Notes from the underground

“Man, when you’re a famous composer, I can say I knew you way back when!”

“Famous? Composers aren’t famous. Can you even name one living composer?”

“Hmmm. . .oh yeah! Philip Glass!”

“Hmmm. . .”

I’ve had this conversation, or variations of it, a number of times. The fact is that even the most successful composers (which I probably won’t be anyway) rarely reach any degree of fame outside their own ranks and the slightly larger “contemporary music” community. But there is one exception, a particularly strange one — that icon of our times, Philip Glass.

What can be said about this man? He has a cultish following that has gone so far as to coin the term “Glassmusic.” Unlike most composers, people have heard of him, and often they have an idea of what his music sounds like, at least in the most general sense. It could be argued that Glass gave birth to an entire genre of music — New Age. His influence in the “classical” world has been enormous. He even appeared on South Park — the ultra-hip statement in this day and age. Despite all of this, Glass’s music is not taken entirely seriously by much of the contemporary classical community. It is certainly true that his music has a tremendous “pop” influence; however, his often finely crafted music has a unique sound that could not be placed in any category other than contemporary classical. Of course, lots of composers resent Glass’ commercial success, believing that he’s a sell-out of some sort.

I first experienced (not just heard — experienced!) “Glassmusic” when I was in seventh grade. My rather offbeat music teacher (he had us listen to Jerry Lewis songs, played the recorder through his nose and told us dirty jokes) was responsible for the awful task of teaching Twentieth Century music to a bunch of twelve-year-olds. We heard Stravinsky, Varese, Bartok — and Glass. Which made the biggest impression? Well, I probably had about $70 to my name at the time, and I spent $50 of that on a recording of Einstein on the Beach.

That same recording is available to you, the reader at home, from our prestigious library at no cost (CD G52 1). Remember when I was surveying the important pieces from my musical past? Well, this ranks up there with anything I mentioned. Track 3 on disc 4, “Spaceship,” is one of the coolest pieces of music in existence and sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard. If you’ve ignored every other word I’ve ever said, just go listen to that.

Einstein on the Beach is officially dubbed an opera, but it really falls into the pretentious and dreaded “performance art” category. The Einstein ensemble includes a group of winds, electric keyboards, singers and a solo violinist, who sits apart from the rest of the performers. Also, there is a group of speakers reciting a variety of texts, including “Mr. Bojangles.” I have never seen a performance of this opera, so I’m not entirely sure what goes on. But I do know that the action is continuous and runs nearly five hours without an intermission. Audience members are invited to leave and reenter at any point during the performance. In fact, the first piece is supposed to be playing as the audience enters the theater. Kooky? Yes, but in an interesting way.

The music itself is difficult to describe. The common term used to do so is “minimalism,” referring to the minimal elements out of which the piece is constructed. Glass’s music in general is extremely tonal, using arpeggios and some scales with sustained notes to build a constantly shifting texture around simple harmonies. Einstein on the Beach is possibly the best example of this technique, not only in Glass’s music but also in the entire body of minimalism. Glass uses only a handful of themes throughout his opera, despite its long length.

In Einstein, there is a tremendous amount of repetition, and at times, this repetition is too much. However, it often creates a state of suspended animation, wherein one never realizes that the change from one segment to the next has even occurred, similar to the way that a good DJ at a dance party changes records seamlessly.

If you don’t have the time to listen to all four discs, I recommend moving straight to the fourth. Glass saves the thickest textures and richest sounds for it, and although part of the point of the opera’s structure is to build to the end, you can cheat and just skip through most of it. It’s kind of like peeling the frosting off a cupcake and tossing the rest.

Track one is a great new musical take on the sound of the train — you hear the train whistle. The incessant driving motion of minimalism is perfect for the locomotive effect. Track two is much more laid back and is divided into two parts, the latter of which is truly gorgeous.

A soprano repeats a musical phrase over and over again with subtle changes in inflection, almost like minimalism in slow motion. By the end, you’re both sick of it and wishing it could go on forever. (You only think that’s a contradiction!) Track three, the piece that we listened to in my seventh-grade class, is difficult to describe. There is a lot going on in a number of different sections. It’s almost as if Glass is examining all of the sound-worlds he has explored throughout the entire opera (fitting in the second to last track). The examination comes up with some amazing sounds. The last track in the opera is the fifth of the “Knee Plays” that link together the entire work. I’m not certain what a “Knee Play” is, but in this opera they seem to contain the substance for the rest of the tracks. This particular Knee Play is short, almost like an epilogue, and is extremely touching. Einstein speaks through much of it, reciting beautiful if cliched lines of poetry. In the background, a violin plays, accompanied by the angelic sounds of the chorus and a slow bass. It’s a wonderful sound, and unique.

What does all this mean? I’m not sure. Einstein played the violin, but beyond that, I can’t say anything about Einstein on the Beach. Listen for yourself— at least then you’ll have an opinion of the world’s most famous living composer: me. I mean, Philip Glass.