes clear what the process is, the unfolding of the piece is totally transparent. There is no doubt of what is going to happen as the piece proceeds, and the simplicity of the processes at work allows long stretches of music to be written in a highly compressed musical shorthand (allowing the performers to play at top speed for hundreds of measures without needing to turn a page). Anyone who has performed Glass’s works of the 1960s and 1970s comes away with the impression that there is a certain sublime disregard for the capacities of the human performers: pages and pages of cramp-inducing arpeggios for keyboard instruments, long passages for wind players and singers without any place to breathe. It’s not about the human capacities of the performers; it’s about the integrity of the process.

All of this may seem like a dystopian nightmare, and to its critics minimalist music has always been an evocation of the worst of consumer culture. The comparisons write themselves: manufactured goods rolling off the assembly line, Warhol’s soup cans, the repetitive messages and slogans of advertising. Nobody doubts that there is some connection between the emergence of repetitious music in the late 1960s and the unprecedented repetitiousness of late twentieth-century consumer culture; the music repeats like this because our lives are repetitive. For Glass’s detractors, his minimalist works are one more soul-destroying manifestation of modern consumerism, a cynical transformation of the worst aspects of modern civilization into middlebrow art objects. The most intelligent and sympathetic critics of minimalist music have acknowledged the truth of all these comparisons but turned their logic backwards. For them, minimalist music does not uncritically mirror the overwhelming and inhuman repetition of modern consumerism and industrialism but offers us a way of resisting it. In encountering the deliberate and controlled repetitions that proliferated in music of the 1970s—Glass’s endless arpeggios, Reich’s phase-shifting riffs, or the endless Baroque filigree of the Vivaldi violin concertos that became popular around the same time—we learn to move with the overwhelming repetitions all around us and to find ourselves within the chaos as best we can. Minimalism helps us survive in a culture of repetition because it helps us learn to surf the waves rather than drowning beneath them.

What makes Glass a particularly important figure among his contemporaries is that at some level he understood all this. His famous score to Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi is, among other things, about the dramatized confrontation between a repetition that is overwhelming and frightening and a repetition that is soothing and reassuring. In staging this confrontation Glass was, of course, simply responding to the film’s cinematography, which juxtaposes majestic footage of the natural world with rapid time-lapse footage of urban life (crowds pouring out of the subway, traffic zipping down the highway, goods pouring off the assembly line). The social commentary of the film is not subtle, and Reggio’s juxtaposition of natural beauty and modern human civilization has a certain facile anti-humanism to it, as though the faceless tourists pouring out of the subway station were interchangeable with the hot dogs coming off the factory assembly line. But what Glass saw clearly was the emotional ambivalence of repetitive music. To borrow a distinction from Hegel, Glass’s repetition could be an image of a “bad infinity” or of a “good infinity”: either the indefinite mathematical repetition of the finite or the transcendence of all finitude. It is tempting to identify the “bad infinity” with Glass’s fast music and the “good infinity” with his slow music, as the film usually does; beautiful shots of the natural world are generally accompanied by meditative bass voices and electric organ, while shots of the urban wasteland are accompanied by frenetic, out-of-control arpeggios. But what Glass also realized is that, in a music based on cycles of repetition, there is no real difference between slow music and fast music. All fast music can be perceived as slow, since underneath all the hyperactive motion nothing is changing; all slow music can be perceived as fast, because the manic surface-level motion could begin again at any moment. The good news is that even in the midst of “bad infinity” you might catch a glimpse of genuine transcendence; the bad news is that our attempts to capture a “good infinity” are fleeting at best.

All of this suggests that there is something darkly ambiguous about Glass’s music, that something about his sound world was shaped by a deep ambivalence between utopian hopes and profound cultural pessimism. In Glass’s greatest and most famous work, the opera Einstein on the Beach, the one thing that is clear about this famously abstract and plotless piece is that it has something to do with the threat of nuclear annihilation: the name of the famous atomic physicist is juxtaposed with Nevil Shute’s once-famous post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach. Amidst the many strange and enigmatic images of Robert Wilson’s production, critical opinion has generally agreed that the “Spaceship” scene at the end of Act IV is a stylized depiction of a nuclear meltdown. Glass’s music for the scene is in his most manic and frightening “bad infinity” style, eventually dissolving into a chaos of chromatic scales; Wilson’s production presents a disturbing tableau of identically dressed technicians operating invisible machinery in front of a wall of flashing lights. The opera’s final scene, with its famous monologue about two lovers on a park bench, is so moving not only because it presents us for the first time with a comprehensible and straightforwardly human narrative, but because we understand that this is a story about love in the ruins of a destroyed civilization.

Einstein on the Beach is very clearly a period piece from the mid-1970s: everything from the electric organ soundtrack to the surreal ritualistic choreography to the dated pop culture references of the text is absolutely characteristic of its era, and to many viewers the opera will evoke nothing but irritation. Yet in many ways the opera does not seem dated: it has held up better than many of Glass’s other operas, and certainly seems less stale than the likes of Nixon in China. One reason for this is that the opera contains within itself its own critique: Glass and Wilson want you to enjoy the opera’s hypnotic music and choreography, but they also want the music and spectacle to leave you a little bit unsettled. Many of the opera’s scenes juxtapose Glass’s repetitive music with spoken monologues, as with the advertising jingle for glasses in “Knee Play 2” or the endlessly repeated monologue in the Act III Prison sequence. This long monologue straightforwardly describes the experience of finding one’s way amidst endless consumerist repetitions (“I was in this prematurely air conditioned supermarket, and there were all these aisles, and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy. . .”) It would be a very superficial listener indeed who simply grooved along to Glass’s frothy C major arpeggios for the half-hour-long scene; we ought to be sometimes delighted, sometimes annoyed, and sometimes disturbed by this music. Sometimes we love being in that prematurely air conditioned supermarket, and hate ourselves for loving it; sometimes we hate it, and love ourselves for hating it.

I have passed lightly over Glass’s later works because, like most people who admire the early Glass, I tend to find them embarrassing. After the mid-Seventies, Glass largely abandoned strict minimalist procedures; in these later works, repetition is not a compositional technique so much as it is an expressive tic, a kind of aesthetic window dressing used to decorate otherwise uninteresting musical structures. Glass has always been at his best as a dramatic composer, and so the operas and film scores are most successful; there is interesting music in Satyagraha and Akhnaten. But Glass’s symphonies and concertos have never been widely performed despite the composer’s fame and despite high-profile collaborations with leading conductors and soloists; Glass is just not cut out for this kind of work. A piece like Glass’s Double Concerto for two pianos, despite the best efforts of many fine performers, must be considered an almost unmitigated disaster. Criticism of a work like this is almost beside the point; the piece is so vacuous and poorly structured that it will die a natural death without my help.

Why did Glass abandon so much of what made his early music interesting? The usual explanation is that Glass was seduced by the lure of commercial success; as the commissions rolled in, he fell more and more into comfortable compositional habits and became increasingly a caricature of himself. Perhaps this is true, and it is hard to begrudge Glass his latter-day commercial success after his many years as a starving artist (the young Philip Glass worked as a furniture mover, a plumber, and a taxi driver to make ends meet). Perhaps something in Glass’s working-class upbringing drove him to make something of himself, and to defend his artistic territory with a persistence that turned him from a starving artist into an international brand: if we are to believe Glass’s memoirs, his mother’s last words to him on her deathbed were to ask whether he had secured the copyrights of his compositions. But perhaps there is another explanation: maybe he lost his nerve. If there is one particular fault in the later Glass, it’s a lack of emotional range: the recent works never allow themselves that disturbing ambivalence that makes Einstein or the early ensemble pieces so strangely compelling. The confrontation with “bad infinity” is never risked.

In the end, there is something redundant about criticizing Philip Glass: he’s everywhere. Every film composer has internalized the language of Glass circa 1980 and can imitate it to express certain kinds of emotion. Glass cannot be escaped because his music has become part of the culture we live in. For a few years, though, Glass was not just a shaper of our musical language but a diagnostician of our cultural contradictions. He saw something deeply contradictory and ambivalent in our relationship to modernity: we love the modern world and we hate it; we find it inhuman and alienating but can’t imagine ourselves apart from it; we rebel against it only to find ourselves more securely tied to it than ever. Perhaps Glass still sees this, but for the past several decades his music has offered us an escape from such concerns rather than a confrontation with them.

This is one reason we might want to turn away from Glass’s recent work and look for musicians who are not afraid to disturb and overwhelm us from time to time. Glass’s early style did not emerge from a vacuum; works like Einstein on the Beach are the product of a downtown music scene where composers were engaged in highly a radical re-visioning of the concepts of musical space and time. Those collaborators, minimalists and non-minimalists, have produced a wide variety of music that is also worth listening to. Perhaps even someone as apparently crazy as Charlemagne Palestine, with his cognac and his entourage of plush animals, might have something to teach us.

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Aaron James is the Director of Music for the Toronto Oratory of Saint Philip Neri and a contributing editor at The Lamp.