Glass Totems

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Along with Steve Reich, another major American composer is turning 80 this year: Philip Glass. There are no ongoing celebrations of his life and work, though that’s nothing to regret.

Glass has always had a rare, extensive appeal into popular culture, and his career was buttressed by last year’s memoir, Words Without Music, which is full of fascinating insights into his ideas, his work, and the general task of living in modern America as a (once) avant-garde artist. (Of the latter, the book usefully outlines how his best earliest audiences were theater, dance, and visual artists, not musicians and music lovers, and that foundation helped advance his profile.)

He’s also had a prolific at sometime unfocussed career. His sound is both familiar and inimitable, except by himself, and there’s sufficient music in his catalog that sounds enough like other of his works that one can feel a comfortable but soporific response to his music. At the same time, his style and ideas have developed and changed through the years, especially this century.

All this is exceedingly well documented, especially now that his own imprint, Orange Mountain Music, has been releasing previously obscure recordings from early in his career when his music had an exhilaratingly relentless focus on one thing, when it was truly avant-garde, taking classical ideas of counterpoint and voice leading to their ultimate extremes.

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Along with the early music, Orange Mountain has put out an affordable collection of his 10 symphonies. I heard all these works gradually as they were issued, and my attention waned in proportion to the increasing numbers, but having them together brings this body of work into greater prominence. While I still feel his chugging rhythms don’t translate well to an orchestra (they don’t always work with his ensembles), there is a lot of good music here, tightly made despite the seeming sprawl. While I’m still on the fence about the programmatic symphonies, this convinces me that Glass is the natural musical descendent of Bruckner.

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His recordings on Nonesuch are necessary, but the previous 10 disc retrospective Glass Box is currently out of print and at aftermarket markups (and the set of his film scores has disappeared, presumably bought up by Orange Mountain). There’s a new, different box coming out October 28, The Complete Sony Recordings, and while this has some looseness appropriate to his career, it also has some of his most important music: the operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten (the finest recording of the first and the sole recordings of the others), Glassworks, and other important theater works, it’s essentially the core of his theatrical work, and recommended if you don’t already have these in your library. (Importcds has the best pre-order price as of this writing.)

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And there’s still more, especially the great early works (which outside the operas are my favorites): a new release with the European ensemble Cluster playing Two Pages, Music in Fifths, Music in Contrary Motion, Music in Similar Motion, and Music in Changing Parts, and the third version of the Glass Ensemble’s own performances of Music in 12 Parts.

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