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August 12, 2010

Picture of Philip Glass from website

It’s a funny thing about Philip Glass. People who hate his music will tell you that it all sounds the same. People who love his music will tell you that each repetition of phrases and motions are actually quite subtly different.

This musical style was born out of Philip Glass’s dissatisfaction with what passed as modern music at the time. Born in 1937, he grew up in Baltimore, studied at the University of Chicago, Juilliard, and Aspen. Wishing to find some way to impact the contemporary music scene in a postive way, he moved to Europe after winning a Fulbright Scholarship, which enabled him to go to Paris to study a more traditional composition style (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin) with the legendary Nadia Boulanger (who also taught Aaron Copland). However, his composition style was altered after studying with Eastern sitar master Ravi Shankar, who taught him a different philosophy about rhythms and melody, among other things.

Eventually, the fruit of all his influences and reeducation evolved into a music style called “minimalism.” He disliked the term, though, and preferred to call it music with “repetitive structures.”

Or, to put it another way, it immersed a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops.

Google images

Over the years, his music, which has been quite huge in terms of output, has been utilized for soundtracks, such as for the 2002 movie The Hours, a sort of retelling of Virgina Woolf’s life while she was writing the controversial Mrs. Dalloway. These soundtracks have been quite commercially successful, also winning him many awards. For instance, The Hours earned him an Academy Award nomination; his second, as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music. (He earned his first nomination from the 1997 Kundun, about the Dalai Lama, and the third nomination from Richard Eyre’s 2006 Notes on a Scandal.) This success could be due to the fact that his music is quite excellent for mood-setting.

Glass also composed a staggering 20 something operas, eight symphonies, concertos for piano, violin, timpani, and various other instruments; pieces for quartets and orchestras, and his works for solo piano.

I recently had the opportunity to hear some Philip Glass, featured at a concert here at the Atlantic Music Festival. Bruce Brubaker, chair of the New England Conservatory’s piano program, played Mad Rush to open the concert. Brubaker is well-known for his interpretations of Philip Glass and other contemporary music. The first half of the concert was dominated by avant-garde solo piano repertoire, accompanied by strings and electronics, all performed by Brubaker: John Cage’s One with Dream, with the piano accompanied by light viola and violin playing; and Nico Muhly’s innovative yet confusing Drones and Piano. I myself ended the first half with Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata with clarinetist Kiera Thompson.

In the pre-concert speech, Sheridan Seyfried, director of the composition department, remarked that this piece has become the “quintessential modern piece,” and had been added to standard piano repertoire, which even listeners who dislike Philip Glass must admit is no small feat.

Mad Rush is a 13 minute piece composed in 1979 for the solo piano or organ. It is marked by its patterns of repetitions, typical in minimalism. The piece can be charted into four simple sections which are repeated over and over in various orders for certain lengths of times, as you can see from the chart below. Philip Glass used this repetition and a beautiful and simple motive of sorts to achieve what can be described as a hypnotic yet exhilarating effect by Glass enthusiasts. It is due to these factors that Mad Rush has become representative of the minimalist genre.

Unfortunately, this use of repetition is the piece’s downfall. What can be described as hypnotically pleasing can also be described as mind-numbing and boring.

Sadly, this is how the piece was like for me.

Picture from a piano forum, diagram of structure of piece. Click for larger version

In fact, the listening experience can be summed up by the words of a fellow audience member, overheard after the piece was over:

As it started, I wanted it to go forever, but when it did go on forever… I just wanted it to stop.

I would describe his compositions as yet another musical language that can be quite beautiful in its own way, especially with its capacity to evoke moods and settings, but still quite limited. It is certain that the music can be played expressively. But playing the same passages over and over, no matter how expressive, can only be so interesting after the umpteenth repetition, and tiring after a relatively short while.

And even if each repetition is subtly different, who can tell?

If you would like to listen to this piece as placed by the composer himself, here’s the Youtube video:

Sources: Philip Glass biography

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ethan permalink
    August 13, 2010 11:10 am

    You are reminding me of all those garden paintings by Monet. Some people love them, but all it is Is lots of dabs of color on a canvas.

  2. January 30, 2011 5:10 pm

    If I remember correctly Phillip Glass composed the music to The Truman Show, a fine film with a beautiful soundtrack.

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