Thursday, September 4, 2014

Philip Glass: Heroes Symphony/The Light

Philip Glass has referred to his music as being about "repetitive structures" than so-called "minimalism" and he certainly found an apt descriptive genre title.  Glass was the son of a Lithuanian-born record store owner and heard much modern music early on and traveled in Paris as a young man before entering Julliard, where a classmate was "minimalist" icon Steve Reich.  He studied briefly with Darius Milhaud and then studied under a fellowship with noted composition teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the mid-1960s.  A period of travel in India and Tibet and study in Buddhism and the music of that part of the world had a profound influence in his work.

Simple structures in the emerging "minimalist" scene in New York in the late 1960s characterized Glass' early work and his involvement with Reich was notable, though, by 1970, he began to move into richer sonic territory and broke from his partnership with Reich.  Developing stronger harmonic relationships along with his rhythmic interests, Glass spent much of the 1970s and 1980s working in musical theater, composing some of his best-known works like "Einstein on the Beach" and "Akhnaten" and film scores.  He also created an opera, "Satyagraha," based on such figures as Gandhi, Tolstoy, and King and it marked his first symphonic work in years.

Glass' next phase, if there was one, included a move further into symphonic territory, including a trilogy of nature-inspired works, led off by "The Light," commissioned in 1987 to celebrate the centenary of an experiment by two scientists to  measure a uniform speed of light.  This late 19th century work paved the way for Einstein's theoretical explanation of the speed of light through his theory of relativity.  "The Light" does, indeed, have much in the way of repetition, but there is also significant development in tempo, volume, instrumentation and motifs that make for a very compelling and satisfying excursion as strings and brass play off one another through striking melodic themes and variations.

Glass was fascinated by the collaboration of Brian Eno and David Bowie in their sequence of German-based albums from the late 1970s.  His first symphony, a three-movement work finished in 1992 and based on three tracks from the album "Low" was followed four years later by The Heroes Symphon0, a roughly 45-minute masterpiece based on the famed 1977 album. 

There are, for those who know the record, familiar melodies and themes, including the well-known title track (it's interesting to compare how the famed guitar riff by King Crimson's Robert Fripp, who hadn't played formally in a few years, is interpolated here) and several other pieces from the highly-regarded album. 

One piece, "Abdulmajid" was an outtake and has a strong Middle Eastern flavor as well as a distinctive castanet opening, while "Sense of Doubt" has its title conveyed in the theme, filled with a motif played by the brass set against a dark upper strings element.  "Sons of the Silent Age" has a slow, stately and affecting theme with a subtle rhythm held by strings.  Another fine melodic statement with a delicate percussive underlayment distinguishes the striking "Neukoln."  The closer, "V2 Schneider" has a lively rhythm and a strong ostinato while the pieces gains speed and intensity, finishing to a strong climax for a fascinating work by a composer at the top of his game.

This recording by Marin Alsop's top-notch Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra from the U.K. was made in May 2006 and was released as part of Naxos' American Classics series.  It is also available as part of a box set called "Of Beauty and Light:  The Music of Philip Glass."

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