Monday, June 15, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #131 - Philip Glass - The Photographer

Philip Glass from a 1983 interview in re: Minimalism: “The trouble with the word is that it no longer accurately describes what you’re gonna hear.”

Repetition is a form of change – statement on a card from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck

There’s a joke that goes like this: “Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Philip Glass.”
That’s the edited version that I cut in half from where I found it and it’s funny because it’s (kind of) true. Glass uses repetition in his music sure, but in reality it’s never quite as redundant or as minimal as all that.
But let’s start here – for those unfamiliar with the works of Philip Glass, it’s common to hear his name associated with the minimalist movement in 1960s and 1970s classical music, though he has distanced himself from the term for his work after the mid-70s, preferring to say that he makes “music with repetitive structures.” The difference may sound academic, but it’s crucial in the case of an album like The Photographer. Where minimalism employs fewer instruments and less overall movement, Glass’s music here is decidedly maximal, with the final piece especially an intense, breathtaking climax to the album.
The record began its life as a theatrical piece that premiered in 1982, examining the life of 19th century photographic innovator Eadweard Muybridge who pioneered techniques that would ultimately be used in film. Muybridge shot and killed a man he believed was having an affair with his wife, was acquitted, and ended up raising the child who was a product of his wife’s affair – all the kind of melodrama ripe for an operatic/theatrical work. Glass and co-writer Robert Coe reworked an existing play into a performance piece in three parts, with Part 1 a theater piece, Part 2 a concert, and Part 3 a dance, and perhaps it’s best to look at the album that way.
“Act I: ‘A Gentleman's Honor’” was originally centered around a poem Muybridge had written, but Glass noted that Muybridge was perhaps more influential in the photographic arts than the poetic ones so he asked David Byrne to help out with the words using transcripts of the trial. Byrne obliged and used snippets for the vocalists to sing to create the piece heard here. It’s performed by the ensemble as a short prelude and instrumental reprise around the longer “Act II” – the “concert” portion of the program.
“Act II,” as noted, comes on more like a typical orchestral concert, where in front of a collection of Muybridge’s photographs the full ensemble of 26 credited players (including the Colorado Symphony’s own Marin Alsop) perform Glass’s “repetitive structures” which offer up snippets and ideas and then take them away, only to have them recur at dramatically appropriate moments later in the work. One of the best ideas here is the guest solo violin of Paul Zukofsky, whose sawed motif somehow evokes both a hoedown and classical precision at once and manages to grab my ears each time it comes back into the fold.
            “Act III” is the dance portion, which starts out slow but works up to a head of steam that can drive you nuts if repetition and variation isn’t your thing. But there is definitely variation – while motives are played a few times, dropped, and then come back there are very few (if any) bars of this music that are actually identical. And though it starts mellow, it heats up around the 3 ½ minute mark, kicks it up another notch at about 7 minutes, and from about 8 ½ minutes it’s a full-on boil until the end with nothing other than a momentary breather to relieve the relentless rhythmic drive of the strings, horns, keyboards, and vocalists singing their phonemes.
            For the album, Glass assumed (rightly) that most listeners would not have seen the full work and so scaled down the pieces and cut the theatre portion of the work most significantly. But the concert and dance segments – Acts II and III – are spectacular and the shortened parts of Act I nicely set up the bigger set pieces. There are those who won’t respond to the way it keeps moving and rearranging and repeating pieces to build up to the last few climactic minutes – and you know who you are – but for those whose tastes run toward the build of rhythm that can be found across music as diverse as house music, African music, and for that matter some of the best rock and roll, you should play this as loud as you (or your neighbors) can stand it and drink in the beauty of the quiet parts and the intensity of the rest of it.
            - Patrick Brown

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