If controversy is a sign of life and energy in the arts, Philip Glass is doing fine. Some people can listen to his music for hours on end -- and some of his pieces lastm for hours on end -- while others get the jist in about five minutes, and exit promptly.
Overall, however, his popularity seems to be growing steadily. Large and enthusiastic audiences cheered his recent concert series at Town Hall in Manhattan. And at about the same time, the Rockefeller Foundation announced a three-year grant of $90,000 (an almost unprecedented amount) for continued support of his career. Not bad for a boldly innovative musician who was just eking out a living as recently as three or four years ago.
Glass is sometimes called a "minimalist" composer, because he bases his works on a handful of key musical ideas, strictly defined and rigorously developed. His methods are fiercely individualistic. Consider the basic instrumentation of the Glass ensemble, for example: four woodwinds, two or three keyboards, and soprano voice, all loudly amplified. Yes, it's a strange combination. Using it , though, Glass has evolved a vocabulary of tones and textures that become more rich, dense, and sensuous with every passing year.
The recent concert series by the Philip Glass Ensemble at Town Hall (three programs, one of them given twice) provided a rough recapitulation of Glass's career. Some elements remained constant in pieces written as early as 1969 or as recently as 1979 -- cyclical structures, repetitive rhythms, modular melodies , and convential harmonies in outlandish contexts. Yet other elements, especially matters of texture and mood, were dramatically different from work to work.
These differences were most evident during the Friday concert, which comprised old and fairly new compositions. "Music in Similar Motion" dates from 1969, when Glass attempted work that was, in his phrase, "nothing but muscle and bone." It's a relentless piece that amazingly transforms obsession into exhiliration. "Music With Changing Parts" (1970) is a little looser, incorporating some limited improvization into a carefully woven fabric that's remarkably similar to the work of Glass's fellow minimalist, Steve Reich, who is also concerned with the slow development of rigorously refined musical concepts.
By contrast, the second part of the program offered the swirling splendor of Glass's most recent recorded work. Dance No. 3 and Dance No. 5 are among the most spirited pieces he has ever written, dazzling intense combinations of recurrent melody and impulsive rhythm.
The other programs consisted of Glass's most exhaustive compositions. "Music in 12 Parts" (1971-1974) is a catalogue of his key musical ideas, requiring several hours to perform. Not surprisingly, it has peaks of excitement and valleys of dullness. Heard at a single stretch, however, it makes a monumental listening experience, reflecting both the variety and the internal consistency of Glass's musical personality --which, as he perceptively points out in a program note, is the main unifying principle of the work.
The Town Hall series began and ended with concert performances of the opera "Einstein on the Beach," which was originally conceived by Glass and experimental dramaturge Robert Wilson (recipient of another whopping Rockefeller grant the other day). This is an astonishing piece, more than three hours long, yet stunningly concentrated and deliriously dramatic all the way. It also has more expansive resources than most other Glass works, bringing in a solo violinist (Paul Zukofsky at Town Hall) and a four-part chorus.
The second performance of "Einstein" had some technical flaws -- and I was disappointed by the absence of the opera's fascinating spoken text. Yet the work came through in nearly all its avant-garde glory -- from soft juxtapositions of chorus and organ to extravagant outbursts of total sound from all the assembled musicians. If this explosive stuff is called "minimalism," new words must be invented soon to describe more accurately Glass's trail-blazing explorations.
Glass's work is technically as well as musically audacious, and not all the bugs have been ironed out of his act, which requires quick thinking by sound engineers and performers alike. These bugs crept into each of the Town Hall programs -- a musician getting lost, a sound level miscalculated -- a singer chirping the wrong syllable at the wrong time.
Looking beyond such cavils, however, what a monumental concert series this was: a summing-up and celebration of a composer/performer who seems to have few peers among his generation. He and his onstage collaborators, some of whom are composers in their own right, are to be heartily congratulated. Meanwhile, his growing legion of fans can look forward to upcoming Glass events: the advent of his chamber opera "The Panther," the American premiere of his full-scale opera "Satyagraha," and the completion of his latest project, another grand opera called "Akhenaton." This is a bold and busy artist, to be sure.