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Listening to Philip Glass. Listening to Philip Glass. Listening to Philip Glass

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Sy. 2, SAX Q4 (Nonesuch)

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Sy.3, Civil WarS, Light (Nonesuch)
Philip Glass, a Baltimore native, turns 70 – a fact that bears repeating. Over and over. Just like any joke about Philips Glass’ uniquely recognizable brand of minimalism. (Nevermind that Glass doesn’t like the term ‘minimalist’. It might be confining but it’s too useful not to use.) But I have written a little about his musical style when reviewing a recording of his Eighth Symphony or the performance of his Seventh and wish not to repeat myself too much. (No pun intended). This is simply a reminder of which discs are among the best to acquaint oneself with his music.

Eschewing a successful relationship with Nonesuch, Philip Glass has decided that the musical world needed much more than just one Philip Glass release per year and founded his own label, Orange Mountain (distributed by Harmonia Mundi). Not much on it is so terribly exciting that it would merit recommending as a starting- or discovery point for your own Philip Glass exploration. His Sixth Symphony – “Plutonium Ode” - is one of the exceptions. There are, however, plenty gems that every good classical music collection should contain.

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Sys. 2 & 3 (Naxos)
Marin Alsop knows how to do good Glass – on February 22nd she will prove for us it with the BSO at Strathmore. Meanwhile she has given us one of the best introductory discs of Glass-music: the accessible symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 on an excellent (and economic) Naxos disc. For the money, this is the best Glass-intro. For equally impassioned performances of the same works coupled with very worthy ‘fillers’ go for the two Nonesuch discs with Russell-Davies: Symphony No.2 with the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet – and (easily my favorite disc of Philip Glass’ music) Symphony No.3 coupled with the Civil WarS interludes and the orchestral work The Light.

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String Quartets (Nonesuch)
His rather ‘ambient’ but largely delectable string quartets (Nos. 2-5, at any rate) can – and ought – to be had in the recording of the Kronos Quartet. The quantity is controllable (although we habitually listen to entire CDs, rarely just one or two pieces on it), the playing superb, the sound good, and the music different enough (not just in timbre) from the orchestral works to merit your ears. It is certainly a more easily digestible next step from the symphonies than his operas would be.

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Einstein on the Beach

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Music in 12 Parts
Writing of which… with operas the choice is easy: Einstein on the Beach is de rigeur for your Glass collection, even if it will catch as much dust as the least practical Jay Strongwater figurine. It’s perhaps the most famous Philip Glass work; it certainly provided the biggest splash among them. Two recordings are available (hard to believe) – the second one is the one to have. More music (not that that is an argument) on fewer discs (and less expense), while the sound is far superior; the performers more precise.

You don’t have to be a masochist to listen to nearly 200 minutes of random words, numbers, musical phrases, texts, but it certainly helps. There are not going to be many occasions where you will listen to it all in one sitting. In fact, don’t listen to it sitting. Listen to it while lying down. Be softly rocked by its repetitiveness, its swirls and swooshes… until you notice minute changes in the musical patterns to feel like the subtle pattern-changes of the waves that gently rock you up and down (like oceanic waves would you, being at their mercy in a life-jacket) are enormous in all their minimal distinction. Akhnaten is more accessible by far. With no string instruments involved, the sound is remarkably different (even if the tricks are the same). Unlike Einstein, you might catch yourself listening to this by free will on an innocent afternoon.

Music in 12 Parts may also be famous, but it makes Einstein sound whimsical. It’s all about the ‘experience’ – not the sound. About how you feel after having listened to over 200 minutes of running pulses and endless arpeggios – not how you feel while listening to any given part. It may well be an example of what is great about Philip Glass, but it is not a great place to start finding out why he is great. In fact, any other recording will be a better starting point.


jfl said...

An unforgivable oversight: His Violin Concerto (either on Naxos or Telarc) belongs to the list of must-have Glass.

Anonymous said...

I was looking at the opera work of Glass, in particular the upcoming production of Satyagraha by the ENO.

As I read about him and his work I realised that I was largely unaware of his involvement with many films that I had seen and enjoyed. His work is phenomenally far reaching.

At ArtsWom
I posted a link to your article as I thought it was informative.