9:53 am Jan. 31, 20121
Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 9 is set to have its U.S. premiere tonight at Carnegie Hall, as part of a "75th Birthday Concert" programmed in honor of the minimalist composer and living legend.
Yet the 50-minute thing is already available on iTunes, as of this morning. (The recording is of the world premiere in Germany, from earlier this month.)
Classical pieces usually take their sweet time getting to market. Some composers and performers among the currently up-and-coming generation are hip to downloads and online streams, of course. But no one aside from Glass— who also has his own label, Orange Mountain Music—would place a recording of a weeks-ago world premiere on sale mere hours before taking the same piece to Carnegie for a local introduction. This all speaks not just to Glass’s famous (and heedless) work ethic, but an impressive metabolic rate for an artist of any age.
“One of the pleasing things about downloading, from iTunes or wherever, is that you don't need all that stuff that takes so much time,” the composer told me in an interview during the week leading up to tonight’s big show. “The packaging and the proofreading and all the—you just don't do it! You say: ‘Here it is! Boom, done!’ and now it's easy to do that.”
Naturally, there’s no time to linger over his Ninth—as Glass pointed out to me, the final number in many composers' symphonic oeuvre, "the one that everyone freaks out about. The spooky one." But he's already defeated numerology, by having almost completed his Symphony No. 10.
“I’m still tinkering with it,” he said. “But for all practical purposes, I've moved onto other work.”
That other work includes a new opera, The Lost, which is set to premiere later this year.
Meantime, according to his assistant, 11 of Glass’s prior operas will play in various productions around the world in 2012. That number includes a revival of his initial foray into theater, Einstein On the Beach, which has begun a world tour that will include a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the fall. Satyagraha, in a universally acclaimed recent production, just finished a glorious return to the Metropolitan Opera. Even though those of us in Glass’ hometown have yet to see more recent works—like his adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, or his Grant/Lee opera Appomattox—the composer’s dramatic works are being better attended to than they have in some time.
“It's very simple: you do the first premiere of an opera, and basically no one will touch it for eight or nine years,” Glass said. “If an opera house is going invest in a new opera and take the risk, they won’t do it unless it's a world premiere. So there’s a 10-year lag between the first production and the second. And then after that, the distinctions don't matter anymore.”
If this schedule holds, it will mean that a new raft of Glass operas may come online in the next decade.
Of course, Glass' productivity is one reason a summation of his career seems different from a summation of most careers. He is neither a composer hanging his hat on a small number of masterworks nor one who produces prodigiously just to hide some of it away in obscurity as the years progress and improve his critical average. Still, the productivity makes critics want to throw a lasso around the whole thing.
In this week’s issue of New York, critic Justin Davidson cops to his long-term frustration with Glass’ repetitive structures and instantly identifiable sound. A few years back, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross offered a more nuanced account of a similar phenomenon encountered by many of Glass’ listeners: The seeming interchangeability of many scores, and the potential for an occasional new work by Glass to ever-so-gently nudge itself out of that groove, once given a full hearing.
A stylistic formula is indeed at work here. But then almost any composer eager to attack a fifth decade of writing would be ecstatic about a late work as probing and generally excellent as Glass’s Symphony No. 8 or his Songs and Poems for Solo Cello (both released in recent years). And on a first-blitz listen, this new symphony shares a few attributes with No. 8, aside from three-movement structure: There are rousing moments for percussion, occasional contrapuntal effects, as well as a conclusion of mysterious solemnity (instead of triumphal symphonic fist-pumping). But No. 9 differs in critical ways, too, feeling almost overstuffed at times, courtesy of some radical pivots, occasionally turned without aid of a tempo-bridging moment to prepare the listener. (John Adams, who borrowed a lick from Satyagraha for his own Nixon in China, pays some restitution in the second movement, too.)
Glass, for now, declares himself satisfied with the work.
"It's an ambitious piece, more than 50 minutes long," he said. "I'm pleased it came out well, because everybody's kind of expecting it. So this is a time when you want to have a good piece ready to go, and it seems in good shape."
But he also says he doesn't worry about his oeuvre as a whole.
"I was not even thinking about what the point-to-point relationship of those symphonies would be to each other," he said. "Though in fact, as I look at them now, they seem to have some kind of sensible development."
With the local revival of Einstein” on the horizon, though, Glass has been thinking about the relationship between progressive theater and progressive politics. (When the Occupy Wall Street movement spawned a protest outside Lincoln Center during the recent run of Satyagraha, Glass joined the demonstration on the steps of the performing arts complex that was simultaneously featuring his work.)
Here’s how the composer who’s worked on films by Errol Morris describes the push and pull:
“If you know all of what I've done, and especially the film work I've done, there's been a lot of attention … to social issues, environmental issues—and issues of free speech and assembly. If they have a demonstration in front of the opera and I'm doing a show, I have to go to the opera and then I have to join the demonstration. I can't not!"
In this populist spirit, Glass describes the logic of an abstract piece like Einstein, which has no characters or story, in his way of putting it, and lasts upwards of four hours, as a piece for an “autodidact” audience.
"People ask 'what should I expect?' I say don't be surprised if it takes an hour to get used to what you're looking at. In that sense, it's autodidactic, in the sense that you as an audience member will be learning how to look at it while you're [doing so]. … It encourages you to find the limits of what you think your experience can be with live performance."
“There is a special political agenda [of mine] which can be seen, not in every piece ... . But there’s a very strong, I would say, awareness of the way in which entertainment and theater and film and opera and music can participate in an active dialog with public.”
“Active,” Glass repeats immediately for emphasis. “Active!”
It’s as good a mantra as any for the man, as he reaches his 75th birthday. Long may he act.
More by this author:
- The surprising and genre-confounding collaboration of Hillary Hahn and Hauschka
- A free Philip Glass show, and more treats from him on deck