Philip Glass Shines Again in London – An Interview
Akhnaten is a major modern opera by the famous minimalist composer
Philip Glass is hailed as the leading figure in the minimalist music movement, developing the genre in the 1960s alongside Terry Riley, Steve Reich and John Adams.
Minimalist (as contrasted with ambient) music tends to consist of very simple, insistently repeated musical phrases or ostinatos, but the repetition develops slowly over time scales vastly extended compared to pop or rock music. Partly the trick is to keep the repetition interesting; partly the idea is to place the listener into an almost hypnotic state.
Glass enjoys a huge crossover audience with electronic music listeners because many of his earlier works were keyboard-based. Unable to afford hiring orchestral players, he composed early pieces such as “Four Organs” – for portable transistor organs – and his first major opera “Einstein On The Beach” largely for keyboards and choir.
He caught the attention of Mike Oldfield, who covered his piece “North Star,” and of movie makers particularly after the release of the landscape movie “Koyaanisqatsi” (famous enough to be lampooned in “The Simpsons”).
Those TV adverts you see of speeded-up city life are all inspired by movies using Glass compositions.
Son of the Sun. “Akhnaten” dates from 1983 and calls for a full orchestra and choir, and in the case of this year’s London production by the English National Opera, a whole troupe of gymnastic jugglers.
The juggling – eerily in exact time with the music throughout – represents the formalized society of ancient Egypt and is well documented in ancient scrolls and carvings. As ancient Egyptian society falls apart the catchers begin to miss, until the impressive staging is scattered with balls and balloons.
Apparently Akhnaten was born a hermaphrodite, the part always taken by a counter-tenor – a male singer with a range comparable to a female soprano. In this London production the American singer Anthony Roth Costanzo delivers brilliantly.
It’s not just the singing – the opera demands glacially slow movement, in exact time with each passage, so players enter and exit on exact beats, are clothed and unclothed exactly in time with the music, and as mentioned, juggle with unerring accuracy (the jugglers are specialists from a gymnastic performance troupe, not singers).
Glass works. I met Philip Glass during an earlier run of the opera, which joins “Einstein On The Beach,” and “Satyagraha” (about Mahatma Gandhi) in a trio of biographical compositions.
It’s all the fault of Amenhotep, who on becoming Pharaoh changes his name to Akhn-Aten, “Son of the Sun.” Logically enough pointing out that heat, growth, and prosperity all stem from the sun and wishing to cast out the ancient pantheon of gods – seen as characters with the heads of a dog, cat, peacock, and so on – he creates first prosperity and later chaos, as surrounding states demand the return of the old gods.
I asked whether “Akhnaten” could be described as a straight classical piece.
”Well, we have some keyboards here, just a Yamaha DX7 in the orchestra, but from the point of view of the music I’ve done in the past working with the synthesizer ensemble it’s very traditional, because it’s written for a repertory opera company.
“But it appears very ‘different’ to the people playing it… the company in London has a lot of enthusiasm. I’ve gone to a lot of places where the musicians just didn’t get the point of the music — it’s still hard work for them because the music is very repetitive and requires stamina as well as concentration, but to have them working hard at it is terrific.”
So why one synthesizer in such a conventional orchestra? And why continue to use synthesizers in the studio and on soundtracks if they often just double the acoustic instruments?
”Because ‘Akhnaten’ doesn’t have a large orchestra [there are no violins, for example], the synthesizer helps to smooth out some places where the wind and brass parts don’t get much time to breathe. In the studio I work a lot with synths — I’ve got nine in my band and I didn’t realize how they’d crept up. We didn’t use them until about 1978 when they weren’t really polyphonic, and on some of them [for example the original Sequential Prophet 5] they aren’t really now, because you still get notes stolen after you play five or six keys.”
But you can tell from other Glass albums – such as “Songs From Liquid Days,” which features pop singers Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne, and Laurie Anderson – that there’s still a lot of electronics involved – early on:
“…an Emulator and an Emulator II, two DX9s, an Oberheim, a Prophet, a Roland JX3-P, and so on. I’d say the synth has a generic sound of its own; when I wrote parts for the synths I used to write ‘woodwind’ and ‘brass’ to indicate the kind of sound, but now I tend to just write ‘bass synth’ or ‘wind synth,’ because they have sounds of their own.
“And even when you think you’re hearing an acoustic instrument on the albums there’s a synth doubling it an octave below, which gives you a bigger bottom end. I doubled all the strings on the album of ‘Satyagraha’ with synths, and scarcely anybody can tell where one ends and the other begins. In fact there’s some very difficult wind playing in ‘Satyagraha’ and I used synths to smooth out the rough places and give a very deep sound.
“For example on ‘The Photographer,’ which used a lot of keyboards, we worked to a click track. But I was also able to work the same way on the album of ‘Satyagraha’; the conductor took the rehearsal pianist through the piano score, we set a click to it with a Dr. Click, then we took off the piano, put on the high strings, the winds, the chorus and so on.
“Classical music people used to think you couldn’t capture the ‘live’ quality of a performance on multitrack, so they just hung a mic over the orchestra and had endless takes. But then you have to match up the pitch and tempo of all the takes and it’s a nightmare! Now people have learned to do a ‘performance’ in the studio — the singer ‘performs’ with the click, so you CAN have the ‘live feel’ in the studio if you perform in the studio.”
So has classical music been taken over by sequencers to the same extent as pop music?
“You see, Michael Riesman [leader of the Philip Glass Ensemble] is such an extraordinary keyboard player that he’s better than most machines, and he doesn’t break down or forget his programs! It seems to me quicker to work that way — and sequencers aren’t much good to me because the music changes so much, it’s the same for two or three measures then it changes, and that may go on for two or three hundred measures.
“It’s not simply a repeated pattern as people thought; the problem is not that it doesn’t change, but that it changes all the time. It’s the accretion of small changes that gives the music its life, and that represents a terrific problem in sequencer programming.”
Philip Glass is 86 now, and while he and the Philip Glass Ensemble still perform, there’s a massive number of opera, symphonic. and other troupes around the world presenting his music, as well as album releases of songs, symphonies, movie soundtracks, string quartets and many other formats.
So while the operas can be a demanding listen – around three hours typically delivered in a mix of ancient languages – there are plenty of examples of bite-sized Glass that are easier to get into while still presenting the minimalist agenda in an effective way.
Some suggestions, some suggestions, some suggestions below (below, below, below):
PHILIP GLASS –
“Einstein On The Beach”
“Songs from Liquid Days”
“Piano Works” (Vikungur Olaffson, Deutsche Grammophon label)
“The Essential Philip Glass” (Philip Glass Ensemble)
Photos (portrait and playing, b&w) – philipglass.com
Opera – English National Opera, by Belinda Jiao